By Ron Heal
In 1953, the southern Illinois city of Carbondale took delivery of a new fire apparatus—an American LaFrance 700 Series open-cab 750-gpm pumper. It served the department at various fire stations as a front-line pumper for more than 20 years before moving to spare apparatus service. The department later sold the Southern Illinois Airport Authority for use at the airport that served the cities of Murphysboro and Carbondale. The airport added a Purple K powder system to the pumper for airport firefighting. The rig remained with the airport for several years before being declared surplus and offered for sale—minus the Purple K system. First attempts to offer the pumper for sale were unsuccessful. Then one day nearly 25 ago, a fire apparatus enthusiast learned about the rig. The next thing he knew the rig was his! Do you care to guess who that person was? Yes, it was me!
Acquiring the Rig
For the past several months, I have written about other vintage fire trucks that have come across my radar. They include a variety of models and years, and all have interesting stories to tell. My rig is no exception. Ever since I can remember I have been a huge fan of American LaFrance fire apparatus. For more than a century, that name has been recognized in the fire service when it comes to motorized fire apparatus. Many of us can remember the time when cities of all sizes had an American LaFrance in the fire station. I well recall when my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, replaced its aging fleet of circa 1920s rigs with LaFrance pumpers. I was hooked on those 700 Series rigs from the first day they came to town. Collectors tend to collect items from the era in which they grew up. For those into fire apparatus, that seems to be the case, whether it is collecting toys, models, or an actual piece of apparatus. For me, owning and enjoying a 700 Series American LaFrance pumper has been a real sense of accomplishment. There have been so many adventures shared over the years.
Once the pumper was brought up from southern Illinois, there was the matter of getting the rig nicely equipped. The hunt for used items for the rig would last for several years. There was a load of hose from one department; another department parted with handheld lanterns; and other additions included a portable deck gun, a third hose reel, siren and red light combination, nozzles, wood ladders, and a 700 Series American LaFrance bell.
Acquiring equipment was only a part of the need. I have been very fortunate to have found great sources who have provided the mechanical skills to ensure the good operation of the pumper. That also includes the ability to pump. The last decade found several of the technicians at Global Emergency Products in Washington, Illinois, always willing to help out to keep the old girl in as good a shape as possible for a rig that is now 60 years old. It is amazing when you think about how old the rig is.
The pumper has participated in parades, homecomings, fire prevention week events, fire musters, car shows, and just about any other reason you can think of to get a rig out and have some fun. I cannot even begin to think of how many people of all ages have climbed up on the rig for a ride.
So, here is the question. Spring is having a difficult time getting started here in the Midwest. I am having kind of the same trouble getting myself going when it comes to getting over to the storage in a nearby community. There is a full plate of three part-time jobs, keeping up a large lot, and getting to the various sports activities of two grandsons. Sad to say, the LaFrance is not getting the attention it should. Did I mention the fact that I am getting older? Is it time to find a new owner for the rig—someone with time, energy, interest, and a few spare dollars that could enjoy a vintage rig that is in pretty fair condition for its age? The question has been on my mind for several years, but is moving more to the front of the line. I really do need to give the selling of the rig some serious thought. There are others who I know that enjoy this similar interest, and they also are at a point where they ask the same question. This also applies to many collectors of fire memorabilia. What is the future of our collections?
This one gets a bit personal for me, but that is what makes this feature interesting.
Readers of this feature are among the most qualified to help me answer my question: Is it time? I appreciate your comments and even your possible interest.
I can be reached at [email protected] or (309) 698-6968.
RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.
By Ron Heal