It Started with A 1950 Bickle Seagrave Aerial
By Ron Heal
Early last summer I came across information on Facebook about an upcoming fire apparatus event to be held in Chatham, Ontario. Chatham is in southwestern Ontario, about an hour’s drive from the Detroit-Windsor boarder. Saturday, September 21, was the date of the show. I was aware of the show from past years but had made more of an effort to get over to another long-running Ontario fire apparatus show in St. Thomas that was held on Labor Day weekend. Taking a pass on the Chatham FireFest event was my mistake. FireFest in Chatham had its start in 2012, and this successful event has a story to tell.
Fire apparatus collectors and enthusiasts enjoy bringing their apparatus to parades, special occasion events, and musters. Some vintage rigs are maintained in the condition they were in at the time of purchase by a collector. Many rigs will undergo a complete refurbishment and come out like they just left the factory. Vintage apparatus include rigs from the early motorized era as far back as 100 years and now includes apparatus from the early 1990s.
Remembering that the September 21 date brought great weather in the Midwest I decided to touch base with Walt McCall to see if he made FireFest and had a chance to get a few pictures. Walt got back with me to advise that the weather was perfect and that there were 64 vehicles at the show! That is an outstanding number of rigs at any apparatus event! So how did it all begin?
Walt got me in touch with event organizer Brent DeNure. Brent is gracious in sharing the beginnings of a family interest that goes back to 1979. Brent’s father, Reg, had a passion for parades and decided that he had to have a fire truck. He purchased, sight unseen, a 1950 Bickle Seagrave aerial ladder truck that had served in Hamilton and later in Almonte, Ontario. He had the truck lettered “Big Red” and brought it home to Chatham where he operated a bus company. Owning a bus company provided indoor storage and access to mechanics—great features to have when you own vintage fire apparatus. During the 1980s and 1990s, Reg acquired several additional vintage rigs. One of his purchases was a 1948 International-American LaFrance tractor-drawn aerial (TDA) that served Verdun, Quebec. That rig was purchased from a salvage yard and underwent a complete restoration. You can check out the story of “Really Big Red” at http://www.firefest.ca/truck/1.html.
Reg would get together with Francis Glenn and Wes Thompson from nearby Blenheim, Ontario. Between the three men they have accumulated enough vintage fire apparatus to put on their own apparatus event. Brent grew up with vintage fire apparatus parades and special events all through high school and college. Then there was a time when the old apparatus was not foremost on his list of things to do. That changed in the early 2000s when his nephew Kyle visited and was wide-eyed when he saw the inside of the warehouse where all the rigs were stored. That visit reignited both Reg’s and Brent’s interest of getting back into the hobby. A former Windsor (Ontario) 1957 Fargo squad truck and a 1951 Mack pumper were the first two rigs that were back out on the parade circuit. Reg, Brent, Kyle, and Kyle’s father Keith enjoyed their time together and being reunited with friends that enjoy old fire trucks. This is a huge quality that is found in most fire apparatus enthusiasts.
In 2012, the first Chatham-Kent FireFest was held. Expectations were for 15 fire trucks and possibly 500 visitors. It turned out that 42 fire trucks and 3,000 to 4,000 visitors turned out for the event. With Chatham-Kent recognized as the “Classic Car Capital of Canada,” it turned out that there was an instant appetite for vintage fire and emergency vehicles.
FireFest has added some special touches to their now annual event. They have hosted some high-profile fire service members and TV personalities. Richard Picciotto, the highest-ranking member of the FDNY to survive the World Trade Center collapse; Randolph Mantooth from the TV show Emergency!; and Tim Chevelde, former NHL goaltender turned firefighter are some of the guests and speakers that have appeared at FireFest. Special vehicles have also appeared at FireFest. A Backdraft clone Engine 17 Ward LaFrance pumper, Ecto-1 clone from Ghostbusters, and a beautiful Seagrave “Red Hot” pumper from North Carolina have been highlighted at FireFest. In 2016, the world’s biggest fire truck corn maze was a big attraction.
Brent DeNure is a jeweler by profession. His passion is vintage fire apparatus. Our hobby is fortunate to have people like Brent to step up and take a leadership role in promoting vintage apparatus. While Brent is already busy making plans for FireFest 2020, he has the blessings, understanding, and help from his wife Corrie. She is much into the hobby as well. She has her own TDA and has tillered six other TDAs.
Brent looks back to when his dad bought “Big Red” 40 years ago. Brent cannot think of anyone that could comprehend the generations of memories that would be created by the collections of Francis Glenn, Wes Thompson, and the DeNures would help and foster the hobby and the FireFest event.
FireFest 2020 in September in Chatham, Ontario is on my “to do” list. I am sure there will be apparatus treasures from Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York to make a great vintage apparatus event. I most look forward to meeting Brent and Corrie and seeing old friends Walt, Francis, and Wes.