Southport Fire Department gears up to celebrate the 100th year of the Model T Fire Truck

This is an excerpt from the City of Southport Monthly Newsletter. If you would like to receive future articles like this straight to your inbox, click here!

Southport Fire Department with a long record of service and tradition to this community has an iconic centerpiece of history sitting in a glass case at the corner of its headquarters property. The first motorized fire truck that ever rolled on the streets of Brunswick County sparks pride, imagination, and interest to firefighters and citizens alike. The arrival of the Ford Model T Fire Truck by the railroad in 1922 was an exciting event for the Brunswick County seat, Southport, and its organized fire department. It replaced a 1916 model hand-drawn hose cart that had been purchased for firefighting operations from the Wilmington Fire Department. Back then the city limits stretched north only as far as Owens Street, where the city gate kept horses and pigs from wandering into the woods.

The truck has no pump but is equipped with two tanks that can discharge about 50 gallons of water using a soda acid reaction. The truck carried several smaller soda-acid fire extinguishers, as well as hoses that connected to the municipal water system.

“It was good for chimney fires and small cooking fires, which were pretty common back then,” said Fire Chief Charles A. Drew whose late grandfather told him stories of pushing the truck to fires because it was often troublesome to start. Drew’s grandfather grew up in Southport and remembered the truck when it was in service prior to his joining the department in the 1950s.

The 1922 Model T engine is very straightforward. The 2.9 liters, straight 4 cylinder motor produces 20 horsepower and has a top speed of just below 40 miles per hour. An electric starter and battery have been added to the truck, 2 of the 3 nonoriginal parts of the vehicle. The other nonoriginal part is the roto ray red light that spins.

Driving the truck is not nearly as simple as tinkering with its mechanics. The late Capt. Dickie Marlow was the official mechanic and driver for 40 years or better. Before Marlow’s death, he taught another firefighter how to run the truck, which is now used only during Southport parades and funeral services for fallen comrades. Three separate foot pedals control the one reverse and two forward gears.

The accelerator and a tricky spark advance lever are both on the steering column. It takes practice and technique to efficiently drive the apparatus. There are stories that women of Southport learned to drive utilizing the Model T, during WWII.

The Model T stayed in service until at least 1948, back when Marlow’s father Ed was the fire chief. Firefighter Dan Harrelson traded the City of Southport a set of tires for the Model T in the 1950s and kept it at the Old Robin’s Nest. He later donated it back to the city, with the original title never being registered to anyone but the City of Southport.

Firefighters of years gone by utilized the tattered truck for about 3 decades for special events, after it was out of service. The truck was rusted, worn, and nearly dilapidated. It was in the mid to late 1980s that then Fire Chief Greg Cumbee and Assistant Chief Billy Drew led an effort to fully restore the antique truck. Firefighters rallied with Chief Cumbee and Chief Drew, and sold nearly 2000 pounds of BBQ in 2 days, raising nearly $30 thousand dollars. With other fundraising monies, the truck was restored to a better than new appearance. Chief Billy Drew said, “That truck is part of our heritage, it is part of me, and it is a part of Southport,” He said, “We wanted it to be a symbol of the dedication of our department and city.” It took Creason Motors of Charlotte about nine months to restore the truck, which has about 95 % original parts. The truck was brought back to Southport fully restored just in time for the 4th of July parade in 1991. Retired Chief Cumbee said a Ford Motor Co. representative told him that there were only 3 known fire trucks of that type still in running condition. One is in the J.K. Lilly Automobile Museum in Sandwich, Mass.

The truck turns 100 years old in April. A special celebration will be held on Saturday, April 02, 2022, at the Southport Waterfront. Over 300 classic/vintage cars will be on display with a 1967 State Highway Patrol vehicle and several other vintage emergency services vehicles. There will be live music, kids’ entertainment, t-shirts, food, and much more. A parade of all vehicles will begin at 4 pm back to the fire headquarters, where cake and punch will be served for free. Retired Chief Greg Cumbee will be the Parade Marshal and ride in the Model T back to Fire Headquarters. Also, at some point during the day, the 1948 iconic picture of the truck receiving its state inspection will be reenacted. First Lady Tish Hickman Hatem’s grandfather, Capt. Otto Hickman is the driver of the truck that day. Mr. Hickman served many years in the fire department and also as the Chief of Police in Southport. It’s going to be a wonderful day of celebration of the Southport Fire Department’s rich history. We invite you to be a part of this very special day.