Historic Tonganoxie fire truck restored
Tonganoxie Fire Truck
Allen DiSanto and other members of the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society worked for three years to restore a 1936 Holabird fire truck, which was once used by the Tonganoxie Fire Department in the 1950s and 1960s.
Al DiSanto sits atop a bright red 1936 Holabird Pumper fire truck. He begins the process of bringing the big 1932 Continental engine to life. He has to manually slow down the distributor before giving the engine a little throttle and adjusting the choke before he can speed up the distributor again.
DiSanto said Tuesday that starting the engine never really took firefighters that long, but what did take a long time was waiting for the airbrakes to get enough pressure to work.
“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, the truck had been in shambles as different organizations attempted to bring it back to its former glory. But now DiSanto, chairman of the Tonganoxie Historical Society, along with help from many volunteers and others in the community, has just about finished this part of the Tonganoxie fire truck’s history and they are ready to display it during Tonganoxie Days.
The life of the truck began in 1936 at Fort Holabird (Md.), where it, along with hundreds of other Holabird Pumpers, were in production.
Ted Heinbuch, who has worked as a firefighter since his time in the Army during the Vietnam War, found out about the truck in Tonganoxie and made contact with DiSanto.
DiSanto provided Heinbuch with the serial numbers on the motor and pump, and Heinbuch was able to get some records concerning the truck from the National Archives.
“Between 1932 and 1940, the motor transport core 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.”
Heinbuch said the vehicles were unique because they were created during 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 its next seven years there.
DiSanto said he doesn’t have any information as to what happened between 1943, when it left the fort, and when it came to the city in 1951, but he surmised by old photographs that the truck must have spent some time with the Army Corps of Engineers because the Corps’ castle logo was painted on the side.
DiSanto said by 1951 the pumper was in service as the main fire truck for the city of Tonganoxie.
Former fire chief Charlie Conrad said the Holabird Pumper replaced a 1934 soda-acid pumper the city had used for many years. He said the Holabird’s mechanical pump was far superior than the soda-acid pump, and sometimes it was better than today’s electronic pumps.
Conrad remembers how the only power steering came from the driver’s shoulders as he would stand 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, DiSanto said the truck was used on standby for many years and appeared in town parades.
Kathleen Bowen, then Kathleen Salmon, remembers the truck her grandfather Bill Salmon, father Roy Salmon and uncle Gerald Salmon used as members of the Tonganoxie Fire Department.
“I remember we always got to ride in it during the fair parade,” Bowen said. “In those days they always let the kids ride on it.”
A 1994 news article from The Mirror stated that the city parted ways with the truck in 1977 when it was sold to Alvy Wise for his salvage yard. Wise covered the truck and stored it until the Tonganoxie Hose Co., a private group of investors including Conrad, bought it back in 1994.
Piecing pumper together
Conrad said the truck stayed in city hands as they tried to raise money to restore the truck, but they were never able to raise enough money for the project.
In 2003 the truck was donated to the historical society, where it lay in pieces for three years.
Ed Slawson, former Tonganoxie firefighter, said the main delay was getting a facility built to house the truck while it was being repaired. The garage, where it currently is kept, was built in 2006. Soon afterwards, work on the truck began.
“I don’t think we did too bad for a lot of amateurs,” Slawson said.
DiSanto said it was a community effort to rebuild the truck. As a hobbyist woodworker, DiSanto, who also has restored old Model A and Model T cars, helped rebuild the dashboard that had worn away over time.
He also said people like Bill Jones and Doug Shoemaker helped with some sandblasting and painting, C&M Machine Shop helped with some machine work on the truck and Marty Trieb did some upholstery work. DiSanto said Slawson, Don Carr, Larry Ross and Delbert Felts also volunteered a lot of time to restore the vehicle.
Although it can’t pump water, DiSanto said he is very pleased with the way the truck came out.
Heinbuch also was pleased with the result.
“The truck is very rare,” Heinbuch said. “There are probably less than 12 that have been preserved since the war. I think it’s a great piece of military history. My hat goes off to the townsfolk for restoring the truck to working order. They are preserving a piece of American fire service history.”
DiSanto asks that anyone with pieces of the original truck contact the historical society.
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