I think Peter Jørgensen would enjoy and want to participate in a few minutes spent looking back at the history of the U.S. Fire Service. As I look back over my life, 80 years, I recall circumstances that resulted in huge changes.
In 1927, in our town of Lancaster, N.Y., a tremendous fire totally destroyed the American Malleables Foundry. All of its employees lost their jobs. Among them were my father, Lester Young, and a dapper young Canadian who was doing pioneering work with cast aluminum, Earl Scott.
My dad was then hired in 1928 by Buffalo Fire Appliance to be assistant to the president – a post he held until 1935 when the Great Depression forced a huge layoff. He then joined three of his former co-workers to build smaller and less-expensive trucks. They named the company Caseler, and in 1941 the name was changed to Young Fire Equipment.
Earl Scott decided to continue with casting aluminum in his garage. He designed and patented the first swivel tail wheel for the famous Piper Cub, followed by a cast aluminum “steering wheel.”
He named his new company Scott Aviation, which ultimately led to the Scott Air-Pak. The history of Scott Aviation is a story all by itself.
It is hard to imagine, with today’s high-speed electronic banking, but my dad’s last assignment with Buffalo was to personally accompany new truck deliveries and physically get the cash payment for the truck. Banks were failing in the depression and checks were bouncing. Only cash was what was needed.
I remember in 1935 going all over the country where dad ran the new truck acceptance tests, which were 12 hours in those days, and collected the cash.
One place in particular was Winnemucca, Nev., a little railroad town that had an old, old hotel with spittoons in every room, dirt streets, wood sidewalks, hitching posts everywhere and a real frontier town look about it.
It is strange that as I look back 75 years I can still visualize Winnemucca and the railroad yards. Incidentally, dad had an extra fuel tank in our 1934 Chrysler because, for example, it was over 400 miles from Winnemucca to the next gas station.
All our luggage was strapped on top of the car. Some of the sand storms out in the desert not only sand blasted paint off the car, but also made the suitcases look like they had been dragged for miles.
In 1935, when dad joined Caseler, my mother was the secretary/typist/bookkeeper. My brother and I went to “work” when we were not in school. I well remember the floor of the little shop was dirt. Only the tiny office had walls, windows and a wood floor.
I have restored a 1935/36 Ford pumper built for Cuba, N.Y., by Caseler. I hate to admit it, but it is so small I can hardly fit between the seat and the steering wheel.
Importantly, I also have the contract and marvel at its simplicity. On one typewritten page was the chassis, pump, tank hose bed, lights and siren, plus all the hose and equipment. Just part of another page was the short agreement. A handshake was a contract in those days. Today I am shocked to see how many pages are dedicated to “lawyer stuff.”
My brother Bud and I literally grew up in the shop and as kids had responsibilities. I remember cranking the blower on the old forge for the blacksmith. We learned to hold the chisels and hammers as he worked on red-hot steel.
I learned how to arc weld when I was 12 years old. At that time our little shop won an Army-Navy E Award for excellence in producing fire trucks for the military. Bud and I must have swept up that shop thousands of times. We had to pick up any nuts, bolts and lock washers, check them out and then sort them for future use. We could not waste anything in those days.
FAMA (Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association) was founded after World War II. Dad was one of the founders and an early president. One of the challenges FAMA faced was to assemble used fire trucks to study at the Nevada test site for atomic energy.
The government wanted to see what would happen to trucks when exposed to an atomic blast. You can imagine that some of them evaporated. Clearly, no one can build fire apparatus that would survive close proximity to an atomic blast.
Up until a few years ago, all fire trucks were first designed by hand on a drafting table. It was very costly to spend the hours needed to do justice to the details.
Likewise, every piece of sheet metal was laid out by hand, sheared and formed by scratch lines on the metal and then holes had to be laid out by hand, center punched and drilled. This was the world I grew up in.
Today CAD designers can very quickly, and accurately, not only lay out the truck drawing but also program the movement of the sheet metal through miraculous plasma, laser or other high-speed cutting, hole punching and forming, all by computer control.
Manufacturing today is dictated by the quality and accuracy of the CAD programs and the speed of support equipment. My dad would do a flip if he could see the changes in metal working, electrical layout, foam systems, painting, pump pressure controls, remote controls, etc.
I don’t get a chance very often to look back. There is so much to remember, I could go on all day. Now that my memory has been stimulated I look back at trucks without power steering, non-synchronized transmissions you had to double clutch, 6-volt electrical systems, vacuum brakes and little generators that could not keep up with the ever-increasing battery draw from more and more flashing lights and the big Federal Q that could flatten a regular battery in no time.
As I look at trucks today I can only say, to the fire truck industry, “You’ve come a long way baby.”
Thank you for joining me in a short walk through memory lane. It was great fun. I only wish Peter Jørgensen was still here to join in a look back at yesterday.
Editor’s Note: Richard Young (Dr. Dick) did two tours of duty in the U.S. Navy, serving in China before and during the Chinese Revolution, and then was called back for two years in Korea. He joined the family company, Young Fire Equipment, in 1953. He designed fire trucks and was president from 1968 until labor difficulties forced it to close in 1991. He formed Performance Advantage Company in 1993 and has designed all of its products. He is a past president of FAMA.