Johnson City Press: "Bucket of gold" lands at Johnson City Fire Department for 1928 ladder truck restoration
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"Bucket of gold" lands at Johnson City Fire Department for 1928 ladder truck restoration

Becky Campbell • Aug 28, 2018 at 11:19 PM

To some, it might have looked like a bucket full of useless, rusted old tools and pieces and parts belonging to nothing immediately recognizable.

But to Johnson City Fire Chief Jim Stables and a group of firefighters working to restore the department’s 1928 Seagrave ladder truck, it looked more like a treasure chest.

The truck had already been restored in the 1970s, but eventually ended up covered with a tarp and parked under a covering. Over the years, pieces of equipment disappeared little-by-little. Basically, the only removable items left on the truck were the three wooden 50-foot ladders.

Firefighters put out a plea to anyone in the area who might know where some of those pieces ended up, but they’ve had no responses. So when three members of the East Tennessee Fire Historical Society visited the fire department Tuesday with a few gifts — albeit old and rusty gifts — they were priceless.

It just so happened that Paul Frutiger, who now lives in Midway in Greene County, had possessed a bucket of tools and other pieces for 40 years that fit the city’s 1928 Seagrave. His parts actually came off of a 1930 model he once owned and sold for parts. The bucket of items he donated to JCFD were what he had left of the apparatus.

Johnson City firefighters were ecstatic when they learned about the items and even more excited when they actually saw them on Tuesday as firefighter Avery Knapp pulled each piece out. There were ax mounting accessories, clamps, the business end of a couple of pokers — the wooden handles were long gone — an engine belt and a variety of tools used to loosen or tighten clamps and hoses.

“It’s a bucket of gold,” Stables said. When he discovered the JCFD ladder truck was still around, he wanted to make sure it would become a showpiece for the department. Being conscientious of finances, Stables said no tax dollars would be used on the refurbishing project.

The department hopes to host car shows, motorcycle rides and a “fire truck muster” in the near future. Bill Killen, secretary of the local fire historical society, said the department has the full support of the historical society in raising the funds.

The department has already had a $500 donation from Tetrick Funeral Home, but the hope is others will step forward as well to help with the project. The department already has some in-kind work promised from a Piney Flats body shop — Brooks Collision Center — that has agreed to paint the truck for $10,000, which is a third of what the job would normally cost.

Now just shy of 90 years old, in its hey-day the Seagrave would have been driven along the streets of Johnson City on its way to fires with a foot-operated pedal making the siren wail. Two people would be in the open cab to drive the truck and navigate, while firefighters stood on the running boards and grasped rails along the side.

These days, it does get driven through town about once a week, just to shake off the cobwebs. Of course, the firefighters who are learning to drive the beast are like kids in a candy store when they walk around, inspecting every inch of the truck.

Killen said Johnson City isn’t the only fire department in the region that has either already restored or is in he process of restoring old fire trucks. Kingsport has one on display, and Morristown is in the process of a restoration.

“The East Tennessee Fire Historical Society is relatively new, having been formed in early 2016,” Killen said. “We are an IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit, and our focus is antique fire trucks. We are a chapter of SPAAMFAA, the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Fire Apparatus in America www.spaamfaa.org.”

Members are scattered throughout East Tennessee and the surrounding area, he said.

The president, Danny Case, is with the Morristown Fire Department, where there are actively restoring a 1916 fire truck that is original to that department. Our vice-president, Ron VonEssen, lives in Bluff City and owns at least one antique truck and Killen, lives in Church Hill, and owns two trucks, one of which is a 1920 Ford Model TT.

Two other local members of the society also have impressive collections, Killen said, including a Bristol man who owns more than 75 fire trucks and an Oak Ridge man who has a three-bay fire station in the basement of his house. 

One of those trucks, according to Killen, is a 1929 American LaFrance that Killen believes is Kingsport’s second motorized fire truck.

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