There’s one story in particular about the old St. Clair 1953 GMC pumper that perfectly sums up why brothers and volunteer firefighters Larry and Brian Hagedorn purchased the truck from the St. Clair Fire Department in the 1990s and then restored it about five years ago.
They had the truck out for a public event, and they heard an older man say, “Oh, my gosh! There’s that truck!” The man had goosebumps up and down his arms, Larry Hagedorn recalled, so he said to him, “Tell me, I want to hear it.”
It was Christmas Eve, 1955, and the man was 5 years old. His family’s house caught on fire, and after his parents got his sisters out, they realized he was missing, so his father dragged a blanket through the snow, ran inside to find his son.
The father grabbed him out of bed, threw him over his shoulder and ran out, but in running out, the boy sustained a lot of burns on his back and his neck.
“They put me in the cab of this truck until they could get me some help,” the man told the Hagedorns.
“So I asked him, ‘Do you want to sit in the cab of this truck?’ And he said, ‘I do,’ ” Larry Hagedorn recalled. “And we all had goosebumps from him telling that story.”
Sitting in the cab looking over at the passenger seat, the man felt like it was 1955 all over again, said Brian Hagedorn, recalling how the man remarked, ‘I sat right here with the blanket over me.’ ”
Likewise, Brian Strubberg, whose family owns the 1951 pumper first used by the Union Fire Department, has heard similar stories from people — mostly old firefighters who served on the truck in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, while it was in service.
The stories are all different, but the emotion they elicit is often the same. Just seeing the old trucks is enough to bring tears to people’s eyes. That’s the neat thing about owning a local fire truck, said Larry Hagedorn — people sharing their stories.
“St. Clair and Washington both have their Model T’s, and Union has its hand-pump, and those are relics that are irreplaceable, but nobody knows anyone who worked on them,” Hagedorn commented. “But these trucks, people still remember . . . old men will come up to you with tears in their eyes, and they’ll say, ‘I worked on this truck. I can’t believe it looks this good.’ That’s cool.”
The families take the trucks out for parades (it’s been in every Washington Town and Country Fair Parade except for this year’s) and other events to share them with the public. Larry Hagedorn said he’s taken the St. Clair pumper to schools on occasion.
“When my daughter would come home from college, I would say, ‘It’s a nice day, let’s hop in the truck and take a drive,’ because you have to run them every now and then,” said Larry Hagedorn, noting as they drove around, people who were out-and-about would wave at them, so the Hagedorns would wave back.
It was enough to make his daughter remark, “Every time I come home, it’s like being in a parade.”
Worked Side-by-Side at All Big Fires
The Hagedorns and Strubbergs (Brian has two brothers, Mark and Nathan) joined the St. Clair and Union fire departments as volunteers when they were teenagers, and they grew up enjoying the work so much that they all became career firefighters too.
Today Larry Hagedorn and Brian Strubberg both work for St. Charles Fire Department, and in talking about the old trucks each of their families had restored, they learned that the two trucks had a lot of shared history.
“They ran a lot of the same calls in their day,” said Hagedorn.
Some of the big ones were the fire at St. Clair High School in 1968, the courthouse bombing in 1969 and the Washington planing mill fire in 1964.
“Any major fire through the years, St. Clair and Union were at each other’s fires,” Larry Hagedorn said. “Brian’s grandfather (Leroy Strubberg) told me once that both of these trucks sat side-by-side at the high school fire pumping, so that’s kind of neat.
“Any major fire in either city, both trucks were going to be there.”
Union’s First Enclosed Cab Fire Truck
When the Union Fire Department purchased the 1951 pumper, it was the first enclosed cab fire truck that the city had bought brand new, said Strubberg. He’s heard many stories of the truck’s early days from his grandfather, Leroy Strubberg, who joined the department in June of ’56.
“That was the truck he trained on,” said Brian Strubberg, noting the ’51 pumper was in service for Union until 1979, 28 years.
When Union decided to sell the old truck, Leroy Strubberg didn’t hesitate to buy it. He’s owned it ever since, keeping it in a shed on his farm in New Haven.
“He wanted it because it was the truck he had started with and it was the first enclosed cab they had bought from a fire manufacturer,” said Brian Strubberg.
The family put the truck to use on the farm, like when they burned the old chicken shed in 1987.
“We drafted out of the pond right there. Pumped it down the road and we as a family burned it,” said Brian Strubberg, who was 5 at the time.
“They call this the squirrel tail around the front of the truck,” he said, pointing to a long black hose that wraps around the front. “That’s what we’d drop in the pond to draft the water out.”
Driving the ’51 pumper is a vastly different experience than driving any modern fire truck, said Strubberg. It’s much smaller than modern trucks, about the size of a pickup, and there’s three pedals instead of just two — gas, brake and clutch for changing gears.
There aren’t any seat belts, and the right blinker works, but the left does not. And there are no brake lights.
To top it all off, the truck is not fast by any means, said Strubberg.
“It was built for a city department, so it’s got low gears in it,” he explained. “Grandpa tells the story of how they took the truck to Pacific one time driving down what was then Route 66, and they had cars passing them left and right, even though they were running lights and sirens, because you can only get about 50 miles an hour out of her.”
Still, for the Strubberg boys, nothing beats driving that old ’51 pumper.
“This will be the funnest day of my week,” he remarked. “I drive (a new) one every day in St. Charles, where I’m an engineer, and I would pick driving that (’51) truck over them any day of the week.
“It’s the family tradition. It’s my family history.”
The truck was in good condition when Leroy Strubberg purchased it. Only a paint job was needed to make it look new again, which the family had done in time for Mark Strubberg’s wedding.
Dave Clapper with Show-Me Auto Body in Pacific did the job. Brian Strubberg recalled how seeing the ’51 Union truck just after it was repainted brought tears to his grandfather’s eyes.
The truck pumps water at least once a year as part of Union’s annual Memorial Day parade. Leroy Strubberg used to drive it with his grandchildren riding along. Now they’ve swapped roles — one of the grandsons drives, with Leroy in the passenger seat.
St. Clair’s ’53 GMC Pumper
St. Clair’s ’53 GMC pumper served the department for about 30 years, from 1953 until sometime in the mid-’80s, said Larry Hagedorn.
The truck chassis was purchased new from the Jim Young GMC dealership in St. Clair, and then sent to Central Fire Truck Company in St. Louis to be fitted with the fire body and pump.
There was a lot of community pride the day that truck arrived in St. Clair, said Brian Hagedorn.
“They lined Highway 47 and were applauding when the truck came in just because it was going to protect the town,” he said.
Once the truck was loaded with water, hose and manpower, however, firefighters discovered a serious flaw in the design that had to be corrected right away.
“When they would go up a hill, the front end would come off the ground,” said Larry Hagedorn. “So they sent it back to St. Louis. They had to cut the tank down so it carried less water to put more weight on the front end.”
By the mid-’80s, the truck had become a backup for the department and a parade mainstay. Then when St. Clair was able to acquire its old Model T, which had been the department’s first motorized truck, they couldn’t justify having two old trucks, so the ’53 pumper was put up for sale.
The Hagedorn brothers bought it with plans to restore it someday. Like the ’51 Union pumper, it was in good shape, but it needed repainting and a little bit of work, the brothers said.
“The first thing we did was meet with Central Automotive in Union to update the electrical system,” said Larry Hagedorn.
The paint showed 30 years of firefighting. It was faded, and it had nicks in it from being hit by the hose.
But repainting had to wait until the Hagedorns’ children, at least most of them, were out of college. When that time arrived about five years ago, the brothers took their time in getting the job done, wanting to get everything just right.
“When we decided to restore it, we photographed it from end to end so that it would be put back together exactly the same,” said Larry Hagedorn. “We stripped it down to just the body and gave it to our friend Tim Davis at Certified Collision Center in St. Clair to paint it.
“Then we had Heller Signs (in Union) stripe it. They digitized the original striping designs and duplicated them. Finally we had some items chromed and some polished at Jefferson County Metal Finishing,” Hagedorn said.
The brothers keep the truck in a building on Larry’s property in St. Clair, and they have an agreement with all their children that the truck will remain “at home” in St. Clair.
“Either our kids keep it or they hook it back up with the fire department,” said Larry.
‘Restored Out of Respect’
As much fun as the Hagedorns and Strubbergs have with these old fire trucks, they turn serious when they start talking about what the restored trucks mean to them.
“As far as we are concerned, these trucks have been restored as a testament to the guys who were before us, because all of us started on these volunteer departments as teenagers, and we learned from some really, really talented people,” said Larry Hagedorn. “We were fortunate — we were blessed, truly blessed — that we were able to make jobs out of it. These other guys didn’t have those opportunities to work on these jobs full time.”
Brian Hagedorn said being around those old trucks reminds him of what it must have been like for those volunteer firefighters who came before them, when there maybe wasn’t enough gas to run the truck that month, so firefighters would take up a collection, or if the truck needed repairs, the firefighters fixed it themselves or found someone who could do it so the truck would be ready for the next call.
“It was a lot of, ‘I’ll donate the radiator hose or this or that because the fire department is for the community,’ ” said Brian Hagedorn. “To me, that’s what all of these trucks represent, that era.”
Back in 1951, Union had a population of maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people, he speculated, but the city scraped together the money to get its firefighters that first enclosed cab truck.
“That was a big deal,” he said. “These guys didn’t have to stand in the rain on the way to calls, and they had heat for once. It was a big deal.
“That’s why it’s important to maintain it.”