Imagine fighting fires by pulling hose carts to fires by hand, with horses or farm trucks.
Well, that is exactly what the Washington Fire Department did until 1917, when it purchased its first piece of motorized apparatus for the grand total of $1,200.
For reference, the most recent truck purchased by the department in 2013, cost more than $400,000.
Once the truck was in service, Washington became the first volunteer department in the state to have a truck propelled by an internal combustion engine.
Today, that 1917 Model T is still in the fleet, but after years of lying dormant in a field where trees were allowed to grow through the frame, thousands of hours were spent bringing it back to its original condition.
The men who made its resurrection possible have been given the moniker of the “Chain Gang,” referring to the truck’s chain drive transmission.
Let’s start at the beginning.
According to Washington FD meeting minutes from August 1916 generously supplied to Senior Lifetimes, “L. G. Kruel made a motion that officers of Section 2 start an agitation to raise funds with view of purchasing an automobile fire truck for the company.”
This was to be the department’s first motorized apparatus and would be equipped with special soda acid firefighting chemicals.
Similar chemicals were used in common fire extinguishers of the day as well, on a much smaller scale.
When the soda and acid are combined, a solution is created that smothers the oxygen in fires and helps put them out faster with less water.
In April 1917, the Washington City Council set aside $600, and a formal truck committee was formed shortly thereafter.
At that time, the firefighters of Section 2 said they would raise the additional $600 for the truck through donations from businesses and citizens of the town.
In March 1918, it was reported “the collection funds are being collected cheerfully from the donors.”
The drive to collect their half of the truck payment was finally complete in 1919.
After meeting with the fire chief in the city of St. Louis and viewing its trucks for reference, the decision was made to purchase a Ford Model T Smith Form-A truck.
The chassis was purchased from the Ford Company, and the frame was modified to outfit the truck with a hose bed and chemical tanks.
According to the minutes, the truck was originally equipped with 600 feet of hydrant hose, 40 gallons of chemicals with 150 feet of chemical hose, two three-gallon cans of hand chemicals, one roof ladder and 1 set of extension ladders.
Palm Sunday Fire
Fast forward to spring 1920.
The Model T had been in service in downtown Washington for a couple years when what historical documents refer to as the “largest fire in Washington’s history” occurred on March 28, 1920.
After the fire, Assistant Fire Chief Otto Steinhaus described the day’s events.
“At 12:30 p.m., the fire alarm called out the fire company to fight the hardest and what threatened to be the largest fire in Washington’s history,” he wrote. “The residence of Mr. L. Aholt, the last house on Klingsick Lane, caught fire near the chimney. Fanned by a gale of 50 to 60 miles per hour, the frame house was at once a mass of flames.
“So quickly did these spread that the owner, who was at home at the time, barely had time to escape with his family, and rescued practically only an arm full of his belongings.”
The report goes on to detail the arrival and positioning of several of the department’s hose and ladder companies, who at the time could only fight fires with the water and pressure supplied by the town’s fire hydrants.
“The men were handicapped by the gale and smoke, which lay along the ground like a fog,” the chief reported.
As the wind-fed fire spread from structure to structure, the Model T was called to the scene, as a brief paragraph in the chief’s report details.
“The chemical tank was turned into the Detmer house, and for the time being held the flames in check, but not being able to get enough water to back this up, the house could not be saved,” he wrote. “The entire apparatus of our company was in constant use during this fire and much credit is due to the men, and also citizens for the hard and efficient work at this fire.”
When the smoke finally cleared more than six hours later, four families had lost their homes and several other barns, stables and out buildings were also destroyed.
After that day in 1920, the need for pumper trucks in the city was recognized and drives began to purchase new equipment that would make the Model T somewhat obsolete.
After a visit from the state inspection bureau in 1922, it was determined changes needed to be made to the Model T.
After adding pneumatic tires and removing other materials, the truck was able to climb the hill on Cedar Street with no trouble, at a speed of 18 miles per hour.
In January 1923, the men signed a bank note to purchase a new pumper, and the days of the Model T were officially numbered.
Although an exact date is not known, it is believed ownership of the Model T transferred from the fire department to Clarence Stumpe, who owned a repair garage on Fifth Street, in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
It remained in his possession for more than 50 years.
Although Washington firefighters always knew where it was, there was never any interest in helping the phoenix rise from the ashes until the mid-1980s when the chain gang formed and the Model T began its rebirth.
The remains of the truck were found at Stumpe’s lot on the corner of Jefferson Street and Highway 100 in late 1985 by Henry Otto, Allen Vogt and Ken Haberberger.
When it was located, Mother Nature was in the process of reclaiming the truck and trees that were growing through the frame had to be cut just to move it from the property.
Stumpe and his wife Dorothy donated the old truck back to the fire company and a long research and restoration process began.
Four years later, on May 9, 1989, a letter was sent to Fire Chief Bill Halmich stating the restoration of the Chemical Engine was complete.
The letter acknowledges many who donated money, parts, labor and expertise to the $6,200 privately-funded project.
The Model T has been busier during its second life than it was in its first.
Over the past 25-plus years, since rejoining the fleet, the Model T has traveled to dozens of shows, rallies and has been seen in numerous parades in Washington and all over the St. Louis metro area. In 1992 alone, the truck traveled 850 miles.
At the same time, the truck and the chain gang have filled the department trophy cases with awards the Model T and its restoration team have won.
Today, the truck’s home is the old firehouse at the intersection of Fifth and Stafford streets.
Visitors can come by any Monday night and see the Model T, a few other antique apparatus and talk to the firefighters who are ensuring these historical treasures will be around for many years to come.
The original chain gang was comprised of Ken Haberberger, Skip Otto, Butch Schnittger, Dutch Gerner, Allen Vogt and Al Fischer.
Sadly, Vogt and Otto are the only remaining restoration team members able to celebrate the Model T’s centennial.