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Christmas parade hits downtown San Luis Obispo

Mark Westphal, center, and Harrison Dodds, right, members of the San Luis Obispo High School Marching Band, prepare to lead the San Luis Obispo Downtown Christmas Parade on Friday, Dec. 4, 2009.
Mark Westphal, center, and Harrison Dodds, right, members of the San Luis Obispo High School Marching Band, prepare to lead the San Luis Obispo Downtown Christmas Parade on Friday, Dec. 4, 2009. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Parade-goers reveled Friday night in the hum of trucks bearing glittered floats, recordings of carols echoing through the streets, the ringing of bells and children’s cheers.

But, in an historic debut, the San Luis Obispo Fire Department brought two new sounds to the San Luis Obispo Downtown Christmas Parade: the roar of a fully restored, 1923 Seagraves Chemical Engine; and the melodious, wailing bagpipes of the county’s first Emerald Society Pipe Band.

The engine bore local hotelier Phyllis Madonna, who has for more than two years allowed firefighters to repair it in a shop on her ranch.

The engine was used to fight fires in San Luis Obispo from 1923 to the 1950s, when it was given to the Paso Robles Fire Department.

The city bought it back about a decade ago for $1, and with donations has spent $80,000 to restore the relic to its original state, with nickel-coated copper hardware, functioning pressure gauges and real gold designs hand-leafed over deep red paint.

The engine will be housed in a museum under construction behind San Luis Obispo Fire Station No. 1 and will appear at special events.

Also holding promise for the community are founding members of the Emerald Society Pipe Band, who — donning kilts and sporrans — will play bagpipes and drums at firefighter and police funerals and host charity events.

The local founder, firefighter Dave Parker, said there are Emerald Societies across the country to honor the traditions of Irish and Scotch immigrants. Facing discrimination in the early 1900s, they turned to policing and firefighting in the search for meaningful work.

“I think it’s a great source of pride for the department to band together like this, and spend their own time assembling,” Fire Chief John Callahan said.

So far, the local society is small and developing, with five active or retired firefighters learning instruments on their free time.

At the Christmas parade, members of the established Central Coast Pipes and Drums joined the firefighters to “fill in the edges,” according to guest pipe major Paul Dunn.

Recently-retired Battalion Chief Bob Rutledge, who plays the bass drum but calls himself a “neophyte,” is looking forward to the band’s future.

“I love this place,” he said of San Luis Obispo fire station No. 1, in whose cavernous garage the group held a thundering parade rehearsal. “I had a great career, and this will keep me involved.”

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