Gaston pumper served western Washington County for 75 years

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Engine 1170 went to a Lebanon storage facility for the Oregon Fire Service Museum eight years ago, but Marc Reckmann recently brought it to his home off Stringtown Road outside Forest Grove for repair work. The engine is still driveable. But according to Fire Museum President Greg Musil, older fire engines dont go that fast on the road. A lot of them top out at 40 miles an hour, which is fine for parades but not for I-5. So the engine had to travel north by trailer.Fire engines are supposed to douse fires, not inflame passions, but one vintage Gaston pumper has done both for 75 years.

The story of Engine 1170 actually begins in 1938 when it rolled off the Ford Motor Company assembly line. For the first two years of its life, the truck hauled petroleum products for a company in Portland. By 1940 it already was in pretty bad shape, and was sold to a Forest Grove used-car lot.

That same year, the volunteers of the Gaston Fire Department were scraping together money to buy a fire engine. In the waning days of the Depression, cash was scarce but the Gaston volunteers were desperate.

They were using the 70-gallon “chemical engine” that the department bought when it was formed in 1913. This engine’s motorized water pump was powered not by “modern” fuels such as gasoline, diesel or electricity, but by dropping bicarbonate of soda, followed by sulfuric acid, into the tank, creating explosive pressure to push the water through the small hose.

For 20 years, this chemical engine was pulled by hand or tied behind a volunteer’s car. In 1933 it was mounted on the back of a rattletrap Dodge truck.

The truth is that 70 gallons of water isn’t enough to put out much more than a bonfire, but the Gaston volunteers never could raise enough money to buy a mechanical pumper. When they heard about the forlorn Ford with its battered running boards sitting on a car lot in Forest Grove, they snatched it up.

So now they had a truck, but most of the factories capable of converting it into a pumper were busy pumping out weapons for Britain to use against the Nazis.Marc Reckmann, a Lt. with the Cornelius Fire Department and a volunteer with Gaston Rural Fire District, recently joined the Oregon Fire Service Museum and offered to help restore the beloved Engine 1170.

Gaston had a weapon of its own, however: A Cornelius gas station owner named Gloyd Hall. Gloyd could build or fix just about anything, so he was undaunted when the Cornelius Fire Department asked him to piece together a makeshift pumper. Gloyd set aside a bay in his service station and went to work, crafting a pumper that rivaled those used in Portland and Seattle. The folks in Gaston took notice and commissioned Hall to do the same with its 1938 flatbed Ford.

By the time the war ended and the big fire apparatus factories were back online, Gloyd Hall had built his own factory, turning out pumpers for departments throughout the West under the brand name “Neep.” Later he changed the name to Western States Fire Apparatus, which continued to build equipment until 2003.

The Gaston volunteers responded to fires in Engine 1170 for more than 20 years, and couldn’t bear to part with it even when it became obsolete. They kept it to use in “musters,” which are competitions using traditional firefighting techniques. The pumper traveled up and down the West Coast, with Gaston’s volunteers winning musters and setting records from California to Canada.

John Harris, Gaston’s assistant chief in the 1970s, had another use in mind for the beloved pumper. Harris’ day job was music teacher at Gaston High School and he organized a band of musically inclined volunteer firefighters, who traveled to parades throughout the Northwest, riding atop 1170.

The volunteers kept 1170 in such good shape that longtime Chief Ron Hoodenpyl put it back into service in August 1977 during an unprecedented rash of fires that a News-Times headline called “The Week Washington County Burned.”

By the early 2000s, musters and the Gaston Fire band had become relics of the past, and 1170 sat in storage at the Gaston fire station, gathering dust. In 2007, the volunteers reluctantly sent the beloved pumper to the Oregon Fire Service Museum for storage on permanent loan.

For 75 years, Engine 1170 has represented everything noble about rural volunteer firefighters. Their ingenuity transformed a beat-up Ford into a community treasure. Duty called them to drive their chariot to fight fires for decades. Their spirit called them to use the old Ford to inspire young firefighters for even more decades.

Now their dedication is restoring that treasure.

There is more history of Engine 1170 in Fire in a Small Town, by Ken and Kris Bilderback, who write an occasional column for the News-Times. The Bilderbacks donated proceeds from the sale of the book to the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department.