Kingsport’s Fleet Maintenance division received a rare and unique challenge a few years ago – restore the city’s first fire engine back to its original condition. Employees worked during their spare time on the project and the job took more than two years to accomplish.
Through diligence and hard work, those employees ultimately brought the classic piece of Kingsport history back to its former glory.
“It’s incredible to think you’re working on the first fire truck the city ever bought,” said Fleet Maintenance Manager Steve Leonard. “It was good to be part of the project. Not everyone gets to work on something like that.”
Kingsport’s first fire engine, a 1917 American LaFrance – dubbed Old Huldy – went into service more than 106 years ago. At the time, it was the city’s only fire truck and was housed in the city’s only fire station on Watauga Street.
Old Huldy had a top speed of approximately 30 miles per hour and originally had to be started by hand cranking. The engine carried hoses, wooden ladders, axes and about 100 gallons of water in the tank. Lanterns hung from the sides of the truck to light up the area so the firefighters could see to operate the pumper.
After decades of service, Old Huldy eventually retired and was placed in storage. About 20 years ago, the engine went on display in a glass building outside Fire Station #2. However, some city employees felt this wasn’t a good arrangement for Old Huldy.
“We weren’t doing it justice having it sit out there and the structure just wasn’t secure enough,” said Assistant Chief Terry Arnold. “At that point, we decided to take it and have it restored.”
City Manager Chris McCartt greenlit the restoration project, saying the engine was a significant part of Kingsport’s history and needed to be saved. From there, fleet maintenance employees started the two-year process of restoring Old Huldy to its original condition.
One employee instrumental in bringing the engine back to life was Technician Brian Painter. In his spare time, Painter fixed oil leaks, dealt with wiring issues and made the coupling for the ignition system. Tires were replaced, necessary internal parts were purchased and through the hard work of many fleet maintenance employees, the job got done.
“Brian’s diligence and commitment to the completion of this project shows the value he brings to the City of Kingsport,” Leonard added.
In the end, fleet maintenance got Old Huldy back up and running, bringing the vehicle back to within 80-85% of its original condition.
The engine is currently housed in Fire Station #1 in downtown Kingsport. Along with being used in parades and for special events, plans call for Old Huldy to be put on display in the new Fire Station #2, once it is built.
“Compared to what we see today in cars and trucks, it’s been like taking a step back in time and seeing how simple things were then,” Leonard said. “We’re just thrilled we were able to restore Old Huldy and be able to share this piece of Kingsport history with the community.”