On The Road Again

By Ron Heal

In 1977, Gary VanVoorhis traveled from Fishkill, New York, to Peoria, Illinois. He was beginning his career as a full time firefighter with the Peoria (IL) Fire Department. Now, 36 years later, VanVoorhis prepares to retire as assistant chief from the Peoria (IL) Fire Department. His career took him through the ranks of firefighter, engineer, captain, battalion chief and division chief. There is no question that VanVoorhis is a fully dedicated member of the fire service. He is also a collector and a buff. VanVoorhis is a supportive member of the downstate Heart of Illinois Fire Enthusiasts and Collectors, a SPAAMFAA chapter.

After more than 36 years in the fire service, it would appear to be a good time to kick back and enjoy life. It turns out that in his “retirement,” Gary will move on back to Beacon, New York—the next door community to Fishkill and VanVoorhis’s hometown. He will serve as Beacon’s first full time paid fire chief

You have to know VanVoorhis to even begin to imagine all that has happened during his career in Peoria. The events of the last year could fill a good book. There are very few people that bring so much enthusiasm to the job as VanVoorhis.

Since this is a feature on “old stuff”, let me introduce a 1924 Buick chemical car. VanVoorhis is the owner of this vintage beauty. In the next few weeks, it will move on from Peoria to Beacon. This will not be the truck’s first move. Many past moves are somewhat known while there are unknown moves from early decades. VanVoorhis has owned the car since 2009. He had been on the hunt for a vintage chief’s car or similar type vehicle that he could easily transport, show, and parade. A good connection in a Buick Club tipped Gary off about a vehicle located at the Firefighters Hall and Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was a 1924 Buick touring car that had been converted to a chemical unit for an unknown fire department. With only a few pictures to look over, VanVoorhis made an offer, and the next thing hew knew, he and his wife Lori were on their way to Minnesota to bring the Buick to Illinois.

Missing History
For the last four years, VanVoorhis has been getting his car fine-tuned for shows and parades. He has also been trying to fill in some large gaps on the history of his vehicle. Very little is known about the vehicle up into the 1970s. What is known is that the vehicle was offered for sale at a car dealership in the northern Illinois town of Marengo in the early 1970s and was purchased by a Minnesota group, The Military Order of the Cooties. They updated the car with new tires, a paint job, and new upholstery. They used the vehicle in parades. In its later life, the car was an outdoor display at a pizza shop in International Falls, Minnesota. The Firefighters Hall and Museum later owned the rig for several years. Its restoration and inside display and storage of the vehicle saved the Buick. Gary has made several attempts to fill in the gaps to find out where and for how long the Buick actually served the fire service, but has come up empty in nearly a 50-year gap. With only a more recent 40-year history, it is easy to see the car has made several moves.

Up and Running
Once the Buick was in Peoria, the first challenge was to get the car running. The Firefighters Hall and Museum members could not recall the last time the car had started, but they assured VanVoorhis with a money-back guarantee that indeed the car did run. Cleaning the fuel tank and the fuel lines; purchasing a new eight-volt battery; and rebuilding the fuel pump, carburetor, and the clutch all added up to getting the Buick up and running. Gary has added some “Peoria F.D.” lettering. He also found a chemical tank in St. Louis, Missouri, and a hose basket in Jackson, Missouri to make his Buick parade- and show-ready.

National SPAAMFAA Eye Catcher
Last July Gary loaded his car into his enclosed trailer and headed to Frankenmuth, Michigan, for the national SPAAMFAA summer muster. Parading through the quaint Michigan town seemed like a good fit for the car and those that got to ride. Frankenmuth rolls out the red carpet for SPAAMFAA events. A couple of years earlier the Buick was off to Indianapolis, Indiana, for the national SPAAMFAA event that summer. The bonus for parade participants that year was to do a lap around the famed Indianapolis Speedway—site of the Indy 500 Memorial Day race. VanVoorhis thinks it will be hard to top that once in a lifetime lap at Indy with his friend Sam Sisk following in his 1927 Chevy-Nott pumper. Other events in which VanVoorhis has shared his Buick include the Peoria Santa Claus Parade, Labor Day Parade, and St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He has also shown the car at the Chicago (IL) Fire Academy Muster and at Springfield, Illionois.

Moving On
July 19 marks VanVoorhis’s last day on the job in Peoria. In early August, starts his new job in Beacon. Somewhere in between, the Buick will be loaded up and transported to its new home. In many ways for VanVoorhis, he is heading back home. It’s amazing that an opportunity has presented itself so close to where he grew up. VanVoorhis brings many skills and much experience to Beacon. There will be many challenges and opportunities for the first full time paid fire chief in the community of 16,500 people. There will also be many opportunities for VanVoorhis to show and parade his 1924 Buick. I wonder if he will change out the lettering on the hood.

When VanVoorhis heads east, he also plans to take a piece of Peoria Fire Department history along with him as well. That would be a 1968 Chevrolet-Welch deluge wagon (right). VanVoorhis and his wife Lori have owned that rig for several years. He knows the history well. It was on the job when Gary started in Peoria!

You may have guessed that I have known VanVoorhis reasonably well. We do go back many years. Although I wish him all the best, I will very much miss his close friendship and his support to our HOIFEC group. He is the original “Energizer Bunny.” Thanks for everything Gary.

Vintage Rigs
This feature links a rig with an owner, and they both have an interesting story to tell. So much vintage apparatus is similar as machines and owners interact. That is the nature of “old stuff.” We all kind of have a story to tell. It has been interesting to have had the opportunity to follow up on some of the features that were posted here earlier—but that can be another feature for later. What is your story on “old stuff?” Contact me via email or phone and let’s see if there is something we can share. Call (309) 698-6968 or email [email protected].

RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.