Archive for Friday, January 6, 2006

Lawrence firemen aim to preserve history

Talk of restoring idle truck revs up

January 6, 2006


If nothing else, it's cool to see a fire engine that looks like it should be in a cartoon.

The 1917 American LaFrance ladder truck - the first ladder truck the city of Lawrence ever owned - fits that bill.

"It's the type of truck that you have a guy driving in the front and a guy driving in the back," said Harold Mallonee, a retired Lawrence firefighter who also served as the department's historian. "It's like the ones you saw in the old comedies where they would come around the corner and wipe out all the cars."

Good luck seeing this truck, though. The Lawrence fire engine for decades was on display as a piece of playground equipment in South Park. But for the last decade it slowly has been rusting away in a city maintenance yard.

Mallonee and some other retired firefighters would like to see that change. Recently retired fire chief Jim McSwain said he would like for the truck to be restored and used as a display in a local fire museum that he hopes will become a reality someday at the small, 88-year-old decommissioned fire station near 19th and Massachusetts streets.

"It is absolutely a neat piece of our history," McSwain said.

John Kasberger knows the old truck would generate some good stories. Kasberger, who was Lawrence's fire chief during part of the 1970s, drove the back end of the truck as a young firefighter in 1945.

"It was power steering. It took all the power you had," Kasberger said of the truck, which last did service in 1946.

Kasberger also remembers how a firefighter would have to start the truck with a hand crank, and how the shift commander each night would light two red kerosene lanterns and hang them off the back of the truck in case it was needed for a nighttime fire call.

"They were our taillights," Kasberger said. "That's how old that truck is."

Back to life?

Whether the truck can be brought back to life is an open question. Until Thursday, firefighters hadn't seen the truck for years. The truck, which is missing its 65-foot ladder that was controlled by a hand crank, doesn't run. And rust has taken a toll, though much of the truck is iron that is still strong.

If a group decides to tackle the project, it only will have to look as far as Topeka to see how it is done. The Topeka Fire Department restored a 1927 American LaFrance ladder truck - nearly identical to the Lawrence truck - several years ago. It also had been used as a piece of playground equipment for more than 20 years, but now the fully restored fire truck is used in five to six parades a year and at other special events.

"You would be surprised at how many people remember it from its days in the park," said Topeka fire Capt. Todd Williams. "People just love it."

Williams said he remembered seeing Lawrence's truck in South Park before it was removed in the mid-1990s because of safety concerns. He estimated it would cost at least $30,000 to restore the truck and get it running again.

A more feasible option might be to restore the body of the truck but not the mechanical systems, which would allow the truck to be put on display but not driven.

Fire safety, history

Though restoring the truck would be expensive, Williams said it could serve an important purpose.

"I think it is one of the best ways to get a little kid's attention, and then while you have them, you can teach them a little fire safety along the way," Williams said.

Fred DeVictor, director of Lawrence's Parks and Recreation Department, said the city didn't have plans for the truck but had kept it because it was a unique part of the city's history.

Mallonee in 1996 unsuccessfully tried to reach a deal with the city to restore the truck to drive in parades in exchange for ownership of the antique.

McSwain said he hoped the community someday would want to more fully celebrate the city's fire history and that the truck could be part of it.

City commissioners are accepting proposals through Feb. 17 on how to use the old fire station near 19th and Massachusetts streets after the city's newest fire station opens this summer at 19th and Iowa streets. McSwain said he might submit a proposal for a fire and medical museum at the old fire station.

"The fire and medical system is really a backbone of every city," McSwain said. "For the first 75 years in this town, all the firefighters were volunteers. They didn't do it for the money. They just did it to help the community. That is a big deal and it is worth celebrating."


Prydain 11 years, 11 months ago

I remember climbing and playing all over this as a child.

Janet Lowther 11 years, 11 months ago

I remember playing on it too.

Somehow, I had the impression that it was removed from the park so it could be restored, not to molder away in a storage lot.

Sell it for scrap value to someone who will guarantee that they will restore it, preferably to someone local.

But if not, put it up on E-bay and sell it to someone who will appreciate it.

princess 11 years, 11 months ago

Man looking at that truck brings back memories! It is heart breaking to see it in this condition.

I am all for the museum idea and restoring this piece of history. I want my kids to be able to put their wee little hands on that huge wheel at the back of the truck. That thing mesmerized me as a child.

antiquefireenginelover 11 years, 11 months ago

In my opinion Lawrence is to be commended for not giving the truck to Harold Mallonee. He has already had the opportunity to have owned one of Lawrence's trucks, and instead of restoring it, and keeping it in the community, he has sold it, and it is now somewhere in Illinois to my knowledge.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 11 months ago

"I have some vague notion of what I'm talking about."

That's the most honest statement you've ever made.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 11 months ago

No buffet for me tonight, but thanks for the suggestion.

Devon Kissinger 11 years, 11 months ago

I'd like to see the city foot the bill for the restoration, one less roundabout will pay for it. The city should maintain ownership and put it on public display. There is nothing like an antique firetruck restored to original condition. Our fire dept. has quite a history, it should be on display for all to see. Put it in parades with retired firefighters in period bunker gear manning the old girl, that's only fitting.

Devon Kissinger 11 years, 11 months ago

I'd be willing to help work on it. Who would I contact to get involved if this gets off the ground?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 11 months ago

Off the ground?

Is this fire engine intended to fly?

I guess since you have so much trouble negotiating roundabouts, that'd be one way to avoid them.

Devon Kissinger 11 years, 11 months ago

I dont know who you are bozo. That statement was totally uncalled for, but from reading your other works of art, it was expected. Get back on the bus....

antiquefireenginelover 11 years, 11 months ago


Believe my earlier post! Mallonee put one of Lawrence's, if not the last red fire truck that Lawrence had, an American LaFrance on Ebay for sale a couple of years ago. It was sitting in his barn along with 2 other trucks that were in the same condition as the 1917 ladder truck that is being talked about, needing total restoration from the ground up. The truck that he had up for sale looked like it had just come out of service but it hadn't been running for a long time, and he had no idea how to get it running, including having someone come over and try to fix it. So it was sold/donated without it running, and having had to be hauled off from his property. Does this reallly sound like the person to give this truck to? When would the 1917 ladder truck be restored? After his 2 other trucks, or would he put it on Ebay as well. I have pictures of the truck that was on Ebay. If the top people in Lawrence's government think that the 1917 ladder truck is important to Lawrence, then why is it/has it been left outside to rot?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 11 months ago

I never get off the bus-- but I'd make an exception if I could have a ride on your flying fire engine when you get it off the ground.

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