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Milpitas history: The many lives of Leapin’ Lena

After you park in the garage of the Milpitas Public Library, you will walk by a display of the Milpitas Historical Society’s Leapin’ Lena historic fire engine on the way to entering the building. During its epic history beginning in 1932, it underwent many transformations. What follows is an abbreviated account of her colorful “lives.”

Leapin’ Lena’s first life was as a light-duty farm truck built in 1932 by GMC. Up to now I have not identified its original owner or owners (as a researcher one can always hope), but we know that Lena functioned as a farm utility vehicle until about 1946. 

Simple agriculture had been the norm for possibly ten thousand years, locally with the hunter-gatherer Muwekma Ohlone. Then Spanish colonists arrived in the late 1700s, migrating from New Spain (today’s Mexico), and their arrival ushered in an era of extensive ranching and supportive agriculture that persisted till the 1850s Gold Rush, at which time new immigrants arrived and the small township of Milpitas started to take shape. With the formation and admission of California as 31st state in the United States, the great Spanish/Mexican ranchos in a matter of a few decades subdivided into smaller farms and ranches while the town of Milpitas slowly grew. By the late 1940s, after recurring fires that burned wooden Main Street buildings — hotels, general stores, saloons, even the Milpitas Grammar School built in 1856 — the residents came to realize the need for a more “modern” fire engine than the horse-drawn fire wagons and water bucket brigades that had preceded.

Leapin’ Lena in Milpitas’s first fire station on the Milpitas-Alviso Road (today’s Serra Way) just west of the Oakland Highway (today’s Main Street). The siren atop the tall tower would sound the need for the volunteer firefighters to assemble in an emergency. (Photo courtesy of Milpitas Fire Department, circa 1940s)

Thus in 1947 Leapin’ Lena’s second life started with her purchase and conversion into a fire engine to be used by the Milpitas Volunteer Fire Department manned by eight volunteering local citizens. She was outfitted with 200-300 feet of hose and two 150-gallon water tanks (there were no fire hydrants in those days, not in town and certainly not at the outlying rural farms). Two fire ladders were hung from the tanks’ sides.

Leapin’ Lena would serve as Milpitas’ fire truck until 1956, when she was retired and replaced with more modern fire engines due to a transformative factor in the Milpitas economy: the construction of the huge Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant on South Main Street. Despite this abrupt and substantial change, Milpitas’ legacy agricultural and ranching roots would persist for decades. Even now there are visible signs of an apricot orchard and numerous ranches in the foothills of Milpitas, on the western slopes overlooking Piedmont Road, and to the east in the Spring/Laguna and Calaveras Valleys.

Milpitas’s second firehouse on Main Street with “modern” fire engines.
(Photo courtesy of the City of Milpitas, dated early 1960s because of the engine on the right)

There is some irony in the fact that this also began Lena’s third life – she was sold to the Weller-Curtner Ranch, where she was converted back to her original role as a farm utility vehicle for hauling hay. Removed were her fire engine accoutrements: water tanks, hose, emergency lights, fire bell on the front fender, ladders and associated woodwork, and finally the Milpitas Fire Department stenciling on the doors. 

Leapin’ Lena reverted to her former role as a farm utility truck. (Date uncertain)

No longer in the public eye, Leapin’ Lena had a more obscure existence until she was no longer operable and was permanently retired from her farming duties. In the 1970s, we think, the Weller/Curtner Ranch sold her for $50 to Dominic Raitano, an antique car collector, a sum that approximated her value as junk metal. Dominic never restored her as a collectible and Lena languished for another two decades, deteriorating and turning to rust, before Ed Cavallini discovered her in the early 1990s.

From her derelict condition at that time, Leapin’ Lena began her fourth and final transformation. The Milpitas Historical Society paid $3,000 to acquire her, a value determined more than anything by her historical importance to the community. The Milpitas Materials Company stored Lena in the interim while the Society planned a course of action, one that involved Bob Keely, a member of the Society and a correctional officer at Elmwood County Jail, who obtained permission from Santa Clara County to use inmates to convert Lena back to the fire engine she formerly was, not to service as one, of course, but instead to serve as a historic parade and social event celebrity. Her reconstruction (she was beyond restoration) at a cost of about $12,000 was done by Elmwood inmates who were given special privileges and/or reduced sentences for their efforts.

Leapin’ Lena was a parade favorite in Main Street events. In more recent times, she was on display at the Great Mall of the Bay Area, and since 2009, has been on display for Milpitas Public Library patrons to see as they enter the building.

Thus ends the colorful story of Milpitas’ most revered relic, Leapin’ Lena, a story about ninety years in the making. Perhaps one day, should Milpitas resume its once-annual parades, Lena will come out of her “permanent” display at the Library to be seen once again on historic Main Street, as admiring crowds line the sidewalks.

Joseph Ehardt
Joseph Ehardt
Joseph Ehardt is a research local historian with the Milpitas Historical Society and one of its annual historical tour docents. Additionally, he is the Society’s current Director of Educational Outreach Programs, which supports Milpitas’ elementary school teachers with local history presentations for young students. He also is a member of the Society’s Board of Directors.



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