By Ron Heal
Back in the early 1970s, I saw a TV commercial for Mr. Coffee that featured New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio. Also featured in that commercial was a group of firefighters retuning to quarters and backing their rig into the fire station before heading for a cup of coffee. The rig being returned to quarters was a 1928 American LaFrance (ALF) Type 31 65-foot wooden aerial ladder, complete with a tiller steering wheel. What an amazing piece of vintage fire apparatus, and it was only fifty miles from where I lived. It was the main and only piece of aerial fire apparatus at the La Salle (IL) Fire Department.
At that time, I considered myself to be a somewhat serious fire apparatus photographer and had visited several fire stations in Illinois and the midwest. Vintage fire apparatus has been my favorite fire apparatus most of my life, and American LaFrance was a major player when it came to vintage rigs.
A trip to La Salle was moved to the top of the list with the hope of getting some quality 35-mm Kodak slide pictures of the rig posed on the ramp of the fire station. The slides would be shared with fellow apparatus photographers in a slide trading group. La Salle is a city of approximately 10,000. The fire station was in the city hall. There were two apparatus bays. On one side were two ALF 700 series pumpers. In the other bay sat the ’28 ALF aerial ladder. The fire department was a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters with one paid firefighter on duty for a 24-hour shift. The paid firefighter would respond to a call with the apparatus with the volunteers meeting at the scene.
Arriving at the fire station, I met firefighter Don Pittman. I explained my learning about the aerial from the TV commercial and learned that Don was one of the firefighters in that commercial. After looking over the aerial, I asked Don if there was a chance to get some good pictures of the rig out on the ramp. Don said that could happen if I would guide the back of the rig from the tiller position into a slot cut into the back wall of the station after the photo shoot. The total length of the aerial ladder required that modification to squeeze the rig into the building and close the doors. This was my first opportunity to tiller a rig and it would be a long time before another opportunity would come along. I did get some great pictures. One of them is featured in this article. That meeting with Don and the opportunity to tiller the truck is a special memory that is still mine today.
There would be other times when I would stop by the La Salle Fire Department just to keep up and at other times introduce fellow fire buffs to the unique aerial. Over the years that followed the vintage aerial has made several moves but has never left the control and ownership of the fire department.
The 1928 American LaFrance Type 31 aerial was purchased new with a price tag of $15,250.00. The rig carries the production number 479. The main section of the wooden aerial was spring hoisted. Then hand cranking would run out the fly section. The amazing thing about this rig is that it remained in front line service as the only aerial ladder in La Salle until 1976—almost 50-years! The replacement aerial ladder quint would be a 1976 Seagrave rear-mount. With the Seagrave in service the ’28 ALF was retired but not forgotten. The aerial was stored in a north side fire station for several years. Then in 1988, the rig was moved into the brand-new Fire Station Number 1 on Fifth Street. Ten years later the rig would move again, this time to a facility that was a former car dealership that became the home for the public works division of the city. What had been the auto showroom became a place to park the rig where the public could look in on a piece of La Salle history.
This summer I stopped at La Salle knowing they had a new Pierce pumper in service and wanted to update my apparatus photos. As I neared the station I was surprised to see a brand new “Fire Station No. 2” directly across Fifth Street from Station 1. What did this new building of metal, brick and glass doors house? The 1928 American LaFrance 65-foot wooden aerial ladder! Firefighter Jerry Janick shared some of the story about how the new building came about and was kind to open the building for a closer look. Fire Chief Andy Bacidore filled me in on more of the details.
Age and deterioration of the public works facility in the old car dealership is causing public works to begin a process of finding a new location. That left the vintage fire truck in limbo. Thankfully the mayor, the fire department, and citizens of La Salle felt the truck was such a part of the city’s history that everyone came together on what is a community project to create a new home for the rig. At first, the idea was floated to try to add a solarium type structure on the side of city hall—the building where the truck spent a good part if its life. The building requirements just did not work out. A vacant lot owned by the city just across from the current fire station would work. One of the first gifts of “in-kind services” came in the form of an architect’s services for drawings and specifications. That was followed by firefighters past and present donating time, services, and money. Other groups, unions, and businesses as well as community residents have donated time, materials, and funds to create the new showroom, “Fire Station No. 2.”
Chief Bacidore estimates that, after donations of time and material, $30,000 was needed to complete the project. Work was started in the spring of 2017 and completed in late summer 2018. In the meantime, the 1928 truck was brought by flatbed late this spring and winched into the new climate-controlled showplace. The truck is complete and in near original condition. At one point, there were some efforts to consider a restoration with the fenders being refinished. Time and less than ideal storage has taken a toll on some of the paint and gold leaf, but much of the original fancy work is still visible on the truck.
It has been a long time since the truck ran, but I will always recall the day those many years ago when I met Don Pittman and I got to tiller the truck into that cut-out in the back of the fire station. In the next few weeks, the finishing touches will be completed at Fire Station No. 2 with landscaping and benches being put in place.
If your travels take you along Interstate 80 at Interstate 39 in Illinois, hop off at La Salle and swing by the corner of Fifth Street and Sterling and see this interesting piece of vintage fire apparatus.