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Old engine returns as relic
Ceres firefighters George Maroudas and Jeremy Hackett were checking out craigslist one day and came across an unparalleled find. Offered in the automobile listings was a 62-year-old fire engine that begged for a home in Ceres. The 1948 Dodge fire engine that put out grass fires, house fires and car fires in Ceres for about two decades was for sale and members of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Local 3636 took a quick vote and grabbed it for $3,000 in May before it was gone.

Today the prime piece of Ceres Fire Department history is stored at Ceres Fire Station 3 on Service Road awaiting restoration.

"It's a great idea because it's part of our history and we don't have a lot of artifacts from our fire department," explained Fire Captain Jeff Serpa.

When the old engine was in service in the late 1940s, the Ceres fire station was actually housed inside the old Fourth Street station. The building stood immediately north of where the Ceres Courier offices are located today. The engine probably fought its last fire in the early 1970s.

"It's been off the city books for quite a while," said Serpa.

The city sold the engine and it ended up on the Brooklake Ranch in Mariposa for about 15 years. The Mariposa owner bought it stand by for any brush fires on his property and occasionally rolled it down parade routes and fire musters but time took its toll and parts began disappearing. The owner "almost cut it up for scrap," said Serpa, but decided four years ago to sell it to Chowchilla resident Jack Ogletree, an instructor and mechanic for Cal Fire. Ogletree, whose hobbies include restoring old fire equipment. He tinkered with the engine, repaired the brakes and put missing parts back on after sleuthing at swap meets.

Ogletree researched the Dodge pumper since it bore plates from Van Pelt Fire Trucks in Oakdale which built an engine atop a Dodge chassis. Ogletree contacted Lynn Chappell over at Hi-Tech Emergency Vehicle Service Inc. (the successor to Van Pelt company) whose father was vice president of Van Pelt at the time. Chappell located the original bill of sale from 1948.

In the 1940s, it was a common practice of insurance companies to buy and donate firefighting equipment to cities to minimize losses and therefore reduce claims. The engine was actually purchased for $5,266.07 in December 1948 by the Stanislaus County Mutual Fire Insurance Company. It was one of five bought for local departments. The company changed its name to Time Insurance in 1959. In 1963 the insurance company got out of the fire engine business, and the city was given the engine.

"It's really very cool," said Serpa of the find.

"Yes I do remember it quite well," said former Ceres Fire Chief Truman Showen. "I drove it for a number of years. That was our main truck. It was the first truck that would roll on a fire call because it had a radio in it."

Showen said the engine was in place when he became chief in 1958 and remembers it in service until the early 1970s.

Serpa said the plan is to complete the engine and paint it with the original red color to replace the white color it sports today. The engine would make for a great addition to musters, school presentations and city functions.

"The body is pretty straight, not too many dings and dents," said Serpa. "Mechanically it is sound. It needs cosmetic work and some gaskets for doors and around the windshield. The biggest thing is the paint and a little bit for plumbing."

The work will be financed by the firefighters themselves, not the city, although Serpa expects to ask businesses and non-profit groups in Ceres a chance to help out with the costs. The union may take some of the proceeds from the food booth it operates at the annual Ceres Street Faire.

"We're still trying to figure out how we're going to do it and how to pay for it," he added. "I doubt if we'll hire it out."

Serpa believes that the actual restoration could be accomplished by inmates at Duell Vocational Institute in Tracy. The prisoners there restored a 1938 engine for Denair Fire Department. "They don't charge for labor so the only thing we'd be charged for is materials." A good estimate is $5,000 to $6,000.

Parts may have to be gleaned from swap meets, junk yards or through collectors parting out old fire engines.

The engine would definitely not be put into service other than public relations. It doesn't come anywhere close to matching the fire pumping capabilities of today's engines. Serpa said the engine is capable of pumping 250 gallons per minute, compared to the 2,000 gallons per minute rate of the ladder truck.

"In today's world it would be considered a brush engine but back then they used it for everything, grass fires, house fires, car fires."