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The Tentacle


August 1, 2002

Small Towns, Fairs and Locomotives

Norman M. Covert

Newcomers to Frederick County can judge the quality of life here by attending one of the many volunteer fire and rescue company fairs. They occur throughout the summer and you can bet on being able to buy a first-class crab cake sandwich, a funnel cake, and even enjoy the long lines at the porta-pots.

You meet a cross section of citizens in that anxious queue, any of whom will strike up a conversation with you as if they have known you all your life. And that's the beauty of rural America, especially here in Frederick, which sheds its new urban trappings the minute you cross the Monocacy River.

Last week, the Mt. Airy Volunteer Fire Company held its annual event at the town's fair grounds on the Carroll County side of town. It was preceded by a parade that lasted more than an hour and a half and featured anyone and everyone, who had a talent or an historic car, truck or tractor.

Such candidates as Sen. Tim Ferguson (R.,4th) and his challenger Del. David Brinkley (R.,4A) were astride convertibles, as was the now deposed Mt. Airy Mayor Gerald Johnson, who faced no opposition on main street.

We had the privilege of riding in the parade, not as any important person, but as part of a group from the Frederick/Carroll Voiture No. 155 of the Society of the 40 & 8. The society, formed here in 1919, includes selected members of The American Legion. It is organized in terms of a French railroad with officers having such names as Chef de Gare, (the stationmaster, or commander).

The symbol of the 40 & 8 is the French Boxcar designed to carry either 40 men or eight horses. Such boxcars, called "Voitures," were used to carry American soldiers to the front lines during World War I.

Today, among its many projects, the military veterans donate money for nursing scholarships, the Hansen's Disease (Leprosy) Center in Carville, La., support youth sports and numerous patriotism projects.

A tradition during the past 75 years has been for each "Voiture," or local organization, to have a motorized locomotive to draw attention to the society's programs. It was always a fascination to see such a locomotive in parades in my hometown with the "Voyageurs" wearing their distinctive French "chapeaux."

Locale No. 155 accepted ownership of a rusting hulk of such a locomotive about four years ago and brought it to Frederick. It has taken many volunteers all this time to rebuild the 1952 vintage General Motors Milk Truck. All that is left of the Voiture's original locomotive is the bell, but many remember that vehicle plying the streets of Frederick.

The new acquisition was first converted sometime in the 1950s at the B&O Railroad Repair Shop in Baltimore where steel sides, smokestack and other distinctive locomotive apparatus were welded and riveted on. Its former beauty has been restored.

Former Frederick Mayor Jim Grimes personally towed the heavy vehicle as we moved it from one site to another for the next scheduled set of repairs. He towed it to Keymar last year where it was sand-blasted and painted, another of the donations that made the work possible.

Driving the locomotive was Robert Browning, himself owner of a Mt. Airy towing company. He accepted the challenge of the hulk and is primarily responsible for getting the old Chevy six-cylinder engine running, the smokestack smoking, the bell ringing, the horn blasting and making it "legal."

That old locomotive charmed Mt. Airy's residents, young and old, who lined the streets from downtown to the fair grounds. The kids loved the sight and sounds of the old locomotive and the Voyageurs, who leaned out of the cab and tossed candy along the route. It was small town America at is best.

There was some amazement that the old locomotive withstood the stop and go of the parade, but it was a star of the show, surrounded by beautiful and impressive fire apparatus from the entire region. The Mt. Airy Volunteer Fire Company loaned a couple of important last-minute items to Mr. Browning to make the bells and whistles go.

That refurbished locomotive, proudly bearing the symbols of the 40 & 8, maintained its vigil at the fairgrounds for nearly two hours as parents and children came by to admire it and ring the bell or blow its horn. It was a real blast from the past. The parade of admirers also came by just to make small talk and remember a time when they were young and had seen a similar vehicle.

There was no talk of politics or taxes. They admired the locomotive, fire trucks, the bands and the floats that boosted patriotism, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. Look for the locomotive in Hagerstown this weekend for the Maryland Grand Promenade and in future events in Frederick.

It was a break in the action and a reminder that the heart of America is its small communities and most of all its people. Thanks a bunch, Mt. Airy.



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