By Michael Gelbwasser, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Seeing Northborough’s first fire truck once had residents rushing out with buckets of water – to help fight a fire.
That was 150 years ago, years before fire hydrants, and before fire trucks had water storage tanks.
The truck, or “fire tub,” which Northborough bought in 1860, will serve the town once again – after many decades in private hands – as a historic piece, for display and possibly during parades.
“It was a hand-operated fire pump, basically,” explained Paul Desaultels, president of the Northborough Firefighters Association. “Usually, there were several men on each side of a double-action pump. When one side pulled the handles down to force pressure through the cylinder in the pump, the other side came up. And when the other side came up, it drew water into that cylinder. Everybody had to be in sync. Otherwise it didn’t work.”
The fire tub, known as “The Volunteer,” dates back to when Northborough residents helped supply water during fires.
“Every home had a responsibility to have a fire bucket. When there was a fire, some of the firefighters would bring this hand tub to a location somewhere near the fire, and hopefully near a brook or a river or a pond. Everybody would bring their buckets down. They would form a line and take the water from the buckets and dump it into the container or the tub. You could only pump as much water as you could get people to fill the tub,” Desaultels said.
The Northborough Firefighters Association is buying the vehicle from Historic New England for $5,000. The firefighters have raised $400, and put down a $1,000 deposit as of late October, Desaultels said. They are fundraising to come up with the rest of the cost.
Desaultels noted that former Northborough firefighter David Hunt spent at least 20 years pursuing the purchase of the fire truck, “but kept running into stumbling blocks.”
That changed when the New England Fire and History Museum in Brewster closed during the 1990s. Historic New England had loaned the fire tub to the museum. The truck was returned to Historic New England’s Haverhill headquarters since then.
Desaultels recalled first seeing the fire tub with his wife Libby at the museum during the late 1970s or early 1980s.
“As we went in there, I noticed Northborough’s hand tub sitting there,” he said. “I’d heard of it for many years, from other firefighters. It was unbelievable to see something that old just sitting there.”
However, once the museum closed, “there was nobody that you could get a hold of” to discuss acquiring the vehicle, Desaultels noted.
After discovering that it was at Historic New England, he spoke to someone there, and found out that it had owned the fire truck since 1945, acquiring it from a private collector “who apparently had an extensive collection of hand tubs and steamers.”
Historic New England had the Northborough fire tub appraised for $6,000, and agreed to sell it to the firefighters for $5,000, Desaultels said. The deal required a letter of intent from the Firefighters Association, and letters of support from Fire Chief David Durgin and the Northborough Historical Society.
Desaultels added that he, Libby and Hunt visited Historic New England’s Haverhill headquarters this summer, and saw the fire tub.
“Absolutely nothing has been done to it. It is 100-percent original,” he said.
The fire tub will return to Northborough as soon as Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School students finish replacing the roof on the truck’s new home, through an arrangement with the Fire Department.
“To have the first piece of fire apparatus back as part of the history, and then with the [250th] anniversary of the town coming up [in 2016], it is very nice to see the progression,” Durgin said. “It really is a once in a lifetime chance to have that piece of living history back here that was such an integral part of the town.”
Desaultels said he will buy the fire tub himself if the association can’t raise the $5,000. He would then sell it to the association when the fundraising is complete.
“You just can’t pass up something like this,” he said.
Donations may be made to the Northborough Firefighters Association, 11 Pierce St., Northborough, MA 01532.