‘Bottom line: Firetrucks are cool’: Annual festival at Transportation Museum draws thousands

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2019

By Mark Wineka

SPENCER — Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell said he was in his happy place Saturday, and 4-year-old Nathan Messick knew exactly what he meant

The chief and young Nathan were surrounded by more than 100 firetrucks — old and new — when they attended Saturday’s fifth annual Firetruck Festival at the N.C. Transportation Museum.

At home, Nathan runs to the front window every time he hears the sirens of Ellis Cross Country Fire Department responding to a call. He was in heaven Saturday with hundreds of other kids who climbed up and down and in and out of firetrucks all day.

Nathan and his sister, 6-year-old Hannah, also delighted in much simpler things, such as turning the hand crank to a siren attached to a city of Greensboro Fire Department golf cart.

Christopher and Susan Messick appreciated their kids could have the day’s hands-on experiences, and they said Nathan insists on coming.

“We’ve come out every year since they’ve started having it,” Susan said. “I think it’s gotten bigger every year we’ve come, but it’s worth it.”

The Firetruck Festival has become the largest single-day event of the year at the transportation museum, and officials were projecting that Saturday’s crowd would surpass the 6,000 that came in 2017.

The firetruck participation was down last year, communications specialist Mark Brown noted, because the festival was scheduled the same Saturday many departments had to conduct state fire alarm tests.

“We’re going to have a really huge day,” Brown predicted not long after the festival got going Saturday morning. “… People love firetrucks. Bottom line: Firetrucks are cool.”

The firetrucks ranged from antique to modern, from apparatus such as Charlotte’s 1861 Neptune hand-powered pumper to modern-day marvels such as Salisbury Fire Department’s tower ladder, which can raise firefighters to the top of the Plaza on the Square.

Throw entertainment, vendors and locomotives into the mix, and you have a formula for big crowds and excitement, Brown noted.

Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX provided commemorative locomotives, which included CSX’s “Spirit of Our First Responders” and the “Spirit of Our Armed Forces,” along with Norfolk Southern’s “Honoring First Responders.”

Brown said the museum appreciated how competing railroads could team up to honor first responders in this way.

The N.C. Forest Service helicopter flew in, and the museum offered train rides around the site all day.

Norfolk Southern’s country and rock band, the Lawmen performed, as did the Piedmont Firefighters Pipes and Drums. The day also included a Firetruck Parade, a fire safety obstacle course, a Firetruck Flea Market, Lil Mr. and Ms. Firefighter contests and a water-ball competition for firefighters.

The Tyro Fire Department’s 1954 Chevrolet fire truck, which had been built on a new chassis by the late Jake Beck, drew many an admirer and children wanting to climb in.

“We’re proud of it, very proud of it,” Ronnie Weaver said.

Henry Maffucci and friends Connor and Parker Churchill — all 3 years old — were having a ball checking out the cab of the old firetruck.

One of the mothers said the festival is great ‘because they can climb on everything and no one gets mad — they actually encourage it.”

Weaver said the big turnout for an event like this confirms for him what he has always believed. “I think people appreciate the fire service and what we do more than they show,” he said.

The 1954 Chevrolet was the second firetruck for a volunteer department in Davidson County. The Tyro department bought it brand new, and Collins said his family provided the financing.

Today, the old truck goes to parades and festivals, and it has even escorted funerals for members such as retired Chief Darrell Kimbrell and Beck, the man who helped in building it.

The Corbitt Preservation Association of Henderson had its 1926 Corbitt fire engine on display. It was the only firetruck built to government specifications for the then Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.

Association Vice President Curtis Paul thought it was the oldest firetruck on the grounds Saturday until he heard about the 1861 Neptune.

“Put it this way,” Paul said, “it’s the oldest one built in North Carolina.”

Parents J.F. and Amber Flinchum brought their 3-year-old son, Warren, to the firetruck festival, “Nanny” Flinchum, Warren’s grandmother Linda, also was along to delight in Warren’s fun around the firetrucks.

They were topping things off with a scheduled 11 a.m. train ride. The family have been members of the museum since first coming for Thomas the Tank two years ago.

“We are having a wonderful time,” Amber said.

The 1861 Neptune was built in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the city of Charlotte bought it from a department in New Jersey in 1875. In Charlotte, it was used by the city’s black fire department, called the “Yellow Jackets,” but members changed their name to the Neptunes to match their new apparatus.

It was hand-pulled through the streets, and it used the power of up to 20 men — 10 on each side — to pull from streams, ponds, city cisterns or any other available water supply and pump a stream onto fires.

“It’s a super neat old truck, and everything on it works,” said Charlotte firefighter Matt Brown, one of six in the department’s antiques group. “Young kids these days can’t appreciate where we are unless they know where we’ve come from.”

The Charlotte department has a fleet of antique trucks, representing the different eras, such as a 1902 steamer, 1928 LaFrance, 1948 Mack, 1958 Seagrave, 1959 Seagrave and 1971 Seagrave.

Battalion Chief Robbie Myers heads the antiques group, and he led the hourly demonstrations of the hand pumper, relying mostly on volunteers he could round up.

Those pumping on each side soon realized it was tough work.

“That’s pretty good, pretty good,” Myers commended the pumpers as they kept going. “Do you have more in you? It’s only been a minute-and-a-half. Can you do more?”

The Firetruck Festival surely can.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.