It All Began With a 1923 American LaFrance Pumper

By Ron Heal

Many fire departments, apparatus collectors, and fire museums are fortunate to have vintage fire apparatus. These pieces represent eras from hand-drawn, horse-drawn, early motorized, and rigs that look like they could still be in service. We get to see and enjoy these rigs in a variety of ways that range from a trip to the local fire station, to local parades, to fire musters, and to fire museums ranging from local to national in scope. Vintage apparatus helps show a part of our history. A big majority of these vintage rigs are in mint condition.

Ken Soderbeck pumps a Waterous steam pump belonging to Jim Lanigian before taking it apart for restoration.

That mint condition does not just happen. Most owners of vintage fire apparatus make a commitment to have their apparatus run, function, and look the very best. That involves time, research, labor, money, and often finding professional restoration sources to do the job.

Ken Soderbeck has been restoring fire apparatus since 1969. It all started when his wife Lee bought Soderbecka vintage rig of his own. At that time Ken was serving on the Summit Township (MI) Volunteer Fire Department. A 1923 American LaFrance pumper that had served Angola, IN came home to the Soderbecks. The rig ran and pumped but was a little rough looking, having been brush painted a few times over the years. At the time, Ken was in the screen printing business, and thought that he could try his hand to get the rig looking a little better.

Soderbeck works on the hosebed for a 1921 Waterous for Sauk Rapids, WI.

A year later he took his refurbished rig over to the Great Lakes Chapter of SPAAMFAA for its big muster at Greenfield Village. Even back in the early 1970s, the Greenfield Village muster was one of the biggest musters in the country. It was at that muster where Soderbeck first met Dan Martin, an apparatus enthusiast from Naperville, Illinois. He had a very good eye for detail and correctness. Martin questioned several features of Soderbeck’s restoration. The result of that discussion was a complete additional restoration that would take Soderbeck the next two years to get the rig “Dan-Martin-right.” Several years later, Martin would deliver his former Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department 1926 American LaFrance pumper to Soderbeck for a frame-off full restoration that would take three years.

Not long after Soderbeck completed his own truck’s restoration for the second time, a local resident that had obtained a rig that served Albion, Michigan asked Soderbeck to restore his rig. Soderbeck operated out of a property on South Street in Jackson, Michigan. The home office/shop was an old converted school house. There were two additional buildings on site that provided storage for many vintage treasures that Soderbeck obtained. Many were use as parts rigs, although a few rigs were waiting in line for restoration.

Over the years, Ken found himself spending more and more time doing apparatus restoration and supplying decorative graphics to others as they restored their rigs. There seemed to be less demand for the screen print side of the business, so apparatus restoration became a full-time occupation. Word of mouth and seeing a Soderbeck-completed restoration brought Soderbeck a client base from all over the Midwest. A en Soderbeck restoration is not done quickly. A three-year time table is typical for a complete restoration. There is apparatus research, the hunt for missing or damaged components, disassembly to frame off, old paint removal, and then he process of rebuilding. That includes the engine, the pump, painting, and finally the decoration that includes striping, corners, and desired graphics. Soderbeck does it all. He estimates that he has completely restored more than 30 pieces of fire equipment. Additionally he has decorated about the same number of rigs.

Soderbeck did a full restoration of this Detroit, Michigan, 1886 Silsby-Manning horse-drawn steamer.

Although most of Soderbeck’s customers are individual collectors or fire departments, he has also completed work for major manufacturers. For several years during the Figgie ownership of American LaFrance, Soderbeck did full restorations on two of the pieces that made up the wonderful collection that American LaFrance put together. The Reading, Pennsylvania, 1911 Type 5 American LaFrance pumper and the Detroit, Michigan, 1886 Silsby-Manning horse-drawn steamer are both Soderbeck restorations. Each piece took about three years to complete.

Today Soderbeck has moved his Hand in Hand Restoration operation to what he calls the “Old Circus Farm.” He is approximately eight miles east of Jackson, Michgan. The move is a result of a disastrous fire at his former site in 2010. The fire was in his main house. Only the lower level of the building was equipped with a sprinkler system, but that saved the apparatus in the shop from destruction. Sadly, the upper portion that was his living quarters and office with years of files and historical documents was destroyed. When word of the fire spread, many apparatus owners, apparatus enthusiasts, and friends of Soderbeck responded to Jackson to assist him in any way they could to try to sort out things for a possible rebuilding of his quality restoration operation. That is not an easy task for someone in his 70s.

The Logansport (IN) Fire Department had its Clapp & Jones 500-gpm horse drawn steamer restored a few years ago.

A visit to the Old Circus Farm today will find that Ken has plenty of space to practice his craft. There is no doubt that Ken is a craftsman and an artisan as he works his magic and skills bringing old fire apparatus back to original beauty. There is a vintage farm home on site. Two large out buildings actually did house a regional circus over the winter months. Ken tells that there were elephants and tigers kept on site. One of the big buildings is known as the “Elephant Barn.” Although the elephants may be missing, it is not surprising to see at least three more vintage pieces of fire apparatus in various stages of completion.

There is the Homer, Michigan, 1887 Button 500-gpm steam pumper. This hand- or horse-drawn unit has always been a part of the Homer department, stored inside, and came to Soderbeck as a complete unit. This steam pumper has been with Soderbeck right at three years. He is working hard to complete the restoration in the next two weeks so the rig can be delivered back to Homer for a special event. The Logansport (IN) Fire Department has its early hand-drawn Boyer chemical unit in for restoration that should be completed in 2015. Maysville (KY) has its Knox chemical truck in for restoration. The unit has been in the shop for a year. It is disassembled, waiting for rebuilt engine parts. The unit is in “frame-off” condition and ready for sand blasting and paint. Soderbeck’s paint booth is a warm-weather-only paint booth, so restoration including the ornaments is still a couple of years away.

In our interest in vintage fire apparatus, we are very fortunate to have people like Soderbeck that have learned valuable skills and detail lessons for how to refurbish a rig. The skills and dedication they bring to our interest in preserving a part of our history is invaluable.

Hats off to Ken Soderbeck.

If you have an interesting vintage apparatus that you would like featured, contact Ron Heal at or (309) 698-6968

RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.

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