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One last run into history

July 06, 2011
The old fire truck sat in storage at Leavenworth for years. There were always plans to restore it, and the seat was actually sent off to be re-upholstered a few years back.

But, there was never enough time or extra funds, so about the best the Leavenworth Volunteer Fire Department could do was keep it sheltered and reduce further deterioration.

This 1918 American LaFrance fire truck, above, was the first motorized fire truck for both New Albany and, years later, Leavenworth. It has been donated to the Vintage Fire Museum, which will open in the next few months in New Albany. The 1957 Ford, below, was Leavenworth’s second fire truck, and the town also is donating it to the museum. Photos by Lee Cable
The fire truck, a 1918 American LaFrance, was the first fire truck for two different fire departments. Although it was built in 1918, the truck sat on the American LaFrance lot until the New Albany Fire Department bought it in May 1921. It was the department's first motorized fire truck, and it served the city for several years.

It was during the 1937 flood that the truck became rather famous. Most of the streets and roads in the area were underwater, and the city decided to build a raft and load the fire truck on it. The plan was to float the truck to wherever it was needed in case of a structure fire in town. A picture of the truck on the raft made the front page of newspapers across the country.

Fortunately, there were no fires and the truck wasn't needed during the flood, but it was used to pump out basements when the water began receding. About two years later, New Albany bought a newer truck and the old fire truck was sold to the town of Leavenworth.

"Actually, New Albany traded it in to the Howe Equipment Co.," said David Wilkins, who served on the Leavenworth Volunteer Fire Department for more than 40 years, 30 as fire chief. "A salesman there named Tom Byerly sold it to Leavenworth on July 5, 1939, for $479.58. The town put $50 down and paid $125 a year in 1940, '41 and '42. They paid it off in 1943 with a final payment of $54.58."

New Albany's first fire truck then became the first fire truck in Leavenworth.

"Before that, we just had a hose cart," Wilkins added. "Of course, men had to pull it."

The fire truck, which has wooden spoke wheels and is chain-driven, was used by Leavenworth for several years.

"By 1948, the engine started getting bad," Wilkins said. "Harry (Doc) Bunch ran the Standard Station in town and did mechanic work. He went to Bill Garey's in Corydon and bought a 1936 Chevy engine and installed it. He had to make special motor mounts for it. The truck had a three-speed transmission — three forward and a reverse — and Doc bought a four-speed transmission, combined the two units, giving the truck 12 forward gears and three reverse. When it was in first gear, it was so slow you could walk beside it."

At the time, there was no fire district, and the fire department was operated by the town. Therefore, the truck stayed in town and was not allowed to go anywhere else. It was used through the years to fight a few fires in town, the biggest of which was the fire in the belfry of the Presbyterian church which was ignited by a lightning strike.

"The town used the truck until 1957," Wilkins said. "On May 20, 1957, the town bought a brand-new 1957 Ford fire truck. The old truck just sat in the building here until 1963 when New Albany borrowed it and put it on display during their sesquicentennial (150 years) celebration. The clutch was stuck on it, but they cleaned it up and got it going again."

"That was the first I knew about the truck," said Jim Mauch, a retired firefighter from New Albany. "Some people knew the old truck was in Leavenworth and borrowed it for the celebration. They towed it to the firehouse at 13th and Market and was able to get it running. After the celebration, I heard they actually drove it back to Leavenworth."

That was the beginning of sort of a relationship between Mauch and the old truck. Through the years, he drove to Leavenworth every few months and checked on the truck.

"I liked going up to Stephenson's Store and the Overlook anyway," he said. "I always liked the area, but I made it a point to keep up with the truck and hoped that one day it could be returned to New Albany. I actually looked at it several times and took several pictures of it through the years. It stayed under the town hall for a while and then was moved to the old hatchery, where it was stored a long time. I went down there one time and had to brush the feathers off it to get a picture."

But Mauch kept an eye on it, even though some in Leavenworth kept telling him they were going to restore it.

"I got it out in 1975 and got it running," Wilkins said. "I rebuilt the carburetor and put a new battery in it. We used it two or three years to help raise money for the Crusade for Children. Bruce and Bob LaHue helped with it. We'd park it at the Leavenworth bank during the fundraiser, and, one year, we took it out to the Overlook and the kids rang the bell and took donations for the Crusade. In 1979, we bought a new Chevy pickup for the department and needed the room to store it, so we took the old fire truck out to Oh-Hi-View Hatchery. Eventually, they quit heating the building, and the engine on the old truck froze and cracked. I guess I was the last person to drive it."

Some on the fire department made attempts to start some restoration on the old truck but never got it back together. But Mauch kept an eye on it.

In recent years, several individuals, including Mauch and Vic Megenity, a Crawford County native, Friends of the New Albany Fire Museum Inc. and some members of the New Albany Historical Society began making plans to develop the Vintage Fire Museum in New Albany. Numerous individuals donated collections of antique firefighting equipment and memorabilia to the cause and as their building (the old Coyle building on Spring Street) began to fill up with priceless and unique items, Mauch renewed his effort to bring the city's first fire truck back to town.

"I went to Leavenworth again and talked to the fire chief, George Pellman," said Mauch. "He told me I should talk to John Stutzman, president of the Leavenworth Town Board. John and I chit-chatted a while, and I finally asked him about donating the old fire truck to the museum. He said he saw no problem with that. It caught me completely off guard. I thought, 'I must be dreaming.' I just couldn't believe that, after all those years, we were going to get it back."

A few weeks ago, museum representatives hauled the old truck back home to New Albany. It's now sitting in a building on the old Coyle property, and restoration of the old American LaFrance fire truck will begin soon.

In the meantime, Stutzman and the other board members have agreed to donate the 1957 Ford fire truck that replaced the old 1918 truck to the museum, as well.

The Vintage Fire Museum hasn't set a date to open yet; that will happen as soon as the equipment and displays are ready, probably within the next few months. Some of its equipment, including old horse-drawn fire engines, dates back to the 1700s.

For more information, call 1-812-948-8711 or visit online vintagefiremuseum.org.

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