By Ron Heal
A recent stop at the central fire station in Galesburg, Illinois, was to check out their new delivery of a Spartan/Alexis/RK Ladders aerial quint. While getting a few good pictures of the new rig, I met firefighter T.J. Scott. He is also the fire department historian. Soon our conversation turned to “old stuff” and some of the rigs that had served in Galesburg. The next thing I knew Scott was talking about a tractor trailer aerial the department had back in the late 1930s and was in service until the late 1960s. That aerial was a 1939 series 500 American LaFrance 85-foot tractor-drawn aerial (TDA). It was on the scene at every major fire in Galesburg for almost 30-years. When a 1968 900 series 100-foot aerial ladder arrived in Galesburg, the TDA was retained as a spare apparatus. I had seen the rig back in the late 1960s and at that point there was some issue as to why we could not get the rig out for pictures. The next thing I knew the aerial was gone from Galesburg, and nobody seemed to know where the rig went. For me that was the beginning of a 50-year mystery.
Fifty years later, Scott had the key to unlock that mystery when he pulled out a file with several good black and white prints of the 1939 American LaFrance. Best of all, knew where the rig was located. When he told me that he had been in touch with Larry Zotti in Granite City, Illinois, I knew that the rig was in good hands. I have known Zotti for many years as our paths crossed at various fire apparatus events in the greater St. Louis, Missouri, area. Zotti has helped on a couple projects that I was involved in. What great news to know that all I had to do was pick up the phone and learn even more about the1939 American LaFrance. A phone call and a few email messages later, and the story on the 80-year old ladder truck was coming together.
Over the last 35 years Zotti has gathered an interesting collection of vintage fire apparatus. Most of the rigs are American LaFrance models with a couple exceptions. Zotti houses three of his collection in the original Granite City firehouse. The two-bay firehouse was built in 1904. Zotti has a long-term lease on the building. His first rig purchased in 1985 is an American LaFrance 1948 700 Series 1,000-gpm pumper that served National City, Illinois. Zotti, his dad, and others did a frame off restoration of that pumper. Granite City’s 1922 Type 12 800-gpm pumper and a Port Jefferson, New York, 1939 500 Series 750-gpm pumper are on display in the old firehouse. There are several other pieces of apparatus that Zotti has stored off site and under roof.
So, how did Zotti become the owner of a rig from Galesburg, Illinois? Here is where Zotti was able to fill in some of the blanks on where the truck spent all those years after being retired from service. Marv Cohen purchased the rig from Galesburg in 1979 and drove the rig some 900 to his place in New York state. In 1987, the rig was on the move once more, sold to Mr. Hemingway, a car collector in Missouri. The truck would be involved in one more sale to another Missouri car collector. This collector was not into vintage fire apparatus, but the rig was part of the deal. Zotti is very well known in vintage fire apparatus circles. One day he got a phone call from the vintage car collector. The collector was wanting to know more about the truck. A few weeks later, Zotti headed over to Perryville, Missouri, to meet with the car collector. As a conversation went along, Zotti said that he was not in the market to own another fire truck. During that conversation is when the collector spoke up and told Zotti that he did not understand—the collector wanted to give him the truck! With an offer like that the conversation took a sharp turn, and Larry had himself a 1939 ALF TDA. The truck was not in running condition, so he had to figure out how to get it back to Granite City. Good networking with a fellow apparatus restorer and friend, Doug Klink, in Estes Park, Colorado, had Klink delivering a restored steamer pumper back to Kansas City, Missouri. Once he was unloaded, Klink headed to Perryville and loaded up the 1939 American LaFrance. The loading of the rig is a story by itself.
The truck has been back in Illinois for almost three years. Zotti has been able to house all the apparatus that he has. While not every rig can be displayed in the former Granite City firehouse, all his rigs are stored under roof. Inside storage is so important for old fire trucks. After being away from Galesburg for the better part of 50 years, the truck is amazingly complete. The tractor fenders could use a coat of paint. The rest of the truck could use a thorough cleaning. There is a full complement of wood-trussed ground ladders that appear to be in good condition. Currently Zotti is working on the electrical system on the big V-12 engine, replacing wiring, rotors, points, condensers and distributors. The gas tank will need to be cleaned out. Seven gallons of fresh oil, and it will be time to try to fire up the rig. Zotti is the first to say that he does not have plans for a full restoration. There is just not the time or the money to take on another full restoration.
I asked Zotti what his plans are for the truck. First is to get the truck running. After that, the cleaning and paint for the fenders. He would like to be able to take the truck to a couple of musters in the St. Louis area and raise the 85-foot steel aerial ladder. After that, he has no long-range plans.
I wonder if there might be some community interest back in Galesburg. What do you think about that T.J.? Galesburg is a big railroad city with a nice train display. There may be enough community pride to recognize and honor its 80-year-old fire truck as well!
For me, a long-standing mystery has been solved—at least to the point that I now know where the rig is and who has it. Zotti has been able to fill in many of the blanks on all the truck’s travels. One thing is for sure: trip to Granite City is in order this year. Seeing the 1939 American LaFrance will be the first item. The bonus will be seeing all that Zotti has in the vintage firehouse. Zotti advises that visitors are welcome, but it is recommended to contact him a week or two in advance. His museum is kind of a one-man show. Contact Zotti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While I listed the trucks that are on display, here is a list of other rigs in storage. The Galesburg rig heads that list.
- 1939 American LaFrance 500 series 85-foot tractor drawn aerial, ex Galesburg, IL
- 1936 ALF 400 series 750-gpm pump ex Sharon, PA
- 1938 ALF 500 series 600-gpm pump ex Watervliet, NY
- 1941 ALF JO series 65-foot aerial 750-gpm pump ex Sturgis, MI
- 1947 ALF 700 series 1,500-gpm pump ex Elkhart, IN
- 1950 Willys-Howe 400-gpm pump ex Principia College, Elsah, IL
- 1955 ALF 700 series 750-gpm pump ex Independence, OH
My thanks to Scott for sharing his news about the Galesburg aerial, and more thanks for getting me hooked back up with Zotti.
If you or your department has a vintage fire apparatus with an interesting story that you would like to share, please contact Ron Heal Email email@example.com