It sounds like a children's tale, but when the Wolfe Turkey Farm in Acton, Ont., went up in flames on a mid-winter night in 1959, the town's two modern fire trucks froze solid, leaving it to the town's veteran 1926 Bickle/Studebaker to take on the "little engine that could" role and pump the water needed to douse the flames.
"It just kept throwing water all night and its crew just kept throwing oil in it," says Acton volunteer firefighter Alan Scott, who recently undertook the restoration of the pumper that has served the community northwest of Toronto since 1940.
That long-ago blaze proved to be the final "call out" for the Canadian-built fire truck, which by then was well past its prime and burning oil at a prodigious rate. After being used for parades in the early 1960s, it was finally parked in the town works yard, where it sat "rotting into the ground" until 1973 when it was purchased by the Acton Fire Fighters Association for $1 and underwent its first restoration.
It then served as a community ambassador and in other roles until 2007 when, during a firefighter's wedding, its engine finally went bang in a big way. Inquiries into restoration costs provided estimates the association couldn't begin to contemplate and so Scott, whose day job as a Peel Police sergeant is running the bomb disposal squad, offered to take on the job of preserving this historic piece of Canadian fire equipment.
The Acton fire truck actually represents two pioneering auto industry efforts in Canada and signposts the switchover from horse-drawn to motor fire apparatus.
American wagon-maker Studebaker started building electric cars in 1902 and by 1911 was engaged with partners in manufacturing gasoline-engined cars, assembling some of them and later trucks in Walkerville, Ont., to allow easy export to British Empire markets. Studebaker went on to build a plant in Hamilton that survived into the mid-1960s.
Meanwhile – according to Canadian fire engine historian, author and one-time Chrysler PR guy Walt McCall – Canadian Robert S. Bickle and his wife decided on a career change from touring as concert hall singers in the U.S. to industrialists. And as his wife's family built fire apparatus, Bickle decided to get into that business in Canada, setting up shop in 1906 in Winnipeg and selling his first piece of equipment to Calgary.
Bickle moved back to the United States in 1915 – possibly after too many prairie winters – but moved his company to his hometown of Woodstock, Ont., where it was operated by family member Russell Bickle. By the early 1920s Robert Bickle was back, heading what was then Bickle Fire Engines Ltd., which in 1926 hired a nephew Vernon King to design a line of custom fire apparatus that proved highly successful.
The company later became Bickle-Seagrave, then King-Seagrave, before failing in the mid-1980s, but the plant continued to produce fire and emergency equipment under the Amertek name until 1993.
Acton's 1926 Bickle Studebaker Triple Combination Pump Truck – one of three built that year in Woodstock – was based on a Studebaker Big 6 chassis, powered by a 75-hp engine and purchased by the city of Sudbury for $5,600. Sudbury's old unit was converted to tow its previously horse-drawn hook and ladder truck.
It came equipped with 1,500 feet of hose, a 35-gallon chemical tank, extinguishers, 35- and 12-foot ladders and a rotary pump driven by the engine that could deliver 500 gallons per minute or boost pressure in the fire hydrant system. It did the latter so effectively that hoses that had previously required two firefighters to handle required four.
It found its way back to what was by then the Bickle Seagrave Co. in 1938, before being purchased by the Acton town council in the summer of 1940 for $1,840. It served the town on its own until 1951.
Scott, who had never been involved in a vehicle restoration before, took on the project's logistics while fellow volunteer and certified truck mechanic Brian Nelles worked on the mechanical side of things.
"It was a really neat process," says Scott, who during the restoration researched the full history of the truck from the day it left the Woodstock plant, acquiring from the Sudbury department a copy of a film made in 1926. "The footage is awesome. Its throwing water five stories up on the Grand Theatre, the biggest building in Sudbury on the day it arrived."
During the restoration, plans to expand the fire station were announced that could include a Heritage Room museum if the firefighters association helped with the financing. The restoration of the Bickle Studebaker was finished this past summer and it was rolled into its newly built home in time for opening ceremonies in mid-September.
The experience has been a rewarding one for Scott personally. But he says the fact that the "Stud," as it's affectionately known in reference to its Studebaker chassis, finally has a permanent home in the new museum "is the best part of the whole story."
Scott hopes one of its outings in 2012 will be to attend the Studebaker Made In Canada Celebration planned for June 29-July 1 in Belleville, Ont., which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Studebaker Driver's Club, Studebaker and Avanti vehicles and the people who made them.
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