Liberty County History

An occasional gathering place for articles, documents, photographs, records and other ephemera dealing with the history of Liberty County, Texas.

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Kevin Ladd is director of the Wallisville Heritage Park at Wallisville, Chambers County, TX and lives in Hardin, TX. He is chairman of the Liberty County Historical Commission and writes for "Texas Illustrated," a monthly publication of the Liberty Gazette newspaper, which is devoted to local history and folklore.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Bootleg Truck

The early years of the Liberty Volunteer Fire Department have become somewhat steeped in legend, owing to the fact that those who were there when it was founded in September 1925 have since moved on to the big station house in the sky. The department was founded only a couple of weeks after a fire destroyed a large chunk of the downtown business district. Over these seven and a half intervening decades, however, the department’s most celebrated legend continues to be “The Old Bootleg Truck,” the second truck to be entered into service. The late H. R. “Bob” Martin, the first chief of the fire department, gathered himself into the front seat of the truck in January of 1950 and posed for a famous photograph. This story is a good one to pass along to a new generation of readers.

Let's roll the clock back to the year 1928, three years after the Liberty fire department was organized. The country was in the hands of President Calvin Coolidge, a taciturn Vermonter. Herbert Hoover would come into the White House the next year, in March of 1929. The stock market would collapse in October 1929. But in 1928, things were pretty much okay in the hinterlands as well as the board rooms.

Chief Martin was pursuing his day job, as a deputy sheriff, when he received a tip that something was afoot. The informant passed along the news that a Graham truck traveling along Highway 90 had collided with a bridge railing and could be found stranded on the other side of the Trinity River. The force of the collision had snapped the drive shaft and rendered the vehicle immobile. The big news, however, was that the truck reportedly was loaded down with liquor, a crime of immense proportions during the days of Prohibition. The informant told Martin if he hurried down there, he could catch the culprits red-handed.

As luck had it, however, there was only one culprit involved and he had moved along. The driver, overly aware of his predicament, had made some hasty repairs to the drive shaft. He had the vehicle landworthy enough to be back upon the road and promptly headed for some place of sanctuary. Martin, joined by other officers, easily spotted the aforementioned vehicle, pulled it over, and began a through search of the truck. No greenhorn at this business, Martin quickly found the fake bottom to the floor and discovered a grand total of 1200 pints of “Green River” whisky stashed inconspicuously therein.

As the ensuing investigation unfolded, it was determined that the driver was in the employ of a New Orleans liquor-smuggling crime syndicate. The driver got off a lot luckier than did his truck. The former served only a year in jail, but the truck spent the next several years in active duty. The Liberty County Sheriffs Department immediately confiscated the truck, and the local firefighters managed to gather up the sum of $675, all of which they put towards the truck. Still short of the asking price, they borrowed the other $300, which gave them enough to purchase the vehicle. The “Bootleg Truck,” as it was called, was used largely in a support role alongside a Model-T purchased from American LaFrance and outfitted as a pumper.

The Bootleg Truck remained in active use until 1944, at which time another vehicle was purchased. At the time Chief Martin posed for this picture the truck was in poor condition and a general state of deterioration, but it had already achieved a rare position as part of the local folklore. The Liberty Fire Department has a fine, new building on Lakeland Drive, just a short distance from the new WalMart Supercenter. Everything in the new station is sparkling and new, and these modern firemen can knock a fire out as fast as anyone. But through the mystic chords of memory, as Abraham Lincoln put it, I would like to go back and ride "The Bootleg Truck" just one time.

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