By Ron Heal
During the 1950s and through the 1960s FWD tractor-drawn aerials (TDAs) were familiar pieces of fire apparatus responding to fires in the city of Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago Fire Department placed orders for a total of 25 of these rigs in 1949, 1954, and 1956. These TDAs featured 85-foot wooden two-section ladders and full complements of ground ladders. The main section of the ladder was spring-raised. The fly section was extended by a hand crank and roller system. The turntable was also rotated by hand cranks. A full complement of solid beam wood ground ladders included a 50-foot Bangor ladder with supporting tormenter poles; two 38-foot extension ladders; one each 30-,26-, 20-, and 16-foot straight ladders; a 16-, 12-, 10-, and eight-foot roof ladder; two 16-foot pompier ladders; and a 10-foot stripping ladder. The trucks also carried six axes and as many as sixteen pike poles. The aerial ladder truck tractors were powered by Waukesha model 145 GKB 240-hp gas engines. By the late 1960s Chicago was moving toward rear-mount steel aerials. One by one the retired FWD units found their way to the “boneyard” at the Chicago Fire Department shops at 3100 W. 31st Street in Chicago. Here the fate of aging fire apparatus would be determined over a period of time. Often the shops personnel would remove components that could be used on repairs to in-service apparatus. From time to time, the city would conduct a sealed bid sale to reduce the number of units in the boneyard. That was what happened in 1977 when a young Roman Catholic priest, Father Tom Franzman, learned that five of the long-retired FWD TDA rigs would be sold.
Father Franzman was ordained in 1970. His first assignment was to Fox Lake, Illinois. Early in his time in Fox Lake, Father Tom was given the opportunity to be the chaplain for the Fox Lake Fire Department. While Father Tom was in seminary at Mundelein, Illinois, he had served on the seminary fire brigade. There they had the use of a 1949 International/Darley pumper purchased from the Countryside Fire Protection District. The brigade would respond to grass fires on the seminary property. Father Tom had always been interested in anything mechanical. That extended to the care and operation of the International/Darley. The brigade also practiced with the Mundelein Fire Department. The chaplain duties with Fox Lake Fire Department lasted for seven years. In 1978 Father Tom was assigned to the Cathedral in Chicago, where he would serve until 1990. During that time Father Tom met and got to know many members of the Chicago Fire Department.
1977 would be a time when Father Tom and a vintage 1954 FWD TDA would connect. The Chicago Fire Department was selling five of the vintage aerial ladder trucks in “as-is” condition. Father Tom had visited the “boneyard” and found one combination that was more complete than some of the other units. He had no idea what to bid. He heard that often the old rigs would be run over the scales and sold for scrap for a mere $50.00. With this knowledge, Father Tom submitted a sealed bid. His bid of $75.00 awarded him Truck 8’s tractor and Truck 53’s trailer!
OK, so now what to do? The fire department wanted the rig gone. Where do you store a 63-foot long fire truck? It pays to have friends in high places. Father Tom reached out to His friend Bob Sutherland, chief of the Schaumburg (IL) Fire Department. Bob had been Lieutenant of Snorkel Squad One in Chicago. Schaumberg had a new fire station with one bay that was not yet in use. The old FWD was welcome. Father Tom rounded up a willing associate and the two of them headed for the fire department shops to drive and tiller the rig out to Schaumberg. There is likely a full story that could be told on that trip alone. This would be the start of a long story of moves and restoration efforts that are not yet fully completed.
Driving the rig to Schaumberg was the beginning of a restoration project that would last for 40 years before the truck would be seen at a Chicago fire muster as a work in progress. There would be more relocations as storage space would be repurposed. Several moves resulted in Father Tom finding an old coal yard on half a city block that was up for sale and had a building that would easily house his FWD. He bought it! Early restoration was mostly cosmetic on the tractor unit. In 2016 Father Tom retired. That allowed him the time to get busy on the trailer portion of the rig, taking it apart bolt by bolt. This is when he had the good fortune to meet Neal Vaccaro. Neal operates Vaccaro Truck Body Repair and Painting in Chicago. His company specializes in working on big vehicles. Neal has done a paint job on the trailer that looks like the trailer just came off the assembly line.
On June 15, 2018, the tractor and trailer were finally mated. On June 16 the big rig rolled up to the Chicago Fire Academy for the annual fire muster. For decades there had been a buzz about one of the old FWD aerials possibly being restored somewhere in the Chicagoland area. Now, there it was—being driven by Father Tom. (In case you are wondering, Father Tom does have a CDL.) The trailer was tillered that day by Father Joe Geders, a priest friend from St. Louis, Missouri, who loves working on railroad steam engines and fire engines. The rig was a big hit at the muster. It was awarded the Commissioner’s Choice Award. While there is still more to be done for a complete restoration, the work that has been completed was deserving of the recognition. The wooden fly section of the aerial needs to be repaired. All the ground ladders need to be refinished, and a couple of missing roof ladders need to be located. Pike pole holders and poles and various other accessories need to be put in place. Other finishing touches include the final wiring of the cab. Lettering identifying the hook and ladder fire company number, the scrambled CFD logo, and the C.F.D. letters identifying the department will finish the job.
Since June, the big aerial has made yet another move. With the old coal yard sold, Father Tom has retired to Delevan, Wisconsin. The truck is now stored inside a large boat yard. It is impossible to estimate the number of hours that have gone into this restoration. Father Tom has had many opportunities to put all his mechanical skills to work.
When the time comes that the more than 40-year project is completed, what plans does Father Tom have for the rig? Father Tom would like to see the rig become a display rig at the Chicago Fire Museum. Having enough space to display the big rig is a concern. Another possibility is to have the rig on display at FWD Corp. in Clintonville, Wisconsin.
I did not make it to the Chicago muster this past summer to see the FWD. I hope that when Father Tom declares his restoration project complete and he is ready to take the rig for a spin around Delevan that he gives me a call. It will be well worth a trip north.