July 25, 2012
Retired Kokomo truck to lead Mich. parade
By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
In December 1953, the Kokomo Fire Department almost threw away a piece of history.
That month, the department replaced its 1915 Ahrens-Fox fire engine, the first motorized one in Kokomo.
“They were going to junk it,” said retired Kokomo firefighter Mike Calhoun. “It went to a salvage yard.”
So the Pioneer Auto Club decided to launch a campaign to save it. Club members walked around town collecting money, and when they raised $350, they bought the fire engine from the junkyard.
Then they restored its body. They stripped it down to its frame and made it look like new, Calhoun said.
But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get the fire engine started.
“So they rolled it in the auto museum by hand, and it sat there for 12 years,” Calhoun said.
This year, Calhoun and fellow firefighter David Brammer decided they wanted to get it running again.
After five months of working nearly seven days a week on it, they did just that — making the fire engine the oldest running Ahrens-Fox in the nation.
Calhoun and Brammer are celebrating the victory with a trip to Michigan this weekend. The historic fire engine will lead a parade of about 400 antique fire trucks during the National Fire Muster’s Cavalcade through Frankenmuth, Mich.
Kokomo bought the Ahrens-Fox engine for $8,000 in 1915.
Calhoun said it was the Rolls Royce of fire equipment at the time. The company only made about 1,500 of them from 1910 to 1952.
The open-cabbed truck came equipped with wooden ladders and hoses but no tank for storing water.
All of the water to fight fires had to come from somewhere else — until 10 years later when the city got an upgrade.
Brammer said in 1925, the engine hit a street car and bent its frame. While mechanics were repairing the damage, they added a small booster tank and extra hoses to supplement water at fires.
Over its 38-year life, the truck made more than 3,000 runs, Brammer said. It responded to its last fire in 1953 when the Public Service building at Taylor and Main streets caught fire.
“This is Kokomo history,” Calhoun said.
The truck has a history in his family, too.
Both of his grandfathers worked at the Kokomo Fire Department and used that very truck.
“I wanted to see it run again,” Calhoun said. “It means a lot to me.”
Actually getting the truck to run was a challenge, though. Before he got his hands on the truck, there were too many other hands under the hood, Calhoun said.
The truck had engine problems, electrical problems and a bad starter generator, Calhoun said.
He and Brammer had to track down someone who could work on the “big ol’” starter generator that went out on it. They eventually found a man in La Fontaine who could do it.
But every time something else breaks, the pair struggle to fix it.
“It’s very hard to find replacement parts,” Calhoun said. “You can’t buy some of them. You have to have them made.”
They often had to “scrimp and scrape” to get the job done, Brammer said.
The pair crossed their fingers Wednesday as they tried to start the truck. When it roared to life, Calhoun looked up to the sky and muttered a “thank you.”
Brammer said he hopes the truck remains in town to remind people of Kokomo’s history and give them something to smile about.
“Everybody loves a fire engine,” he said. “I don’t care how old you are.”
• Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, may be reached at 765-454-8585 or