By Ron Heal
Bill Blunden currently serves the national SPAAMFAA organization as executive secretary. He has been a lifelong member of the fire service, growing up in upstate Carthage, New York. As a youngster, Blunden would go to the Carthage Volunteer Fire Department with his dad, the chief of the department. Blunden got to play around the old fire trucks and hear all the fire stories presented by the volunteers. Blunden joined the department in 1982 and for the past 34-years he has served Carthage as a member and chief of the department. He is now retired from Carthage Fire and is now an exempt member. He has also served as president of the Jefferson County Volunteer Fire Chiefs and Firefighters Association and is a founding member of the Jefferson County Special Tactics and Rescue Team (STAR Team).
Over the years Blunden has been very involved in the SPAAMFAA organization, a group that is dedicated to preserving antique motorized fire apparatus. Blunden is a founding member of the upstate New York Thousand Islands Hose Haulers chapter of SPAAMFAA and served as editor of the “Silver Trumpet,” a quarterly SPAAMFAA newsletter. Blunden is a history buff, and more importantly a vintage fire apparatus restorer. Two Seagrave Suburbanite pumpers, a city service ladder truck and a pumper that served the Carthage Fire Department, and a 1947 American LaFrance series 700 pumper are some of the rigs that Blunden has beautifully restored.
I first learned of Blunden’s restoration projects on Facebook. There is so much information on Facebook, including people with the interest, skills, and dedication to see vintage fire apparatus brought back to life for others to enjoy and appreciate.
When SPAAMFAA members gather in Jeffersonville, Indiana, July 17 to 20, one of the rigs that will take part in the Saturday muster will be Blunden’s 1926 REO Speedwagon hose wagon. This rig has been a two-year restoration project. Blunden purchased the REO in May 2017 from Skip Oakliff in Portland, Connecticut. A 1947 series 700 American LaFrance pumper was on Blunden’s radar when he headed over to Portland, but once there Blunden came across the little REO and realized that it would be a better candidate for restoration and, on completion, much easier to transport on a small trailer to various shows and musters. Hauling a big piece of fire apparatus is not a small change job. The ’47 American LaFrance moved to the back burner and the REO came home.
The REO is a hose wagon only—no pump. While a serial number 130778 is stamped on the truck frame, the full history of the truck is not known. Was the REO a chassis and the hose box built locally by a fire department, or did REO build the entire unit? Blunden has learned that the hose wagon saw service with the West Willington (CT) Fire Department. It would eventually be sold for $50.00 to Barney Bohack of South Meridian, Connecticut. Barney’s Oil Company formed Barney’s Brigade as a parade group. They would appear in parades all over the state with the truck falling apart on cue—a variation of the Keystone Kops. When a truck gets to be 90 years old, it can be difficult to get a complete history, but that is one thing that Blunden continues to research.
Once the REO was back in Carthage, the restoration process was underway. The truck had flat tires. The wood decking and running boards were dry rotted. The truck was rusted and filthy dirty from years of residing in an old chicken barn back in Portland. The engine was missing the distributor, and the carburetor was rusted solid. Here is where several years of restoration experience came through.
The truck was completely disassembled. Metal parts were sandblasted and primed with epoxy primer. Blunden measured and recreated wooden parts using red oak and then covering with period ribbed rubber matting. The engine rebuild was farmed out to Kenny Meyers in Carthage. Kenny had the engine running by November 2018. Buffalo Machine Works in Colorado remade a distributor. The Carb Doctor in Canada rebuilt the carburetor. David Marshall of the REO Club assisted with much needed information as the restoration progressed. Andy Swift of Firefly Restoration suggested a dark red paint. Blunden did the painting, hand lettering and, striping using gold leaf paint. This spring the two-year project was complete, and Blunden fired the REO for its first trip in a very long time. Everything worked great. Apparatus owners are fortunate that there is still a dedicated group of individuals who can provide the expertise to keep these pieces of history up and running. It takes good teamwork.
Recently, Blunden loaded his REO on his trailer and head to Laval, Quebec, Canada, for its fire service-related parade. The July 20 national SPAAMFAA muster hosted by the Pompier, Pump, and Playpipe Society of Indiana at Jeffersonville, Indiana, will be an opportunity for Blunden to share his latest restoration project with fellow vintage fire apparatus enthusiasts from all over the United States and Canada. While Blunden has restored several rigs over the years, there are only so many that he can find room to keep. That has resulted in several of his restorations moving on to new owners. His 1925 and 1927 Ford restorations are now in Mexico. A 1946 Mack pumper has had two owners and is now for sale a third time. The Seagrave pumper and the city service truck are now owned by a collector in Nashville, Tennessee. A 1948 American LaFrance pumper was recently sold to friend Dave Hall.
Earlier in this feature we learned that Blunden’s original plan two years ago was to bring back a 1947 American LaFrance series 700 pumper, and instead the REO came home. It looks like the LaFrance waited for Bill. There may be one more restoration in the works for Bill.