By Ron Heal
This month features a pumper that is more than 80 years old and currently is a work in progress after several decades of almost being off the radar. Thankfully, there has been a small group of fire apparatus enthusiasts that are now stepping up to begin a long process of refurbishment for a proud old Ahrens-Fox piston pumper.
In 1931, the Peoria (IL) Fire Department took delivery of Ahrens-Fox registration 3398, a model N-S-4 1,000-gpm pumper. This fire truck would serve the Peoria well into the early 1960s as a front-line pumper and later as a spare rig. By 1964, the apparatus was declared surplus and was donated to the Peoria Museum Society. It turned out that at about the same time as the ‘Fox became available to the historical group an 1855 Button hand-drawn pumper that had served Peoria was also available. The group decided to restore the Button pumper, leaving the newer ‘Fox for another time. Over the next 20 years the ‘Fox was moved to various locations and did suffer some vandalism and loss of some parts. There appeared to be very little interest in the ’Fox. Bob Johnson, a former Ahrens-Fox salesman, resided in Peoria and expressed an interest in obtaining the pumper to restore the rig to operating condition.
The Ahrens-Fox was nearly forgotten in storage for many years.
Johnson moved the pumper to his home and began some restoration. Poor health limited what he could accomplish. In 1985, he contacted the Wheels O’ Time Museum to begin a process that would move the pumper to that group for their further refurbishment. Current museum president Gary Bragg was involved in bringing the rig to that group. Gary recalls that a handful of museum members got busy and started work on the restoration. The shed where the truck was stored did not prove to be the best atmosphere. There were also many other projects underway at the very unique museum located on the far north side of Peoria. One of the major things that Bragg was able to accomplish was to go back to the various organizations that had an interest in the rig at one time and get everyone to sign off on it so that the museum could obtain a clear title. A clear title can often be a major sticking point when it comes old vehicles and their restoration.
Although the Wheels O’ Time Museum actually built an addition to their buildings that was made to resemble a fire station, the Ahrens-Fox project never got to move into the new “firehouse.” Rather, some other fire apparatus units were obtained and placed on display.
Five years ago, several members of the Heart of Illinois Fire Enthusiasts and Collectors (HOIFEC) group met with Bragg about the possibility of joining with his team and making a serious attempt at a full restoration. HOIFEC is the downstate Illinois chapter of SPAAMFAA, the national organization that promotes vintage fire apparatus. Gary was very interested to learn what HOIFEC could bring to a restoration. Several members have their own vintage fire apparatus, and some have been involved in restoration projects as well. Over a period of three years the two groups continued to meet to come up with a plan that could bring the ’Fox out of decades of neglect. Everything came together two years ago when the highway in front of the museum was being widened, and the State of Illinois needing some additional frontage property.
That lead to the museum building getting a new combination workshop and display area, which was completed in December 2012. The first item to be moved into the new shop was the 1931 Ahrens-Fox. It was amazing how easily the old rig rolled over to the new building in a matter of minutes. It took far longer to move all the years of clutter from around the truck than the actual move took. In the light of a new day in a great new building, the truck was found to be in very solid shape—well worth restoration. The two groups set a goal of having a fully operational fire engine that could be shared with the Peoria area for generations to come. Although most of the time the rig would be on display, there would be times when the apparatus would be driven and also able to once again pump water.
The project is now 15 months into being. The Wheels O’ Time Museum members working on the pumper include many former employees of the Caterpillar Tractor Company. They bring many skills to the project, with several engineers and large engine specialists on the team. That group has taken the engine rebuild responsibility. Hundreds of hours have gone into disassembly and engine repair. A major item for this spring is to have the cylinders resleeved. The HOIFEC members have taken on the chassis, fire pump, and fire body as their part of the project.
Currently all the fire body components have been removed; the frame has been completely stripped; the undercarriage disassembled, checked, repaired, and reassembled; and the rig is ready for new tires and paint. Everyone working on the project is amazed at the good overall condition of this fire engine. There is no doubt that Ahrens-Fox built the Cadillac of fire engines in 1931!
The winter months always seem to slow progress on restoration work in our part of the country. Snow, cold, and full social calendars are all factors. We are very thankful to a very small but dedicated group of men from both organizations that come out at least twice a week to keep things moving forward. In the days and weeks ahead, additional planning will be included to keep the project moving forward. The engine group will choose the machine shop to sleeve the cylinders. The chassis group will work to find a corporate sponsor for a set of four new 9.00 x 20 tires. The business group will continue to find organizations and individuals that are willing to donate monies to the project.
Looking ahead, there is optimism that solid progress will happen throughout 2014. The goal is to begin the process of reassembly before snow flies this December. After decades of inactivity, the task of such a big restoration is not an easy one, but it seems like Bragg has pulled together a team of interested and talented people that can get the job done. The museum people are to be credited for keeping the old fire engine mostly intact. Bragg admits that the original plate bearing the names of the city fathers is missing because of vandalism many years ago. He is also on the hunt for an Ahrens-Fox steering wheel. It appears that the current wheel is for a tiller wheel on a ‘Fox aerial. Anyone out there have a spare Ahrens-Fox pumper steering wheel?
We hope to keep you posted over the next couple of years as progress is made on this restoration project. Stay tuned.
RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.