By Ron Heal
Estes Park, Colorado fire apparatus restorer Doug Klink is finalizing plans to bring Collinsville (IL) Fire Department’s 1925 Ahrens-Fox JS 4 piston pumper (click for gallery) back home—but only for a visit! September 20 and 21 is a big weekend in the city located just a few miles east of St. Louis, Missouri. “Italian Fest” is a weekend filled with special events, including a 4:00 P.M. parade in the downtown area of Collinsville. A special parade entry this year will be one of the early motorized fire engines in service with the Collinsville Fire Department. The 750-gpm pumper has been meticulously restored by Doug and his crew, and the rig is fully operational. Arrangements are also being made to recreate a “delivery photo” taken more than 85 years ago, showing the new rig in front of quarters with department members and a gentleman that many think is John Ahrens, representing the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company.
For the last three years Klink has headed a full restoration on the pumper. He explains that the rig was obtained in “kit form” from Larry Zotti, a Granite City, Illinois, fire apparatus enthusiast, collector, and restorer. Several years ago Zotti had located the rig across the Mississippi River in the town of St. Ann, Missouri. It was sitting in a preschool playground for children to play on. What transpired over the next couple of decades is the rest of our story.
Klink grew up in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, living just down the street from the fire station. His early career found him working in the railroad locomotive field as a service representative. In 1989, Doug learned that the 1956 Seagrave 75th Anniversary Series pumper that served Whitefish Bay was for sale. Doug ended up with the winning bid, starting what has become an interesting collection of fire apparatus. Over the years, Doug became more involved in fire apparatus restoration, working out of the Kansas City, Missouri, area. The summer heat and high humidity was proving to not be the easiest of working conditions. Doug and his wife Cheryl found the temperature, humidity, and beauty of the Rocky Mountains that are at Estes Park was just to their liking. They made the move to Colorado and built a 12,000- square foot building that houses the Reliance Fire Company Museum and shop in 2003. The museum is a not-for-profit 501C3 entity and is now home to more than 15 pieces of vintage fire apparatus. A horse-drawn 1901 Waterous pumper is the oldest piece of apparatus on display. A 1967 Pitman snorkel that served Parsons, Kansas, is the newest.
In 2010, Klink and Cheryl hosted a field day trip for members of the national SPAAMFAA group. Two busloads and several carloads of fire apparatus enthusiasts made the trip up to Estes Park from Denver, Colorado. They were treated to a display of working vintage fire apparatus as staged by Lake Estes. The 1901 Waterous steam pumper headed the show. Back at the museum, guests checked out a static display of more apparatus and had a view of the shop area for restoration work. Some of the components from the Collinsville pumper were in the early stages of restoration.
Any piece of fire apparatus that is nearly 90 years old must have an interesting history. We know about the early photo that was possibly a 1925 delivery photo. Zotti recalls that the pumper was in front-line service until 1961 and then remained in the firehouse for a few more years as a spare, although seldom used. Eventually the old rig became a catch-all and then it was gone. It was the late 1980s that Zotti received word of an old fire truck at the St. Ann preschool playground.
The representative at the school gave Zotti information that he passed on to a retired Collinsville fire chief. The chief was very surprised to find out that the rig was still in the area. A group of retired firefighters was successful in getting the rig back to Collinsville with the intent to restore the fire engine. Far too often the hope of restoration and the actual happening are two different situations, and that proved to be the case. Zotti recalls that in 1992 or 1993 the group of retired firefighters offered the rig for sale by bid. The new owner of the Ahrens-Fox pumper, registration number 1254, was none other than Zotti. He brought the rig home to join in with several American LaFrance vintage apparatus already in his collection.
Fire apparatus restorations often take several years, and that proved true for Zotti. Working by himself with some help from his father and financing the purchase of parts and materials proved difficult and time consuming. Larry would spend several years disassembling, cleaning, replating, having the engine crank reground, new bearings poured, and much more. He found it was much easier and less expensive to restore the American LaFrance rigs that were so much more plentiful. This is where Klink came into the picture. Klink and Zotti knew each other. It turned out that Klink had a 1936 Series 400 American LaFrance pumper that Zotti wanted to add to his collection. In 1998, a they worked out a deal where Zotti got the American LaFrance and Klink got the Ahrens-Fox. The Fox moved from Granite City to Kansas City, and then the rig moved to Colorado in 2001. It would wait a turn until 2010 to begin serious restoration.
During the last 20 years Klink has become well known for his restoration work. Several of the vintage rigs in the Reliance Fire Company Museum have been restored to new and fully operational status. He also has restored apparatus for other collectors and fire departments that have kept a vintage rig and now want a full restoration. His Estes Park facility is an interesting place to visit for any apparatus buff. Visitors are welcome.
If you are in the Collinsville area on September 21 try to catch a piece of its fire department history as the 1925 Ahrens-Fox piston pumper drives along the parade route at the “Italian Fest” parade. Klink will be proud to show the rig off, and Zotti will be glad to see the old girl back in town—even if it is just for a couple of days!
RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.
By Ron Heal