By Ron Heal
Last spring, the Independent Fire Company, of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, took its vintage hand-drawn hose reel to an area fire muster. While at the muster, conversation turned to where some of the early motorized fire apparatus that had served the fire companymight be located. This provided a challenge for Chief Ken Lynch. Within a few days, the chief was busy on the Internet searching for any vintage apparatus that had served Jenkintown.
The history of the Independent Fire Company goes all the way back to when the company organized in 1889. It is located approximately 10 miles north of Center City, Philadelphia. The first-due response covers an area that is ½ square mile, serving a population of 4,500 that swells to 10,000 during the business day. It has a membership of some 50 persons, with an active roster of approximately 30.
Its first fire apparatus was a hand-drawn ladder wagon that carried 110 feet of ground ladders was purchased and placed in a small wooden building during that first year. Over the years, the fire company would expand the size of its building and add to its apparatus and equipment. The first motorized piece of apparatus was a 1911 Glide automobile. T.J. Donnell, a fire company member and a wheelwright by trade, was given the task of building the Glide into a fire vehicle. That same year, a 1911 Columbia passenger car was converted to a tractor to pull the original hand-drawn ladder wagon. In 1914, a 1910 Simplex automobile was converted into a pumper and remained in service until 1922. A Hale pumper was delivered in 1922 as the first piece of apparatus that was ordered as a fire truck. The Hale would remain in service until 1937.
The next piece of apparatus purchased by the fire company would be a 1937 Buffalo custom open-cab 750-gpm pumper. The Buffalo would remain in service until 1958. Current front-line apparatus includes a 2004 Pierce 105-foot aerial ladder quint with a 2,000-gpm pump and a 2009 International rescue-style tactical support vehicle.
The 1937 Buffalo pumper became the subject of Lynch’s apparatus search all these many years later. Lynch relates that his search was nothing more than some very good luck. In this day and age, all one has to do is sit down at a computer and do an Internet search on the World Wide Web. A random search for “Jenkintown 1937 Buffalo” found the pumper in minutes. It was listed on eBay of all places as “For Sale” in the San Antonio, Texas, area.
The fire company last knew of the pumper as being in service until 1958. But, what happened to the pumper during the next nearly 60 years? What condition would the rig be in? What was the selling price for the pumper now?
It turns out that the pumper was loaned out to a neighboring Pennsylvania fire company in 1958 and returned to Jenkintown in the mid-1960s. It would remain with Independent until 1982. At that time, the pumper was sold to a private collector in Horsham. Pennsylvania. Later, the rig was sold to private collectors in Maine; Las Vegas, Nevada; and then San Antonio, Texas. The private collectors took very good care of the vintage pumper. Each collector did his share to preserve and restore the pumper as a quality vintage fire engine. Fire company members were very pleased at the overall condition of the pumper when they made an exploratory trip to Texas. Finding a vintage rig in good condition is a big plus. Usually such a find does not come at a low selling price. Often that is a tradeoff of having to spend a fortune and a great deal of time to do a complete overhaul. The fire company was able to purchase the rig from the Texas collector by using a big piece of its treasury.
Once the purchase was finalized, the next big task was finding a way to get the pumper from Texas to the Philadelphia area. The fire company had conversations with SPAAMFAA, the national organization that promotes antique motorized fore apparatus. This resulted in the fire company issuing a haul bid, and a hauler was selected. On September 9, 2015,the pumper arrived in Jenkintown in good order.
On its first day back home, the 1937 Buffalo pumper was driven over to the home of Ted Jensen. Jensen actively ran on calls with the vintage pumper when the rig was in service. He also served as chief of the fire company in 1958, the last year the pumper was in service. Jensen was recently honored by the fire company and the Borough of Jenkintown for his 70 years of service. To say Jensen was very pleased to see the old rig in front of his house is an understatement.
Future plans for the Buffalo pumper include a good cleaning. One main area of repair and rebuild is the 750-gpm pump. The pump is not in working condition, and the members would very much like to have the rig able to pump at future musters. That will take time and money. The fire company has a fund raiser spaghetti dinner in the works for early November. The 1937 Buffalo pumper will be front and center at the firehouse for that event.
Lynch invites readers to follow the pumper’s progress on upgrades by visiting the Independent Fire Company’s Facebook page.
Do you have vintage fire apparatus stories that you would like to see featured? Contact Ron Heal at: firstname.lastname@example.org.