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Fire Trucks: Oldies but goodies

Fri, Sep 13th, 2013
Posted in All Features

Wykoff Fire Department - 1940 Chevrolet

As a firefighter with the Fountain Fire Department, I have great admiration for those I serve with in our region. At any time, the pager can rapidly chirp and vibrate, signaling immediate response by those who make a commitment to serve their neighbors, friends, family and complete strangers.

Of course, firefighters are not the only individuals making that commitment. This entire section is dedicated to law enforcement, ambulance and fire department services. All of these individuals, whether volunteers, part-time or full-time civil servants, are concerned with providing the best service to the people of the communities they serve.

But, as a firefighter, I can’t help but to take an interest in fire trucks. My grandfather, Robert Sethre, served on the Preston Fire Department for well over 20 years many moons ago. And, now I serve on the Fountain Fire Department, hopefully living up to his expectations.

Back in mid-July, after our Journal staff and my children handed out 1,600 ice cold freeze pops in the Rushford Days parade, we concluded our journey at the Rushford Fire Department. Upon our arrival, I gazed at the old fire truck encased in what seemed like an aquarium with only one focal point -- a vintage fire truck.

I briefly spoke with the firefighters present, and I told them that I would like to do a story about their old fire truck. One of their members told me that their fire truck was one of the oldest fire trucks still running in the state of Minnesota -- if not the oldest.

So, in my mind, I set out to do a story on the oldest fire truck in Fillmore County and possibly the state of Minnesota. Well, little did I know that Fillmore County was ripe with history when it comes to the preservation of fire trucks.

Rushford’s 1924

In late August, I met with Paul Corcoran, the Fire Chief of the Rushford Fire Department. He showed me around the big red beauty known as the 1924 International among local Rushford residents. Chief Corcoran, who has served on the Rushford Fire Department for 27 years, fired up the engine and backed the fire truck out of the “aquarium.” I studied every angle of the fire truck, noticing that the engine had a crank to get it up and running, however, Paul explained that they now had the motor wired to a battery for an easier start-up. And, then I inquired about the siren, which he showed me was also a crank-style, as well. So, whomever was riding shotgun was responsible for turning the crank on the siren to alert travelers to get out of the way as the fire truck hurried to an emergency situation. And, there was no off button, so the siren would quit when it was good and ready. It just had to wind down with time.

And, toward the end of my interview with Fire Chief Paul Corcoran, he handed me a photocopy of an article published by the Fillmore County Journal back in November 2004. The reporter was Wanda Hanson and the title of the article was “1924 Fire Truck gets ‘extreme makeover’.”

Following the interview, I read Wanda Hanson’s article. While this is old news for many Rushford residents, a big thanks goes out to Brady Auger of Oak Ridge for committing a total of 795 hours to renovating the old fire truck. The detail to which this article describes Brady’s ambition to turn this 1924 parade attraction into a masterpiece is commendable. And, today the Rushford Fire Department showcases their 1924 International with pride.

But, as you’ll discover throughout the remainder of this story, even the 1924 red beauty has its flaws. After all, it is 89 years old. When asked if it starts all the time without any problems, Fire Chief Paul Corcoran shared that there was one Rushford Days parade in which the vintage fire truck wasn’t starting until about two hours prior to the beginning of the parade. He was wondering whether it was going to fire up in time for the parade, but it came through. With these trucks sitting in the garage all the time, naturally, they don’t always start up as easily as the newer trucks. They require maintenance and tender care.

Chatfield’s 1926

After contacting Chatfield’s Fire Chief Keith Bradt, he set me up with a meeting with Kevin Tuohy. Mr. Tuohy was the Fire Chief during the time span in which the 1926 International Speed Truck was restored. During our meeting at the Chatfield Fire Hall, Tuohy reminisced about when he was a child and how the kids took turns sitting on the fire truck. He talked about how his father was a firefighter for the Chatfield Fire Department and he spent many summers waxing and polishing the 1926 relic in preparation for Western Days parades of the past.

With only 658 original miles on the 1926 International, the fire truck every parade-goer sees each Western Days is the very first motorized fire truck to ever grace the streets of Chatfield. So, the history relating to the 1926 International Speed Truck is far beyond vintage. This fire truck represents the change of an era from horses to motors for the city of Chatfield.

Spring Valley’s 1931

Since I knew Todd Jones served on the Spring Valley Fire Department and Ambulance, I sent him a text late one night. I inquired about their old fire truck and he told me that they had a 1931 American LaFrance. He then led me in the direction of Spring Valley Fire Chief Chris Czapiewski.

Fire Chief Czapiewski and I set up a time to meet and take photos of the 1931 fire truck in all its glory. When he fired it up, it purred. The 1931 American LaFrance, a rarity in this area, sports a V-6 with only 3,030 miles.

And, the most interesting comparison I picked up on was that the siren control was on the left side of the foot panel. So, just like an old-time sewing machine the driver would rev up the siren with his foot while driving to a disaster situation.

Canton’s 1934

Since our family and many employees had committed to help out with throwing out candy from our Fillmore County Journal van at more than eight parades throughout the summer, the Mabel Steam Engine Days parade was next on the calendar. On this particular Saturday, I could only round up one person -- my son. My wife was shopping with my daughter, so my six-year-old son came along with me telling me that he’d “rather be riding in a parade than shopping.” That’s my boy!

As we waited for the two hour tractor parade to conclude, we had enough time to walk around and check out other parade entries. We ended up stopping by the vintage Canton Fire Truck to take a gander.

I knew that I needed to scheduled a meeting with the Canton Fire Chief, because this was a gem.

So I met up with Jon Nordsving, Canton’s Fire Chief, and he fired up the 1934 International fire truck. While many fire trucks of that era had a crank-style siren, this one had a bell on the driver’s side. So, the driver would ring the bell as they hurried to a fire call.

And, as a bonus, he took me down to the garage where they housed another 1920’s Ford that was slated for restoration. He didn’t fire up the 1920’s vintage truck, but he told me it would run with a little effort. As always, the challenge with restoring a vintage fire truck is funding. So, they would have to find a way to come up with funds to support a restoration project.

Harmony’s 1940

I met up with Bill Hanlon, current Assistant Fire Chief and past Fire Chief for the Harmony Fire Department, and he showed me the way to a 1940 Ford Flathead V-8, kept in safe keeping out at fellow firefighter Harvey Hershberger’s farm. In a shed out on Harvey’s farm is a red fire truck boasting power and might. When Hanlon fired up the engine, you could hear a roar. This fire truck was made back when steel was the norm -- nothing but a heavy duty beast. The Harmony Fire Department has some restoration work to perform on their 1940 Ford, and Hanlon is serving on that committee to help make that happen.

During our road trip to the farm, Hanlon shared his story about how he joined the Harmony Fire Department. And, not only has Hanlon taken great pride in being a member of the fire department, but he has also taken an interest in the history of Harmony. He shared with me a wealth of knowledge about the establishment of the city of Harmony when it was incorporated and how it was just a few years after that the Harmony Fire Department was established in 1902.

Wykoff’s 1940

In the upcoming Wykoff Fall Fest parade, you’ll see a 1940 Chevy fire truck that says “Village of Wykoff Fire Department” on the right passenger side door panel. This truck was sold to Roger Westra of Stewartville a few years ago, but is stored in Wykoff and driven in the Wykoff Fall Fest parade by son-in-law and Wykoff resident Rocky Vreeman.

With only 4,948 miles on the well-maintained 1940 Chevy fire truck, Wykoff should be proud to have this truck lingering around the corner from Ed’s Museum in safe keeping.

Preston’s 1941

Established in 1885, the Preston Fire Department boasts a fully restored and fully functional 1941 GMC Volume Pumper. With the help of Preston Fire Chief Doug Keene, I was able to grab a photo of the unique parade attraction.

While storage of vintage fire trucks is always a challenge for many fire departments, Preston had this baby red stored in the fire hall in downtown Preston.

Lanesboro’s 1949

Jerod Wagner, Lanesboro Assistant Fire Chief, made himself available to showcase the 1949 Ford F-7, a vintage model the Lanesboro Fire Department uses in parades. However, this is not Lanesboro’s original fire truck, and they are well aware. They purchased this truck from the Rollingstone Fire Department years ago.

But, the good news is that the Lanesboro Fire Department is in the process of restoring their own original vintage fire truck from the same era. It was discovered in a farmer’s field a while ago, and they were lucky enough to get their hands on it.

Wykoff’s 1890

Drum roll please! I saved the best and oldest for last. The oldest working fire department rig is located in Wykoff, Minn. The Wykoff Fire Department maintains an 1890 horse-drawn hand-pump trailer. When speaking with Wykoff Fire Chief Wade Baker, he told me “the 1890 horse-drawn pumper still works like a charm!”

For those of you having a hard time envisioning what this looks like, I’ll give you a little help. Take a dunk tank and cut it in half, and then put it on a huge two wheel cart. And, try to imagine that the wheels are made out of the wood with wooden spokes with metal wrapped around the circumference of that wooden tire. That’s what you’ll find with an 1890 horse-drawn hand-pump trailer manufactured with the help of Farmerstown Axle Co. out of Baltic, Ohio.

And, to add to the experience, imagine this horse-drawn fire trailer is called to a fire in the dark of night. Fortunately, the fire department using the 1890 horse-drawn hand-pump trailer roughly 123 years ago would be equipped with kerosene-filled lanterns to help firefighters find their way. The Wykoff Fire Department happens to have those in mint condition; again, a rarity.

What I learned

As I interviewed many firefighters throughout region, I came to appreciate their sense of concern for preserving the vintage fire trucks they had in their possession.

And, while some of us may question the purpose of keeping and maintaining a vintage pre-1950 fire truck unless it serves a greater purpose... that’s not the point. To some people, these vintage fire trucks may appear to take up space at great expense.

From my perspective, the reason for keeping these fire trucks in tip-top shape completely relates to respecting where we came from.

Up until 1924, firefighters in our region were hooking up a team of horses to haul their rig out to a fire call. Can you imagine how difficult it was to respond to a fire call in a timely manner? And, since each rig could only haul between 150 and 500 gallons of water, they were limited in how much of an impact they could have on reducing and eliminating that fire. As I’ve heard from firefighter instructors many times, the bigger the fire the more water you need. As Canton Fire Chief Jon Nordsving said during my interview with him, he has two trucks alone that can haul a combined 7,000 gallons of water to any fire call today. So, if you took all eight of the aforementioned fire trucks and the one horse-drawn hand-pump trailer to a fire call, you still couldn’t haul as much water as those two Canton fire trucks.

And, up until the late 1930s, all of the fire trucks had an open cab. Yes, no roof! Can you imagine riding on a fire truck going to a fire call in the middle of a ice cold Minnesota winter with no roof over your head? That’s like driving a convertible with the top down in the middle of winter. I’m guessing long underwear was a requirement in those days.

Yes, we’ve come a long way. We have better equipment and better training. Houses are equipped with smoke detectors, and people are generally more aware of the hazards that cause fires. So, the number of fire calls and the impact of those fire calls has lessened over time. If anything, most of the fire departments in this area deal with more vehicular accidents than fires. And, this does require different tools and training, as well.

Our firefighters back in the late 1800s and early 1900s were at a tremendous disadvantage, yet they worked with the tools they had to the best of their ability. One story I heard was that a Harmony firefighter’s grandfather was riding on a horse-drawn trailer out to a fire call just outside of Harmony and the dust was kicking up from the horses going so fast that they couldn’t see where they were going and they missed their turn-off. So, they had to have the horses slow down so the dust wouldn’t hinder their vision.

We should all be grateful that these local fire departments have taken the time to pay tribute to their history by maintaining a vintage pre-1950 fire truck of some sort. And, the beauty of it is that they are more than happy to share that piece of history with us in every town festival parade throughout the spring and summer each year.

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