Brand new and slightly used:
This 1939 American La France
fire engine (above), purchased by the Chesterton Fire Department in 1941,
makes its appearance on the front page of the Chesterton Tribune in June of
that year. It was sold in 1978 and then disappeared, only to re-appear in May
of this year in a field in Westchester Township (top). The CFD membership
has purchased old Engine No. 1 and plans to refurbish it as an exhibition
By KEVIN NEVERS
Only hours away from being sold for scrap and crushed, Engine No. 1 has come
home to the Chesterton Fire Department.
It’s not much to look at. It’s 68-years-old, and had spent many of the last
29 years rusting in a field in Westchester Township, pretty much forgotten by
everyone but its owner, Roger Grieger, who also formerly owned the vintage
World War I tank once prominently displayed in his front yard on U.S. Highway
But in its day Engine No. 1, a 1939 American Le France acquired by the CFD in
1941, was the mainstay of the department. Fire Chief Warren “Skip” Highwood
remembers it as a reliable piece of equipment which did yeoman’s work at
house and garage fires, until it was put on auxiliary status in 1961 with the
purchase of a new Ford engine. Then, in 1978, it was sold to former
Chesterton Police Chief Arnold Mauke for $400 and for all practical purposes
fell off the face of the earth.
(What did Mauke want with it?
“I have no idea, Highwood says.)
For all anyone knew, had anyone ever bothered to spare a moment to think
about it, the American La France had long since been recycled into tin cans.
But it re-emerged unexpectedly from oblivion on May 11, when Lt. John Jarka,
Lt. Jim Bendt, and Firefighter Jamie Hicks were eating lunch at a local
diner. A man approached them, asked them whether they might be interested in
looking at an old engine which once upon a time belonged to the CFD, and gave
them Grieger’s name.
A couple of hours later Jarka impulsively offered to take it off Grieger’s
hands, narrowly saving it from an imminent date with a crusher. Jarka hauled
it to the truck scales on I-94, had it weighed, and gave Grieger the scrap
price for it: $525.
(In 1941 the American La France cost the CFD $6,419.95, the Chesterton
Tribune reported on June 26, 1941. The department paid cash on the barrel for
it, as there was an earmark in its budget that year for a new engine. “So no
bond issue was necessary.” As it happens, the CFD received nine bids for the
vehicle, five of which were lower than the winning bid and the lowest of
which was $3,330.
The department took delivery of the engine, shipped by train, on June 20, and
six days later Fire Chief Elmer Beck conducted an insurance underwriters test
by pumping it for “three hours straight” at the lake “to determine its
endurance, force of water pumped, and quality.” The engine was “pronounced up
The American La France had a capacity of 200 gallons and a top pumping rate
of 500 gallons per minute. The CFD’s newest engine has a capacity of 750
gallons and a top rate of 1,250 gallons per minute. It also cost around
Jarka readily admits that Engine No. 1 needs a lot of work. It’s rusty but
intact and still has its engine, transmission, and pump. The trick now is to
restore it to its original condition, he says. On Wednesday the CFD
membership voted at its business meeting to buy the vehicle from Jarka and
form a committee to pursue the refurbishing of it.
Ultimately, Jarka hopes, Engine No. 1 will become a show piece for parades
and fundraisers and a fire prevention tool.
Temporarily the American La France is being stored at Joe’s Towing while the
parking lot behind the CFD station is re-paved. It will then be returned to
its old home. The public is welcome to drop by the station and take a look at
it. Engine No. 1 isn’t quite a living piece of history—too many layers of
rust, too many frozen gears for that—but it may be a symbol of this
community’s spirit of volunteerism, of its open-handedness in good times and
bad times too.
“To find this piece of departmental history has created a great sense of
pride and ownership in the department,” Jarka says. “Some current members
even remember using the fire truck until it was sold. If anyone would like to
see it or even share any history you may have about the fire truck, please
stop by the fire station or call.”