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Archive for Sunday, June 14, 2009

Restored Tonganoxie fire truck preserves piece of Army history

June 14, 2009

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See the truck

The Holabird Pumper fire truck is on display at the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society museum, 201 W. Washington St.

The museum is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays.

Al DiSanto, chairman of the Tonganoxie Historical Society, asks that anyone with pieces of the original truck contact the historical society.

— Al DiSanto sits atop a bright red 1936 Holabird Pumper fire truck. He starts to bring the big 1932 Continental engine to life. He manually slows the distributor before giving the engine a little throttle and adjusting the choke. Then he can speed up the distributor again.

Starting the engine never really took firefighters that long, DiSanto says, but waiting for the airbrakes to get enough pressure was another matter.

“I’ve heard stories where firefighters would leave the station, get to the first intersection and realize they didn’t have any brakes,” he said with a laugh. “And I believe it, too.”

For years, what once was Tonganoxie’s main fire truck had been in shambles. But through the efforts of numerous volunteers, the truck’s restoration is nearly complete. And it was on display at Saturday’s Tonganoxie Days festival.

Holabird history

It was produced in 1936 at Fort Holabird, Md.

Ted Heinbuch, a Maryland resident who has worked as a firefighter, got in touch with DiSanto after hearing about the truck. It was Heinbuch who obtained the National Archives records pertaining to the type of truck.

“Between 1932 and 1940, the motor transport corps at Holabird built all of the Army fire trucks for all of the forts nationwide,” Heinbuch said. “The Army found it would be cheaper to build their own than to buy them commercially. These trucks were constructed as whole vehicles at the camp.”

This was the only time the Army designed and built its own fire trucks instead of buying them commercially.

The truck was delivered to Fort Leavenworth the same year it was built and spent seven years there.

DiSanto, chairman of the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society, said he doesn’t know what happened between 1943, when it left the fort, and when it came to the city in 1951. But based on old photographs, it’s likely the truck was used by the Army Corps of Engineers because the Corps’ castle logo was painted on the side.

By 1951, the pumper was the main fire truck for the city of Tonganoxie.

Serving Tonganoxie

Former Fire Chief Charlie Conrad said the Holabird Pumper replaced a 1934 soda-acid pumper. He said the Holabird’s mechanical pump was far superior to the soda-acid pump.

Conrad remembers that the only power steering the truck had originated from the driver’s shoulders as he stood up to turn the steering wheel.

In 1961, DiSanto said, the city’s insurers required the city to buy a new fire truck to keep insurance rates low. After that, the Holabird truck was used as a standby for many years and appeared in town.

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