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Marking a century

The original receipt of purchase (right) for the 1917 LaFrance fire truck is framed and displayed in the fire department’s museum, as is the photo of firefighters atop the truck (left). (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press)1 / 3
Dennis Stark, who was the Alexandria Fire Department fire marshal at the time, drives the 1917 LaFrance fire truck in the 2008 Minnesota State Fire Department Association parade in Alexandria. Stark now serves as the historian for the fire department. (Contributed)2 / 3
Alexandria Fire Department historian Dennis Stark starts the department’s 1917 LaFrance fire truck. The truck is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and still runs well. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press)3 / 3

Behind a garage door in the Alexandria Fire Department sits a treasure of sorts.

And that treasure, a 1917 American LaFrance fire truck, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

On Sept. 11, 1917, the Alexandria Fire Department placed the order for the $6,700 piece of equipment. It shipped from New York, and was delivered in February of 1918. The truck was used for about 42 years, until it was retired in 1959.

It now rests in the fire department's museum. The department makes sure the truck is well-maintained, and when the weather warms up, it even makes the trip to neighboring towns for parades.

"We try to start it up every 30 days just to keep the fluids moving through it," said Dennis Stark, Alexandria Fire Department historian and retired fire marshal. "In the summertime, we try to get it out a couple times, drive it, get everything loosened up and make sure it gets full of gas."

Stark is well-versed in the history of the 1917 LaFrance. The original receipt and owner's manual have been framed and bound to preserve the truck's history.

Though the way the truck runs is outdated, it still functions correctly.

"Instead of the valves being lubricated internally, this has what they call a dipper," Stark said. "It goes down and pulls oil up into these little springs and lubricates them as it's running."

In the summer, when the truck is taken to parades is nearby towns, it has to be driven on the shoulder due to its slow speed.

"It goes about 20 or 25," Stark said. "We drive on the shoulder, and everyone is honking as they go by."

Though in good shape, the truck hasn't gone without repairs over the years.

"It used to be in the ag building down at the Chamber (of Commerce) office," Stark said. "It sat there for many years and then the tires would get low and one of the pieces on the steering sector broke. We had to get that replaced, 25 years ago or more."

The truck's radiator cap and tires have also been replaced, and the wiring and fan blade have been repaired.

"It still runs nice and smooth for a truck that's 100 years old," Stark said.

As the historian, Stark is also responsible for other artifacts belonging to the fire department, and maintains the small museum in the department's garage. The museum includes replicas of early department uniforms, belongings of past fire chiefs, an old hand-drawn hose cart and more.

"This museum we've got here, we've got some artifacts and we've had people coming in from other departments and towns and they go, 'Holy crap, where'd you guys get all this stuff?'" Stark said. "We've got all the original ledgers and documents back to 1883 (the start of the department) that have been digitized now. It's pretty cool to read back on those notes."

Not all of the department's history is housed in the museum though. For example, the old fire house bell sits on the fire department's lawn.

"The bell was built for us in Cincinnati in 1883," Stark said. "It used to hang on the water tower where City Hall is now, where the fire station used to be. That was the bell they used to ring when there was a fire."

Stark says that documenting the department's history is something from which current firefighters can benefit.

"When they take a look at all the new apparatuses we've got, it's pretty amazing and gives them an appreciation for what they've got to work with today," he said.

The department's museum is open during its annual pork chop and corn feed in August, and also upon request.

"We hope to have more people come down and look at it," Stark said. "It's here for the public to take a look at it and enjoy."

Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a reporter at the Echo Press. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in May 2015 with a degree in Communication and Hispanic Studies. Journalism has always been her passion, but she also enjoys blogging and graphic design. In her spare time, she's most likely at Crossfit or at home with her boyfriend and three dogs.

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