Twenty-five years ago, a group of metro area firefighters who restore and maintain historic fire vehicles embarked on their most extensive project – the Independence Fire Department's first motorized pumper engine truck from 1928.
“We had every nut and bolt off of it,” recalled Rick Webb, president of the Harry S Truman Independence 76 Fire Company historical society.
Now, the 76ers are in the midst of an equally arduous project. They're polishing up a ladder truck from 1952, the department's first truck with an attached ladder. It had left the city in 1975 and came back last year after a chance discovery in the small, northern Montana town of Glasgow.
“We got the engine to turn over,” Webb said while showing the truck in the 76ers' North Lynn Street museum/garage. “The body is in amazing great shape. Somebody had sanded it down a little bit and left it.”
“It sat outside; you can tell by the interior of the cab, but the sun in Montana is a little different (than Missouri).”
It hadn't been outside forever, though, as evidenced by the original wooden ladders stored underneath the mechanized metal ladder, which are still intact. Thus far, firefighters have repainted the running boards.
The ladder, which could reach about 80 feet high (eight floors), has a little bend in it, Webb said, so he won't chance any person climbing up the rungs. He hopes to use it for holding up a flag or banner.
The fire truck had been noticed by a curious person driving through Glasgow, Montana, Webb said, and when he found the 76 Fire Company on Facebook he sent them a picture of the truck, having noticed it was an IFD vehicle. From there, the 76ers made contact with that man and then the truck's owner.
Webb said the owner was an elderly man, and how he came into possession of the truck is unknown, but, “What he wanted was to have someone preserve it and not scrap it.”
For $2,500, the 76ers got the ladder truck, and in early November they drove to Montana in a pickup truck with a flatbed trailer to bring the vehicle back to Independence.
“You can't put a price on history,” Webb said. “It's the only one of these out there.”
Independence got the truck in the midst of a federal two-for-one program meant to beef up municipal organizations in the event they had to deal with foreign attacks, Webb said. By purchasing two new Seagrave pumper trucks, the government added the ladder truck. The longstanding friendship between President Truman and Mayor Robert Weatherford probably helped to arrange that transaction as well, Webb said.
That truck's story of discovery rivals that of the 1928 LaFrance pumper, which had been sitting in Alvin, Texas. A former Independence firefighter who returned to visit some friends saw a picture of the pumper and said the truck happened to be at a nearby house in his neighborhood.
That restoration project took about 20 years, due in large part to lack of funds.
The 1952 ladder truck won't be cheap either, as Seagram parts are scarce, Webb said. The group is selling T-shirts to raise money, in addition to renting out another restored vehicle for special events like weddings and the annual Firefest in the summer.
Webb said they hope to have the ladder truck's engine in good enough shape to drive the vehicle in a June parade celebrating the department's 175th anniversary.
“That's my goal,” he said.