By John Anderson
For sixty years, members of the Auburn Fire Department have traveled around town with Santa Claus in a fire truck. According to retired Lt. Ken Holstrom, it all started in 1954 when Engine 4 was delivered and Homer Bostwick thought it would be fun to visit Auburn children in the Santa attire. He rode in the front seat and they were on the road for about 45 minutes.
Bostwick was succeeded by Ernie Nault, and there was likely another before call firefighter Gary Almstrom put on the red suit 35 years ago. In 1979, Ladder 1, a 1968 Maxim, had become the vehicle of choice, and a plywood sleigh surrounded Santa at the tip while reindeer adorned the rails of the ladder.
Before Ladder 1, Santa continued to ride on an engine, and different groups went with him. In the 1970’s, Fire Captain Greg Morin remembers riding in the hose bed of one of the trucks as a member of a singing group and nearly freezing in the weather. Back then, the tour started in the late afternoon and was finished that night.
Morin also remembers the Rainbow Girls riding in the back of the old walk-in rescue truck. This youth group, sponsored by the Masonic Lodge, would stop and sing Christmas Carols if the crowd was large enough. Although it never happened, the plan was to drop the girls and their chaperones at the nearest house if there was a fire.
When Tower 1 was delivered in 1995, Santa got a more comfortable ride in the bucket, and firefighters were able to expand the route. This year’s tour took over 9 hours, and covered 122 of Auburn’s streets. Almstrom’s children have all helped as elves, and daughter Kayla and former AHS classmate Kelsey Letson were in the bucket again this year.
On Saturday, Rescue 1 lead the procession, and the Grinch on an APD motorcycle followed Tower 1 as they traveled through town. Along the way, Santa and his elves waved to children and adults as they stood by the road. The crew generously distributed Tootsie Pops while a firefighter in the cab posted updates on their location to Facebook and Twitter.
Ken Holstrom was 1 year old when the Santa Tours began. He remembers being 7 or 8 years old when Engine 4 stopped in front of the family house on Central St, and Santa gave Ken and his twin brother Gordon mesh stockings filled with hard candy. Some readers probably remember them.
When Tower 1 stopped in front of the Holstrom house on Saturday, Ken presented Santa with a Holstrom Ornament for 2014.
There is more to the story of the Santa Tour. Nearly every year, the parade has made a stop or two to give a Merry Christmas to a special child. In a town of 16,000, it is unfortunately common to have a young person in very tough shape.
For a group of people who are tough as nails during an incident, these emotional moments tear at their heartstrings. Most members of the department are married and many have children. A firefighter’s family is not immune to personal tragedy, but the Santa Tour is a great time to give someone else a smile, a gift, or even a bit of sympathy.
In the early days of the Auburn Fire Department, there were no full-time employees, and members volunteered their time. Although the Auburn Fire Rescue Department has transitioned into a career department with a handful of call firefighters, the Santa Tour remains a volunteer effort.