Jardine: Old engine will have a new job at Ceres fire station

CERES -- Stick around too long and become outdated.

Hang around long enough to be rediscovered, and become cherished as a piece of history.

That is what happened to a 62-year-old fire engine the city of Ceres considered expendable and sold at auction nearly two decades ago.

Now, it's back in the hands of its original department and just a paint job and a few parts shy of becoming a nostalgic showpiece.

"We're bringing back the Fire Department's history," Ceres fire Capt. Eric Holly said.

In December 1948, the Stanislaus County Mutual Fire Insurance Co. bought five Dodge Van Pelt fire engines for about $5,300 each and distributed them at various points throughout county.

The Van Pelt company took a Dodge chassis, transmission, motor and cab and then built the rest of the fire engine by adding the water tank and other equipment at its shop in Oakdale, said Lynn Chappell. He is one of the co-owners of Hi-Tech Emergency Vehicle Service Inc., which replaced Van Pelt. One of these engines went to station No. 3 in Ceres. Chappell found the original sales statement in one of Van Pelt's old company journals.

The to-the-penny cost? $5,266.07.

"(The insurer) bought the engines and placed them to lessen its liability," Ceres fire Capt. Jeff Serpa said.

Yes, insurance companies paid for some of the equipment in the days of yore. Now, of course, the taxpayers bear the costs for fire equipment.

"The last engine (Ceres) bought cost over $400,000," Serpa said.

Ceres used the 1948 engine for decades. The town grew into a city, though, and demanded better and more modern firefighting equipment. Today's engines dwarf the old Van Pelt in size, water pumping capacity and in overall efficiency. It became the little engine that couldn't, at least by today's standards.

So in the early 1990s, the city sold the little red engine at auction. A rancher bought it, painted it white and used it for fire protection at his property near Mariposa.

It stayed on the ranch for about 15 years, eventually falling into disrepair. Parts disappeared.

Four years ago, the rancher sold it to Jack Ogletree, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manager whose hobbies include restoring old fire equipment.

"It had sat for a long time," Ogletree said. "It was in pretty bad shape. I started collecting parts -- all of the parts that would have been original. I went to firetruck swap meets in Sacramento and Hollister. You just have to go try to find them. They'll show up in antique shops, places you wouldn't normally expect."

He got the engine back into solid working order again and gave it a brake job.

Then he listed it online, where Ceres firefighters George and Jeremy Hackett came across it.

Now, it's back home again with its original company, No. 3, on Service Road. Members of the Ceres Professional Fire Fighters' Association bought it from Ogletree for $3,000.

The union, not the public, is paying the cost. The firefighters plan to raise the $5,000 or more it will take to restore the engine to its original 1948 red look and replace some missing parts. Once the job is completed, they intend to use it as a public relations tool for the department by driving in parades, musters and other events, and to schools.

Serpa said that although firefighters appreciate the modern equipment, the thought of restoring the old engine fits with their mind-set. From new to outdated to a cherished antique showpiece.

"Two-hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress," he joked.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.