In 1930, as the country was slipping into the depths of the Great Depression, Cabin John’s shiny new firetruck, with its round headlights and prominent hood-mounted spotlight and sirens, helped shore up the community. Purchased as the growing town established its own fire department on MacArthur Boulevard at Seven Locks Road, money for the truck was raised by the Ladies Auxiliary.
Fast forward 90 years, and the diminutive red truck is still an integral part of the community, especially during these difficult times. Rather than racing to emergencies, in recent months Cabin John Park’s antique firetruck has rolled through neighborhoods in the western part of the county bearing a Happy Birthday banner to help homebound residents celebrate.
“These drive-bys have had an unbelievable response for neighborhoods. Kids get more of a celebration, and it’s an event they will not forget,” says Scott Stone, a Cabin John Park volunteer firefighter who spearheads the effort.
Stone says he drives the truck to about eight houses a week to celebrate the birthdays of those ages 2 to 92. The birthday drive-bys are free, although the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department accepts donations for them.
The fire truck, manufactured by the Brockway Motor Company in 1930, has been part of Cabin John’s fleet off and on since it rolled off the assembly line in a Cortland, New York, factory. It made a quick detour to Boonsboro, Maryland in Washington County, but the fire department there didn’t have enough money to purchase the truck.
So Cabin John bought it instead. An early photo shows the truck parked in front of the fire station, newly built by volunteer firefighters, with 10 members of the Ladies Auxiliary posing on it.
The truck sped to fires in Cabin John in the 1930s and ’40s, reaching a top speed of 50 miles per hour.
In the early days of World War II, the federal government built the neighborhood of Cabin John Gardens, 100 small houses for workers at the David Taylor Model Basin, a Carderock test facility for the development of ship design. At the same time, the government constructed 20 houses for African American workers on nearby Carver Road.
While the truck is petite by today’s standards, its 75-gallon tank of water was often sufficient to extinguish fires because the houses in those neighborhoods were small, Stone says. By comparison, trucks today carry about 1,000 gallons of water to fires.
But beyond the 1940s, the trail of the 1930 Brockway fire truck grows cold. At some point it was sold, and decades later repurchased by the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department. Photos show the progress of a restoration of the truck in 1976.
“It’s sad in a way we don’t have a lot of our history documented,” Stone says. “Sometimes we just don’t realize the importance of getting people to sit down and tell us their stories before it’s too late.”
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Of course, Cabin John’s is not the only antique fire engine around. But it may be the only local fire engine to call its original station home.
“A lot of departments realized how much history and depth you have from having an old engine. A lot have antiques, but not a history with the town like we do,” he says.
For example, the Cabin John Brockway has a twin, of sorts. The Laytonsville District Volunteer Department also has a 1930 Brockway that they purchased from the Hyattstown Volunteer Fire Department in 1952.
With a serial number just three digits away from the Cabin John truck, Stone says the trucks were likely built side by side at the Brockway Motor Company. The motor company evolved from the Brockway Carriage Works, which opened its doors in 1875 and closed just a little over a century later.
Before the pandemic, Cabin John Park’s antique firetruck participated in local parades and events.
“It’s just a huge magnet for all ages: kids, parents, older people who can relate to antiques. We’ve taken it to the Potomac shopping center, to schools and through neighborhoods. Kids love to touch it and climb on it,” Stone says.
But it hasn’t been used to put out fires for decades. These days, the 120 Cabin John volunteer firefighters from two stations respond to dozens of calls a week, including a few on the nearby Beltway each day.
“Our section of the Beltway is kind of crazy,” Stone says. “It’s not something the firefighters who originally drove the truck could have ever imagined.”