The first fire truck ever owned by the Payson Fire Department is about to come home to its original owners. At its April meeting, the Northern Gila County Historical Society Board of Directors voted to sell the historic truck to the Town of Payson for $1.
The history of firefighting in Payson is divided into early, middle and modern eras. The earliest period consisted of bucket brigades, and draping wet blankets over neighboring buildings to keep them from burning. The rough pine construction of buildings on Main Street promoted frequent fires, and about all folks could do was watch the structure burn down, as the Herron Hotel did in 1918.
Later a large soda tank fire extinguisher and a hose on wheels were rolled to the scene of a fire, but once those wooden buildings caught fire, the new equipment didn't do much more than a bucket brigade. This early equipment is on display at the Rim Country Museum.
The middle era of firefighting in Payson began with the formation of a volunteer fire department and the creation of the first fire truck in 1946. Someone (the source is now obscured by time) donated a 1943 Chevy farm truck, and the volunteers went to work converting it. A World War II civil defense water pump was mounted on the front bumper, and a 500-gallon cylindrical water tank was mounted on the back of the chassis. The truck was housed in a small shed on a rise north of Main Street. The battery was usually dead, so the volunteers would push the truck out of the shed and down the rise, popping the clutch in the hope it would start.
Decades later, Chief Jacobs discovered the problem. A contact of some metal with the battery shorted it out. The truck was later housed in Charlie Flack's garage on the Beeline.
Early on the volunteers were called to put out fires by three shots from a gun. Later a siren was purchased, but as the town grew in size the siren could not be heard far enough to be effective. The telephone operator at the old switchboard, Belle Lovelady, would call each volunteer and give directions to the scene of the fire.
In those days, there was no map of the town, and according to retired Chief Jacobs, the directions would be something like, "It's down by the house John Brown lived in when he was married to Shirley 10 years ago."
To solve such vagueness, Chief Jacobs gathered all the county and town records he could find that showed Payson landmarks and streets, and he drafted the first usable map for the fire district. His map came to be used also by United Parcel delivery persons and the utility companies.
During the days of the volunteer firefighters and old truck No. 1, some delightful local lore accumulated. For example, there was the time in 1948 they hooked the truck up to one of the two fire hydrants in town and drained all the water out of the town's system. A number of water heaters burned out on that occasion.
In 1957, the Payson Volunteer Fire Department obtained a second truck. It was a 1942 Chevy that had served the Boy Scout Camp. The motor had blown up and the Scouts gave it to Payson. The volunteers hauled it to town and rebuilt the engine. This second truck led the "fleet" until 1963 when a new International fire truck replaced it. No. 2 served as a reserve truck for a while, and then it was sold for $1 to the Whispering Pines Fire District.
In 1975, old truck No. 1 was sold to the East Verde Fire District, also for $1. When the East Verde volunteers no longer needed it, they donated it to the Northern Gila County Historical Society. Since then, the Society has enlisted the help of firemen and the Classic Auto Club members in efforts to restore the old truck. It continues to make an appearance in Payson's rodeo parade, as well as on other special occasions, such as the Main Street Parade of Lights.
In 1966, the first part of the modern firehouse was built on Main Street. The siren was taken off its rotting pole and given to the Christopher Creek Fire Department. Then in October of 1975, the modern era of Payson's Fire Department was ushered in when the Town of Payson (incorporated in 1973) took over the fire district and hired the first full-time employee, Fire Chief Charles A. Jacobs.
Today old truck No. 1, "the little engine that could," rests safely in a bay at the firehouse on Main Street, waiting its annual run in the August Doin's parade. Payson's firefighters and other mechanically minded truck lovers continue to restore it, although parts are almost impossible to find.