Tuesday, July 23, 2019
In front of the truck as it is today John Kress (right) presented Fire Chief Mike Arnold (left) with an original photo of the truck taken by Phil Dammen as well as an original painting of the truck done by the late Roy Goodman, of Sparta. Herald photo by Nicole Vik.   Pictured with the truck in 1923 when it was brand new are front row, from left Gerddie McOmber, George Burke, Bill Barlow, Jason Bredum. Back row, from left, Carl Wandschneider, H. Schmalz, Bill Sherman, Clarence Arnold (at wheel), Leo Axelson, Andrew Anderson, Ed Laxton and Oliver Pfaff. Contributed photo.

A piece of Sparta history rolls again

City’s first fire truck will make reappearance in Butterfest parade

Sparta Fire Chief Mike Arnold spent a good portion of his childhood listening to his grandmother telling him stories about when she and his grandfather, Clarence Arnold, lived at the fire station in Sparta. Arnold can recall his grandmother talking about two horses, Pete and Polly, who were used for farm chores during the day.

When a fire call would come in, Arnold’s grandfather would ring the fire bell and the two horses would back up to the wagon at the fire station to get hooked up and respond to the call.

The horses were used until 1923 when the City of Sparta purchased its first motorized fire truck, a 1923 American LaFrance Type 38, which was recently donated back to the department by John Kress.

The American LaFrance Fire Engine Company was founded around 1873 with a primary focus on building hand-drawn, horse-drawn and steam powered fire engines, fire aerials and other emergency vehicles. Operations ceased in 2014 when the company went defunct.

Neither Arnold nor Kress could say for sure where the truck ended up when the city first retired it, however, Kress said the Sparta Jaycees acquired the truck in May 1970 and in February 1972, Kress’ father, John Kress, Jr., bought the truck with the notion that he was going to start a museum to display different fire trucks from all over.

“I remember they took it down to the first Butterfest and the pumper and everything was running and they had it in a barrel fight,” Kress said. “It held it’s own against the current fire department truck at that time.”

Kress said his father paraded it a lot for a long time. When Kress’ father fell ill and eventually passed away, the truck led his funeral procession.

Kress’ brother, Tim, then took possession of the truck. Tim was caught up in preservation and history and had the truck sent out to a restoration facility in Maine.

Eventually, Kress took possession of the truck and attempted to have some work done on it but both Arnold and Kress said the truck sat in limbo for quite some time.

In July 2017, the warehouse the truck was stored in endured flooding. As the truck sat in flood waters, Kress decided he would donate the truck back to the fire department.

“I knew I had to do something with it otherwise it was going to die a slow death like so many old things. I decided to donate it back to where it started it’s life with Mike, who’s grandfather drove it a long time ago,” Kress said. “It fell into the right hands because he’s got a lot of mechanical ability, he likes these things and he’s got a personal interest with his family.”

Arnold was up for the challenge. While he was in the process of selling Wesco Home Furnishings, Kress donated the truck to the department along with $5,000 for repairs.

“If a guy is willing to give you a truck and a $5,000 check, I’ll drop what I’m doing,” Arnold joked. “I ran right down there.”

The truck hadn’t run in years. According to Arnold, when it last ran in a local parade, it backfired so loud, it scared off the horses in the parade.

“It was terrible. It had a major malfunction with the carburetor,” he said.

With the help of Steve Neumann, of Sparta, Arnold discovered the truck had an updraft carburetor, the same found on a tractor

“There are no parts available for this carburetor anymore. We can’t get parts for it because it’s obsolete,” Arnold explained. “I tried taking it apart, I tried fixing it and it would just flood out and the gas would just pour out of it.”

Arnold and Neumann made an adapter plate and put a new carburetor on it off of a Farmall tractor.

“We got the thing running,” Arnold said. “We knew that it would run and we knew that with some tinkering here and some tinkering there, we could make this thing work.

Arnold changed out the spark plugs, which were blackened and stuck in the cylinder heads from too rich a fuel mixture. He had to order a new cylinder tap to tap the cylinder head out to get the plugs back in them to avoid stripping the plugs.

He had to drain and clean the fuel tank as it was filthy from years of sitting stagnant. He put in a new fuel line and a new fuel filter.

“Who knows how old that gas was, it was just raw. On the bottom of the gas tank there was a quarter inch of rust, it was nasty,” Arnold said. “After we got everything hooked up, the thing rolled over three times, popped right off and it runs like a top. It just purrs like a kitten.”  

The seat has been reupholstered, Arnold got all of the lights working and after a few more minor tweaks the truck should be ready to make its first re-appearance at the Butterfest Parade on June 9.

“I’m so excited that I got the thing running,” Arnold joked. “It’s rare to see one of these old trucks operational because parts become unavailable and they can’t get them to run anymore they just become a showcase at fire stations all across the United States.”

Arnold said his ultimate goal would be to get the truck hooked up and pumping to a hydrant.

“That’s going to be awesome,” he added. “That’s going to bring back a lot of memories for a lot of people.”

The truck has a rotary gear driven pump with a 600-gallon capacity. The truck, with a six cylinder, 75 horsepower engine, is an open-cab design and the driver sits on the right side of the truck.

The Type 38 is also equipped with a 140-gallon chemical tank, spotlights, hoses, ladders, a crank siren and the original locomotive bell.

According to Arnold, the next fire truck the city purchased was either a 1946 or 1947 LaFrance and the Type 38 was eventually replaced.

“Aside from some faded red paint, the truck looks very similar to how it did when it was brand new in 1923,” he said.

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