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Larry Zotti stands in Granite City’s firehouse museum, which he opened and for which he currently serves as curator.
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The museum is housed in the city’s first firehouse at 19th and State streets.
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A photo of the 1948 fire engine Zotti and his father purchased and restored. Today, it is housed in the Granite City firehouse museum.
GRANITE CITY — To many firefighters who consider firefighting to be their only true career, it is known simply as “the job.”
Larry Zotti of Granite City has been on “the job” since he was age 5. As a youngster, Zotti’s grandparents lived two doors down from the 3900 Nameoki Road firehouse, Granite City’s third firehouse, opened in 1950.
The first firehouse was located at 19th and State Street. As the industrial, commercial and residential west side of the city expanded, a second was built at Cayuga and Rock Road in 1922.
But the Nameoki location is where Zotti has his best memories. He spent hours there playing fireman, sitting in the truck, listening to stories the firemen exchanged about the history of the Granite City Fire Department. His wife, who met her future husband in kindergarten, still has drawings of fire trucks from his early years in school.
Although Zotti did not go into firefighting after graduation, it never left his blood. In 1985, he accompanied his father to the stockyards in National City and they discovered an old fire truck in the yard.
“I looked at my father and announced I’m going to buy that truck and restore it,” Zotti said.
It took Zotti and his father two years of work to restore the 1948 fire truck that had originally been used to protect the packing plant.
The completion of that first restored truck awoke a desire to locate old Engine No. 1 that had been the first automotive American LaFrance truck used in Granite City at the 19th and State Street firehouse, and had also been the very truck Zotti had spent his childhood playing on at the Nameoki firehouse. Granite City had since donated Engine No. 1 to the University of Illinois to use for pep rallies.
A maintenance man from the university put Zotti on the trail to a farm in Bloomington. He found Engine No. 1 in a barn on the farm, but it wasn’t for sale. Years later, Zotti found it in pieces at the farm. A group of men from one of the rural volunteer departments had taken it apart bolt by bolt in hopes of restoring it to working use, but never completed the job. Zotti and his father bought it, spending three weeks hauling the pieces home.
Thus began a challenging jigsaw puzzle and a scavenger hunt for additional parts. One night, while sitting at Smokey Joe’s, Zotti noticed a GCFD 1917 Engine No. 1 piece from his truck in the restaurant and was able to take it home. Oil lanterns from the station were found in one of his uncle’s attics.
Nearly five years later, on Oct. 7, 1991, Zotti and his father proudly drove the restored truck to St. Louis for a muster (a fire truck show), winning first place.
Zotti says the victory was bittersweet, as his father passed away that December.
These days, Engine No. 1 and the other restored engines do not run very often.
Engine No. 1 has made some calls in the line of duty and has carried five fire chiefs to their final resting places through the years. Leonard Wilson Sr. came home from World War II and went to work for the Granite City Fire Department. Engine No. 1 was the first fire truck he drove. On a cold November day, Zotti and Leonard Jr. drove former Chief Wilson home up the hill to the cemetery in Glen Carbon on Illinois 157.
Over the years, Zotti has owned and worked on 30 fire trucks. He has made friends all over the country through his hobby and belongs to the International Society for Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Automotive Fire Apparatus in America, of which he started the Granite City Chapter in 1985.
Today, his firefighter museum is housed at the firehouse on 19th and State. He has collected a treasure trove of equipment, photos and memorabilia of Granite City’s fire history, and serves as curator. He can often be found sitting in one of 100-year-old captain chairs donated to the museum, sharing stories and memories with friends or museum visitors.
For information on the museum, call (618) 931-3723.