By Ron Heal
A recent field trip by the Heart of Illinois Fire Enthusiasts and Collectors (HOIFEC ) took them from central Illinois to the southwest side of Chicago. Their destination was the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago. The focus of the outing was to look over a 1928 Ahrens-Fox 1,000-gpm N-S-2 piston pumper. An added benefit was to learn more about the building that houses the big pumper and the organization that keeps things moving to preserve the history and tradition of the fire service in the Greater Chicago area.
The Fire Museum of Greater Chicago is located at 5218 S. Western Avenue in Chicago, IL. The building served as a firehouse to Chicago (IL) Fire Department (CFD) Engine 123 and Ambulance 8. Opened in 1916 as one of three similar two-story brick structures in use by the Chicago Fire Department, it would remain in use as a fire station until 1974. When the engine and ambulance moved over a few blocks to new quarters, the building was used by other City of Chicago agencies off and on until eventually the building was abandoned and boarded up.
In 2008 the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago was looking for a home that could house a growing collection of fire history and memorabilia. This group is a 501 C3 not-for-profit group that is some 1,100 members strong. There are a good number of active firefighters as well as many retired Chicago and area firefighters and their families that belong. Membership is a modest $30.00 a year for an individual. There are additional levels of membership. A very dedicated core group of approximately 15 persons are the heart of the museum.
When the group entered into a lease with the city in 2008, they were recipients of a structure that was badly in need of major repairs. Many changes had been made to the first floor. Office cubicles had been built on the apparatus floor. The apparatus doorway had been bricked shut; windows had been boarded up; the roof leaked; and there was three feet of water in the basement. Did I say the furnaces did not work? For the next two years members and volunteers would organize a clean-up and restoration that would include a new roof, new windows, restoring the apparatus floor, new glass block windows on the first floor, exterior tuck pointing, replacing the front apparatus door brick work with new apparatus doors, and installing three new furnaces. Much of this work was accomplished with donated labor and materials. Today the second floor awaits restoration so more of the fire history and memorabilia can be properly displayed.
When the HOIFEC group was greeted by retired District Division Chief (ret.) Jack Connors and his son Tim, now a CFD firefighter, the first thing that got our attention was old Engine 10, a 1928 Ahrens-Fox N-S-2 piston pumper. The rig carries serial number 3343, and it’s a beauty! The big pumper had a record of long service with the department starting as Engine 10. It later would serve as Engine 1, Engine 6, and Engine 4 before being retired some 33 years later in 1961. The Hubbard Street fire in 1961, where a building collapse killed nine Chicago firefighters, would be the last alarm for the old ‘Fox.
How the pumper got back home is a long story that involved a span of 50 years. In 1961, the pumper was sold at a city auction. A doctor at the University of Chicago bought the rig with plans to use it to entertain children. The rig would remain almost forgotten in storage until at some point the storage facility was about to be razed. The next stop for the pumper would be in Muncie, Indiana, where a local funeral director who was a collector of everything bought the Fox. The new owner contracted with Slim Elder in Griffith, Indiana, to get the rig running. Years later the pumper would be sold once more. This time the owner would be Jim Van Drunen, living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Van Drunen had served as fire chief in Blue Island, Illinois, prior to his move south. While in Blue Island, Jim was a frequent rider with CFD Squad 3. He would enjoy and enhance the Ahrens-Fox for many years at his Fort Lauderdale location. Connors points out that a great deal of the gold leaf work now on the rig was added while it was in Florida. The rig never looked so good when it was in service with the CFD. When Van Drunen was working at getting the pumper to be as fully equipped as when it was in service, he was in touch with Jack at the CFD shop, in search of correct fittings that were no longer being used by the department.
In 2010, the fire museum got a phone call from Van Drunen advising that the time had come for him to part with his prized Ahrens-Fox pumper. His strong desire was for the pumper to return to its Chicago home. The asking price for the pumper was $70,000. While that sounds like a great deal of money, people in the business of owning a quality Ahrens-Fox pumper know the price tag can be twice that amount. The museum already had two vintage Ahrens-Fox pumpers in a fleet of vehicles being stored that one day could be restored to their former greatness. Neither of the rigs the museum has come close to the Florida based unit. It would take several months of discussion and meetings to come to the vote that would bring the rig back to Chicago.
September 10, 2011, was the date the Fox arrived back in Chicago. Van Drunen had arranged to ship the rig in a big semi with an enclosed trailer. He was on hand to drive the rig off the trailer and onto the loading ramp. The rig was home.
The very first public appearance would be the next day: September 11, 2011. Museum member Andy O’Donnell drove the pumper over to a charity 16-inch softball game between the Chicago Blackhawks Alumni and a combined Chicago Police and Fire team. The game was played at Humbolt Park. CFD Fire Commissioner Bob Hoff was in attendance and quickly accepted the offer to be one of the first riders on the Ahrens-Fox.
Since arriving back in Chicago, the pumper has become a main attraction on the apparatus floor at the museum. It is joined by two smaller pieces of motorized vintage apparatus. There are displays that ring the apparatus floor that take visitors from the days of a volunteer fire department with hand-drawn equipment, through the horse-drawn era and the famous cow, to the early motorized, and up to the modern era of firefighting in the Chicago area. Each June there is a large fire muster and flea market held at the Chicago Fire Academy, and the Ahrens-Fox pumper has been featured at that event. There are other special events where the rig is on display. The pumper is not out on the streets all that often. It is not an easy rig to drive. The few times the rig has been out resulted in some good stories to tell of those adventures. One of the best stories involves the important fact that the rig gets about two miles per gallon of gas. On one occasion that fact got lost in the run. Luckily the Fox was passing a gas station and was able to coast in.
Visitors are welcome at the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago. While the museum is not open on a regular basis, visitors can contact the museum in advance by emailing [email protected] or calling 773-585-1301 to arrange a visit. There is no admission charge. There is a fire bucket available for donations, which are greatly appreciated. While the 1928 Ahrens-Fox pumper is a main attraction, the display of materials and memorabilia dating back to the volunteer days will amaze you.