By Ron Heal
What happens to vintage fire apparatus once their fire service time is finished? Over the past several decades there have been many of answers to that question. Some rigs get pushed into a back corner in the fire station; others get set out behind the station where they continue to age; still others are taken to the scrap metal yard to be run over the scales and sold for scrap. The best answer to that question is when a vintage fire apparatus enthusiast learns about the surplus rig and buys the rig to take home and restore the fire engine to like new status.
Wes Melo, now a retired executive living in Roseburg, Oregon has been interested in fire apparatus as far back as he can remember. Growing up in Mt. Shasta, California, Melo had ample opportunity to be at the local fire station. His father, Frank Melo served the local fire department for 52 years, with many of those years as fire chief. Tucked in the back corner of the fire station was a 1915 Ford Model T-Hallock chemical fire engine. Melo remembers the many times that he would climb onto the nicely restored rig to ring the bell and crank up the Sterling hand crank siren. The chemical fire truck was not an original part of the Mt. Shasta Fire Department. Chief Melo found the rig sitting out in a vacant lot over in Fort Jones, California. Nobody in Fort Jones wanted the old rig around. Chief Melo was welcome to take the rig home. That is exactly what he did. Keep in mind this was back in the 1930s. Chief Melo and some of his friends eventually brought the little rig into the basement of his house to do a complete restoration. When they were done, the Mt. Shasta (CA) Fire Department had a very nice parade piece of fire apparatus. By then young Melo was hooked on fire apparatus. Years later, Melo would learn that the 1915 Ford Model T-Hallock was very rare. It carried the serial number 4. It was the only rig to ship to the west coast from the Hallock factory in Medina, Ohio. Hallock manufactured 22 fire engines in the period of 1913 to 1918.
Melo hoped that one day he might inherit his dad’s fire engine. That was not to be the case. While he was serving with the Army overseas, Chief Melo donated the rig to the Sisson Museum in Mt. Shasta. The rig is still on display today. Melo would spend the next several decades as an industrial executive, moving several times to various parts of the country. Many of his moves gave him the opportunity to serve various volunteer fire departments.
In 1999, Melo and his daughter were surfing the Web when they came across a 1915 American LaFrance/Ford Model T Type A chemical fire engine for sale. The rig was in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Wes drove to New Mexico and found a truck that was in very poor condition. Nevertheless he bought the rig and loaded it up for the trip back to Roseburg. Melo admits that at that point he had very few restoration skills. He contacted friends, restoration experts, historians and anyone else who might help him in a complete restoration project. His restoration would take nine years, and, over that time, Melo gained many restoration skills. Since this apparatus was an American LaFrance, one contact Melo made was to noted American LaFrance historian John Peckham. Peckham advised Melo that the 1915 rig may be the second oldest rig of its kind known to still exist.
Melo recalls some of the major issues he faced during the restoration. One chemical tank was completely rusted out on the bottom; parts were missing or had been replaced with nonoriginal parts; a rough running engine that belched blue smoke; and a radiator that blew steam like a teapot. Over time, all the problems were resolved, and Melo had the vintage fire tuck of his dreams.
We could wrap up this restoration story right here, but wait, there is more. There is something about fire apparatus restorers/collectors where one is not enough. Even while Melo was completing his first restoration, he found a 1923 Ford Model TT/Howe triple combination pumper advertised for sale on the Internet. This rig was located in southern California. For several years, the pumper had sat in the owner’s yard in the desert sun as an ornament. The rig was in terrible shape, but Melo made a purchase and the rig was brought to Oregon. When the time came to do a complete restoration on this rig, Wes and machinist and mechanic friends got the project done in four years.
This particular rig had a beginning in the small Illinois community of Bowen. In gathering information for this feature, Bowen Chief Brian Gaines was contacted to get the original owner of the rig in touch with the current owner. Melo is glad to have that missing link in the history of the pumper, and he has shared pictures with Gaines.
Melo’s story of fire trick restoration is not completed yet. The Internet produced one more fire truck. This time it was a 1919 Ford Model TT/American LaFrance chemical and hose fire truck. The owner of the truck was the retired fire chief of the Healdsburg (CA) Fire Department. When Wes made contact with the chief he shared pictures of his two restorations. The chief was pleased that the truck was in good hands for a complete restoration. There were major issues to overcome. A cracked block and a wood body were just a couple issues. It took six months to find a replacement block. Each piece of wood on the body had to be replicated in Melo’s wood shop. Once again the number four came up as in four years to complete the restoration. That brings us to today. Melo assures that he no longer goes to the Internet in search of old Ford fire trucks. He is very pleased to have three beautifully restored fire trucks at his Roseburg home. Looking back, Melo feels that he has captured a very important era of fire service history. He looks forward to showing his vintage fire apparatus at car shows and at fire apparatus musters. Melo is a member of the Pacific Northwest SPAAMFAA and enjoys taking his rigs to area fire musters. Along the way, Melo has gathered some very nice trophies and awards. They are well deserved.
What is the future for such a great collection of fire trucks? Melo hopes that the 1915 and 1919 models may one day be returned to their original department owners. The possible future plans for the 1923 model are not as clear. Maybe now that Melo and Gaines have made a connection some last pieces of that puzzle will fall in place.
My thanks to Melo for his enthusiastic response to me for help gathering information for this feature. He has additional fame after having an article in The Wall Street Journal in the August 17 issue. Melo assures me that he is no longer going on the Internet in search of new projects. Three is enough!