Veteran driver guides Model-T fire engine through Elizabethton’s route

John Thompson • Dec 5, 2013 at 10:02 PM

ELIZABETHTON — While only Santa Claus can claim to have ridden in all the annual Elizabethton Christmas Parades, Steve Dunlap has certainly been a highlight in many of them.

While Santa traditionally appears at the end of the parade, riding on top of the Elizabethton Fire Department’s ladder truck, Dunlap’s appearance near the start of the parades has been nearly as spectacular. He rides the department’s authentic 1923 Model-T fire engine. The truck always brings delight to youngsters and their parents and grandparents. Dunlap adds to the fun by placing a red emergency light on his shiny bald head.

By his own reckoning, Saturday’s parade will be the 40th time Dunlap has driven the Model-T in an Elizabethton parade, counting both Christmas and Fourth of July parades.

His most memorable has to be the Bicentennial Parade on July 4, 1976.

But Dunlap doesn’t just drive the Model-T. He was a key figure in restoring it back in 1992-93. He took the Model-T to his home and stripped it down to the chassis and rebuilt it. All the metal parts were sand blasted. Although dry rot had made the original wood unusable for the restoration, he did use it as patterns to make exact duplicates. The new wood was oak donated by Shoun Lumber Co. The only original wood left can be found in the spokes on the wheels.

Dunlap said then Fire Chief Bill Carter provided a lot of help, along with several other firefighters. Dale Smith, who was experienced with Model-T engines, restored the motor.

The Model-T was the first motorized vehicle the city purchased for the fire department. Before that, the firefighters went to fires pulling a hand cart.

“They skipped the horse-drawn carts completely, so when they went from the hand cart to the Model-T, they really thought they were something,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap said the city paid about $400 for the Model-T and another $2,000 to American LaFrance to equip it. That equipment included a 30-gallon tank filled with water and baking soda. There was a cup of sulfuric acid that would spill into the water when the tank was turned, converting the contents into a pressurized fire extinguisher.

The Model-T was only used for a few years before the city bought a full-fledged Amercian LaFrance fire truck in 1928.

The Model-T was eventually relegated to a storage building where Joe O’Brien Field now stands. Dunlap said Chief Dennis Younce rescued it in 1960 after some boys had taken it for a joy ride through Blackbottom. When the new fire station was designed, a display window was included to show off the truck.

Dunlap said the reason he has been honored to drive the Model-T so many times in the parade is because it takes special skills to drive it.

“I was interested in it, and learned how to drive it. The new guys haven’t had the same interest. It is a complicated thing to drive.”

Not only does the driver have to hand crank it to start it, the driver must also know how to set the spark. If it isn’t set right, the crank can break a man’s arm, Dunlap said.

The spark is set with a lever. “I have a way of remembering which way the lever goes,” Dunlap said. “It is ‘start up and run down.’ You have to put the lever up to crank it and put it down to drive it.”

The driver also has to learn how to use the pedals. There are three. One is the clutch, but unlike a normal car, the clutch must be pushed in to drive. Once it reaches 3 or 4 mph, the same lever for the emergency brake is pressed forward to engage the high gear.

While the truck is complicated and old, Deloach said he has not finished the parade on two occasions. That was because the battery, which is needed for the ignition, died.

In addition to the Model-T, Saturday’s parade will have plenty of floats, and marching bands.

Tonya Stevens, executive director of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce said six marching bands have been invited, including all four county high schools, the state champion Betsy Band from Elizabethton High School and the T.A. Dugger Junior High School marching band.

Because the parade is being held on Dec. 7 this year, the theme harkens back to World War II: “I’ll be Home for Christmas, A Salute to Those Who Served.”

Stevens said “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was sang around the globe by Bing Crosby to lonely servicemen at Christmas time during the World War. She said it recognizes not only those serving in World War II, but all those serving in far-off places at Christmas through all the decades since.

In keeping with the spirit, Stevens said “this year’s grand marshal will be 92-years-young Ray Hill, a World War II veteran.”

To prepare for the parade, no parking will be permitted in downtown beginning at 3 p.m. Floats, bands and other units will assemble at the lot across from Big John’s on Elk Avenue at 6 p.m. The parade will start at 7 p.m.

Stevens said barricades will be in place along the parade route to the Veterans Monument, but she asked parents to restrain children from going onto the street to pickup a stray piece of candy. Marchers are being asked to distribute candy and other items by hand rather than throwing them.

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