When the 1942 American LaFrance pumper rolled down Dollarway Road in the Founders Day parade, it was the vehicle’s first time on the street since the city’s first fire truck was retired in 1997 and placed in storage at the White Hall Museum.
Assigned to the Pine Bluff Arsenal shortly after the start of World War II, the 750 gallon-a-minute truck was used by the White Hall Volunteer Fire Department until 1997 when it was retired and assigned to the museum.
The body and exterior was refurbished at the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Tucker Max Unit.
A number of volunteer firemen — most retired — gathered at the museum Sunday afternoon to take a close look at the truck and discuss some of its quirks.
Retired Fire Chief Ned L. Tomboli was one of several to mention the lack of brakes on the truck when it was being used. Several told of their experiences trying to stop the fire truck’s forward momentum.
Tim Cooney’s recollection of stopping the truck once by hitting another fire truck generated a round of laughs from the assembled firemen.
Tomboli, who drove the truck in the parade accompanied by Palmer Boast, Joey Richmond and the latter’s son, Nicholas, said he took the truck “out on several trial runs” before the parade to check out the workmanship of Chris Sturdivant, a city employee who restored the vehicle over four to five months in his spare time.
“It didn’t have brakes on it when we used it,” Tomboli quipped, adding it didn’t seem right with everything functioning properly.
Sturdivant praised the truck’s design, saying “it was ahead of its time.” The V-12 engine came with two sparkplugs for each cylinder and had redundant systems.
No manuals existed on the truck for a guide, Sturdivant learned during his restoration work. “There are no parts available,” he added, requiring handcrafting of any needed part.
An employee of the Texas Fire Museum was helpful in providing a manual, he added, which played a major role in finishing the project.
Little written history exists on White Hall’s first fire truck. Tomboli acknowledged. He said four businessmen working with what was then the White Hall water district acquired the truck as surplus military equipment before the municipality was incorporated.
The Pine Bluff Fire Department, the arsenal’s fire department and volunteer firemen in the area provided White Hall’s fire protection for years until the volunteer department here was organized. Other volunteers came from Hardin, Watson Chapel, Redfield and Sherrill when needed.
An undated copy of the early roster listed 24 volunteers. The roster indicated six men — Emmit Crawford, J.D. Green, William Varnell, W.F. “Jack” Moody, Palmer Boast and Billy F. House – joined the volunteer organization in mid-1963. The first four went on the roster June 18 and Boast and House one week later, the document indicated.
Tomboli signed on April 21, 1966, and Rickey Doucey on May 2, 1978. Both retired later as chief of the volunteer department.
Since the city didn’t have a fire station, that first truck was stored at the school bus barn. It was called out when the high school building behind what is now White Hall Middle School was gutted by fire Oct. 17, 1975, Tomboli said.
Current Fire Chief Sandy Castleberry was present Sunday and laughed as the older volunteer swapped stories.
The Pine Bluff Fire Department accepted alarms from White Hall for a period of time, relaying the information to radio receivers in the homes of the volunteers. Spouses would in turn call the volunteers if they were not at home.
Later, a siren was placed on the water tower and a code was sent by siren to designate the area of town where the fire was reported. Volunteers now carry pagers and are notified of alarms by Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association dispatchers. “We operated on a shoestring … with what we could beg, borrow or steal,” Tomboli said with a grin. Gordon “Griz” Murray, who signed up in late 1976, according to the roster, explained “we even borrowed boots. We just forgot to bring them back.”
The volunteers said they received a tremendous amount of equipment from the arsenal over the years.
Tomboli told the firemen that he had a recent discussion with Mayor Noel Foster and the city’s chief executive indicated additional space may be provided at the museum in the future for the first fire truck, which draws interest, especially among the young. Two youths visiting from Pine Bluff walked to the museum Sunday afternoon and asked to see the engine, with Mary Mauldin, museum director, and a volunteer fulfilling the request.