On Saturday, June 3 during the dedication ceremonies of the new San Marino Fire Station, "Old No. 1" was one of the city’s oldest residents. The buffed and polished fire engine first joined the city’s fire department nearly 75 years ago, after San Marino voters – all 57 of them – approved her purchase in a special election April 21, 1922.
It was the nine-year-old city’s first bond issue, also providing funds for outfall sewers. In November, 1923, the city issued a check for $13,000 to the American La France Company, which promptly delivered the brand new 750-gallon-per-minute pumper to Fire Chief Chester C. Copley. He was hired the same month to organize the new fire department with a staff of three men and a few volunteers.
They barely had time to stow their gear before there was an alarm. Jackson A. Graves, at work on his classic memoir, Seventy Years in California, phoned at 11:30 a.m. on November 13 to report a fire on his ranch at Huntington Drive and Wilson Wash (in the vicinity of Granada Avenue).
The log book of “Old No.1” records that she was off and running on her first call to duty. Cause of the fire? A hired hand “burning corn stalks.” The engine pumped 40 gallons of chemicals on the flames, and “no loss was recorded.”
But, the day was not over. At 6:05 p.m., the railway bridge of the Pacific Electric Railway caught fire at Huntington Drive and Rubio Wash, “cause unknown,” and was quickly extinguished “with minimum effort.”
However, Mayor Richard H. Lacy (1924-42) most often put the fire engine to the test. Within the first four-year period of the fire department, the mayor sounded alarms at his ranch home on Oak and Garfield Avenue for an “overheated flue, “hot wires,” and “leaves in the chimney.” No great losses were reported, thanks to the American La France pumper.
The most startling fire occurred August 16, 1926. The engine rushed to a local one-story residence, it was reported, “a still blew up.”
However, the life and times of “Old No. 1” were not always that dangerous. After service to a generation of San Marinans, she seemed to have outlived her usefulness and, in 1957, the fire department sold her to buy new equipment.
The new owner was Al Hodges, whose San Marino family introduced her to the more conventional life of attending birthday parties, weddings and family celebrations. Mary Hodges Haltom once recalled a historic ride on “Old No. 1” to the pioneer Huntington Hotel, where they were heartily greeted by hotel guests. “Everybody loved the old fire engine,” she said.
However, there was life in the “old girl” still, and “OldNo.1” was yet to log another exciting chapter.
In 1973, with the strong support of San Marino Tribune Publisher Herbert McCormick, I founded the San Marino Historical Society with the dual purpose of preserving San Marino’s heritage and saluting our nation’s independence with a Bicentennial celebration in 1976. One of the first San Marinans to enroll in the society was Al Hodges.
During the planning sessions for the Bicentennial, Hodges’ suggested that our committee ride “Old No.1” in the 1976 Fourth of July parade. We were ecstatic however, he said, the engine had not been driven since 1972, and he would have to restore it for the occasion.
Before this plan could be put into effect, Hodges died suddenly. The historical society not only lost a dedicated member, but “Old no. 1,” her best friend.
Things were very depressing for a while, but they brightened considerably when Mary Haltom called at 8 o’clock one evening with great news. The Frank Haltom family had decided to donate “Old No. 1” to the City of San Marino.
The generous gift was made in honor of Mary’s father, the late Al Hodges, who had owned the engine for the past 18 years.
No one was happier than Fire Chief Kenneth A. Robinson when the city’s first fire engine came home at last and just in time for Christmas.
However, much work had to be done to bring “Old No. 1” back to “mint condition”. The men of the fire department flew into action, donating all of their spare time to the restoration of the old pumper. Some parts were even obsolete and difficult to find. Meanwhile, the historical society launched a drive for funds to finance the costly project.
San Marino school children dropped donations into penny banks, fashioned as miniature fire hydrants by Artist Frank Harmon, and Ross White, aged 7 mailed a special contribution because, he wrote, “I care a lot about fire engines.”
Boy Scout Troop 351 held a plant sale to raise $350 for two hard rubber tires; the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Women’s Club made sizeable contributions, and the San Marino citizenry in general responded generously to meet the goal of $5,000.
Later another $1,800 was raised to cover the cost of gold leaf stripping, nickel plating, antique copper fire extinguishers and other accessories to bring the old pumper back to its 1923 origins.
Finally, in June, 1976, Chief Robinson beamed, “Turn the ignition switch and the old engine sounds like new – all that remains is to add the hook and ladder.”
The city’s firemen, he said, had spent untold hours during the last six months, and if their labor had been added to the cost of restoration, “the cost might have run as high as $20,000.”
July 4, 1976, when “Old No.1,” with Chief Robinson at the wheel of the right-hand drive, rolled along Monterey Road to Lacy Park, cheering San Marinans lined the streets to pay her homage, as well as salute the nation’s Bicentennial of independence. Surely, “Old No. 1,” was as proud as every other patriotic American.
It should be noted that none of the San Marino Historical Society members rode “Old No.1” in the parade, after all. With great gratitude, they yielded that honor to the Frank Haltom family.
Fortunately, “Old No. 1” and the fire department now have a new and permanent home. None deserve it more.