With its glossy red paint, gold-leaf lettering and sparkling-chrome grill, the 1943 Chevrolet fire truck is a shining piece of history tucked away in the dimly lit basement of the Aiken County Historical Museum.
For Chief Deputy Dwayne Courtney of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, who restored the truck after he started working at the Aiken Department of Public Safety in 1983, the truck is more than a piece of history — it's a lesson in history.
“I love all things old,” he said. “Today's world is so fast-paced and so modern. I think it's an important history lesson for us to be able to look back at how things used to be and take into comparison what our forefathers and those before us had to deal with, versus what we have to use and deal with in today's world.”
The truck originally belonged to the U.S. Army Air Corps, which was housed at the current Aiken Municipal Airport during World War II, according to Courtney.
“After the war was over, the military, I guess, gave the airport to the City of Aiken,” he said. “That truck was in that deal, so the truck was brought to town and actually used as a front-run fire truck for the city for a number of years. Then it got parked in the city shop.”
There it sat until Courtney saw it after he began working at Aiken Public Safety in 1983.
“It was a rust — it was just in pretty sad shape,” he said. “I loved old fire trucks, and did some paint and body stuff as a second job anyway, so I went to Chief (Carrol) Busbee and said, 'I would love to restore this truck for the city, and I would volunteer my time and effort to do the work if the city would fund it, like the paint and the re-chroming.' It wouldn't cost them anything as far as the restoration – the actual physical labor. So, they agreed.”
Courtney and a friend, Jerry Flowers, co-owner of Flowers Paint and Body Shop on York Street, set to work. Courtney said most of the restoration was completed on his days off from work.
The truck was still fully functioning, and most of the work was cosmetic. The sandblasting was the most time consuming part of the process, Courtney said, because it warps the metal.
“I think (Jerry) really enjoyed watching me with a water hose in one hand and a piece of sand paper in the other for hours and hours,” he said. “The sand blasting actually pits the metal, so you have to put on a layer of primer and then sand it back off. You put another layer and another layer – a layer of primer and sanding, a layer of primer and sanding, until you get all those pits filled and all the uneven spots filled and ready for paint so it's very smooth and slick. We painted it back a real fire truck red instead of white, like the city had gone to with the fire trucks.”
Busbee even hired a professional to complete the gold leaf lettering on the truck, Courtney said. After about eight months of work, the truck was restored to its former glory.
“It was a fully functioning truck that didn't get used for fires,” Courtney said. The truck was completed in time to be used in Aiken's sesquicentennial celebration in 1985. It was also used in Christmas parades and other important city events.
The old versus new
“And then, eventually, because there just wasn't a whole lot of room left in the fire departments to keep it housed, and because of its age, they made the decision to put it in the county museum,” he said. “And it's been in the basement of the museum ever since.”
Courtney said restoring historical artifacts and learning about them today is important to understanding the progress of technology and mankind.
“It takes us back in time. It gives us a greater appreciation for what we have today and how far we've actually come –ww and it's just neat,” he said. “There are older fire trucks, certainly. But in 1943, when this truck was built, I'm sure it was the most modern fire equipment of that area. But when you compare it today, it's not very modern.”
Courtney said the 1943 truck could carry about 50 gallons of water and pump about 500 gallons per minute. A modern day engine can carry more than 1,000 gallons of water and pump between 1,000 and 1,500 gallons per minute.
Seat belts? Air bags? Power steering? None of the above, Courtney said. The old truck also could only hold two passengers in its cab.
“Back in those days, firemen rode tailboard, and it does have sufficient tailboard for firemen to be able to hang on the back,” he said. “Probably have two or three firemen hanging off the back, which isn't done anymore either. Years ago, that's how you got to the fire.”
Courtney said restoring the fire truck was not for him personally, but to give Aiken Public Safety “a piece of nostalgia, a piece of memorabilia.”
“I also think there's a ton that can be learned by antique archaeology,” he said. “Plus, it's fun. I'm not sure how much history they actually teach in school today, but I think all of us still thrive on history, and where we came from as a people and as a nation, and certainly as locally at the Aiken community.”