A star is reborn: Restoration brings city’s 1941 ladder truck back to life

Published 12:10 am Monday, December 4, 2017

SALISBURY — The stories this firetruck could tell.

But maybe the best one goes back to 2007 when Salisbury firefighters passed a hat among themselves and others to come up with $2,000 to buy back the 1941 American LaFrance aerial truck, once the star of the city’s fleet.

The firetruck, whose ladders extend up to 65 feet in the air, had been sitting in a Woodleaf barn for almost two decades. In the late 1980s, it had been sold as surplus to a local man hoping it could help him fix the barn’s roof.

There was good news and bad news. Tucked away in the barn all those years, the truck mostly had been protected from the elements. Despite how bad the truck looked, the main body hadn’t rusted.

But it also hadn’t been driven. Jeff Whitley, the man who would eventually restore the engine, crossed his fingers, hoping against all odds it would fire up. No luck. Valves were stuck, and the cylinder wall was “rusted all to pieces,” Whitley says.

The gears and transmission were worn out completely. The hydraulics had to be rebuilt. The wiring was shot.

Yet Whitley, Capt. Rodney Misenheimer, Fire Chief Bob Parnell and others knew how lucky they were this early aerial truck had remained intact and in the county.

You could say the official restoration started with a new set of tires on Oct. 1, 2010. Whitley began his full-scale mechanical overhaul in May 2013.

Meanwhile, Misenheimer managed the whole project, which eventually received enormous help from Daimler Trucks’ Freightliner plant in Cleveland.

“Every step, he had a plan,” Parnell says of Misenheimer’s role. “The end result speaks for itself.”

Parnell and Misenheimer also can’t say enough good things about Whitley’s devotion to the project.

“We couldn’t be where we are today without Jeff,” Misenheimer says.

Misenheimer considers the restoration 98 percent complete. The aerial truck, which now runs like a top, will be the lead vehicle in a nighttime firetruck parade through downtown Salisbury this coming Friday.

Friday morning the ladder truck also will be on hand for the unveiling of a city historical marker on East Innes Street, designating the spot where Salisbury’s original fire station stood.

Both events celebrate the Fire Department’s 200th anniversary.

Misenheimer says some 53 units already are lined up for the nighttime parade.

The city purchased the truck Oct. 19, 1941, predating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by less than two months. Salisbury didn’t take delivery of the vehicle until June 1942.

“This truck was brand-spanking new” at the city’s July Fourth parade in 1942, Misenheimer says.

You would have expected big city departments such as Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh to have this kind of aerial apparatus.

“For Salisbury to have a truck of this caliber,” Misenheimer says, “this would have been unique.”

The truck remained part of the Fire Department’s fleet until the late 1980s. For much of its 65 years of service to the city, it was housed at the now former station on South Lee Street.

Page through department scrapbooks, and you see the aerial truck center stage during the Victory Theatre fire in the late 1950s and the Oestreicher downtown fire in 1964. Firefighters are on its ladder, high in the air, shooting streams of water toward burning buildings.

It was the city’s main ladder truck from 1942-65, then put into reserve when Salisbury bought a 1966 American LaFrance aerial. The 1941 truck’s sale as surplus came about 20 years later, though when Misenheimer did a title search, he noticed the title had never been transferred.

“As far as the state of North Carolina was concerned, it’s always been ours,” he says.

The American LaFrance truck has a 215-horsepower Auburn-Lycoming V-12 engine. It boasts a long wheelbase and is about 46 feet long, which sometimes makes it a challenge to turn.

The city bought the truck for $14,500, which was more than the $14,000 cost in 1941 of the fire station next to Chestnut Hill Cemetery — the city’s first substation.

That same station — now called Fire Station No. 5 — is where the 1941 aerial truck calls home.

The city estimates the value of restoration at $80,000, including some $25,000 worth of mechanical and $55,000 in body work. Workers at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland repainted the ladder truck at no cost to the city.

When Misenheimer was gathering estimates on how much it would cost to paint the body, prices started around $50,000, he says.

Some $25,000 was raised toward the entire restoration, which included several fundraisers conducted by the firefighters. Hundreds of hours of labor and thousands of dollars in materials ended up being donated.

Whitley is fire chief for Ellis Cross Country. He also worked some 20 years at the city garage. He restored the aerial truck’s engine at his own shop. The engine alone was so heavy “it was all I could do to get it to the shop,” Whitley says.

An overhead crane at the city garage helped in much of the heavy lifting. At one point, everything was taken off the truck so that only its superstructure remained.

Rowan Precision Machine helped in the fabrication needed to restore the gears. Hodge Coffield donated the truck’s new lettering. Paul Brown, a collector of fire trucks himself, provided assistance in securing parts.

A firetruck enthusiast in Dallas, Texas, sent two important manuals on the 1941 LaFrance to Whitley, who says few aerial trucks built on this kind of chassis are in existence today.

Getting the right parts made or delivered proved to be a challenge over the course of the restoration.

“It just took a long time,” Whitley says. “… Once we got everything, it didn’t take long.”

The men are still waiting on six to seven cables needed to extend the truck’s ladders a full 65 feet.

Parnell and the rest of his department know they have preserved an important part of the department’s history by restoring the 1941 American LaFrance.

“We’re very proud of it,” Misenheimer says. “It really is just as good as when it rolled out of the LaFrance factory in 1942.”

For the benefit of recent visitors, the men open the bay door at Station No. 5 and start the 1941 ladder truck.

A perfectionist, Whitley still isn’t happy with the way the quiet engine sounds.

“I need to tune it up a little bit more,” he says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.