Fire Fighters Association of Missouri

History’s Corner – May 2020

In the last newsletter, my article featured several apparatus that had more than one life and a couple that had more than one home. It should be apparent to even the casual reader of my history articles that fire apparatus, old and new, fascinate me. It goes without saying, the folks that operated the apparatus equally enamor me. One isn’t effective without the other.

Over the last month or two, it seems that we have all had some extra time on our hands. So, in a normal red-blooded American style, I have turned to Facebook for entertainment. I only have a page because my grandkids shamed me into having one but recently I have found fire truck sites that have saved my sanity.

One of these is the Towers Fire Apparatus Historical Society – Freeburg, IL. I found a few apparatus photos there and got hooked into a complete article about my involvement with Towers. Which goes back to when I was about ten years old.

The Boone County Fire Protection District (BCFPD) purchased this unit from Towers Fire Apparatus Company in Freeburg, IL. It spent most of its life as Engine 501 or as some folk’s called it, maybe once, “rescue engine 501.” Station five is north of Columbia and serves the Prathersville area.

Thanks to Mike Yurgec from the Towers Society, we know this was Towers order #1673 and ordered on April 23, 1979, and delivered on October 9, 1980. Just in time for Fire Prevention Week. It has a 1,000 GPM Hale pump and a 700-gallon booster tank built on a C8000 Ford Chassis. The first picture in the article is the delivery photo when the rig was new. The second reflects some change in graphics and indicates its home in Clifton City.

After I posted the picture of this rig I got a reply from Ricky Newell. A long time firefighter at station two with BCFPD. He thought it went to Tipton Fire Department before it ended up in Clifton City.

Terry Spoor also weighed in about the truck. Terry is one of those many fire service success stories that started at Boone County and has had a life long career in the fire business. He remembered 501 being kind of sluggish because of the 3208 Cat engine and automatic transmission.

I didn’t think it was particularly slow the day I was following it down Prathersville Road when my son Doug was driving it to a call. He let the right rear duals slide off the pavement into the ditch and I about had heart failure before he got it corrected and back on the road. All is well that ends well!

Doug also told me that he was sure he saw this rig next to a fire station about a year ago stripped of most of its equipment. The station was around Sedalia, which is the Clifton City area. That is a fairly good indication that the life of 501 has come to an end.

My reference in the caption about calling this rig “rescue engine 501” involves another student transplant to the University of Missouri from the Kansas City area who ended up with a stellar fire career as a result of having a BCFPD membership. Rob Brown and Terry Spoor were station residents and involved in the EMS movement around this time in the fire service. Most of these younger than me guys were on my case to start calling our engine companies “rescue engines,” because of our increasing involvement in EMS and rescue activities.

One Sunday morning when these dudes thought I was out of town they came on the air with “Rescue engine 501 on the air for district training.” Before joint communication could answer them, I asked them for their location. They spent the rest of the day dreading that I would find them. All these dedicated young, enthusiastic individuals always made the organization better.

When this apparatus was built in 1979 it included an exclusive feature designed and invented by Mr. Eugene Towers in the 1940s and is used on literally hundreds of fire trucks. The company called it the “console pump panel.” Most everyone I knew called it the “soda fountain” pump panel and it allowed the operator to control everything from one spot.

With some graphics modifications and a lot more miles, BCFPD engine 501 becomes engine 611 of the Clifton City MO Volunteer Fire Department.

AN INTERESTING RIDE TO FREEBURG

This fire truck saga removes us from Boone County for a while and takes us back to my hometown of O’Fallon and another Towers rig. The town fathers decided after the war that the 1927 Chevy front mount pumper needed to be replaced. So they purchased a new red 1948 Chevy one-ton cab and chassis to replace it and proceeded to build a replacement fire truck.

Since my Dad was the fire chief he elected to take the truck to Towers to have a front-mounted 500 GPM pump installed. I think a Barton American from Battle Creek, Michigan, along with a roof-mounted ladder rack, a fancy Federal red light/siren combination, and two spotlights with head knocking controls in the cab.

Interestingly enough the siren switch for the mechanical siren was a floor dimmer switch normally used to dim lights. The real unique feature was the location of the switch. It was mounted in the lid of the ashtray in the middle of the dash. When I asked about it I was told being mounted there allowed either the driver or passenger to sound the siren. Later my Dad allowed me to use my “sign painting” skills to letter the word “Siren” above the switch.

So I was about 10 years old and ended up being “cab freight” for the couple hour ride from O’Fallon, Missouri, to Freeburg, Illinois, in a truck with no bed and very little suspension.

When we got to Freeburg we met Mr. Towers downtown and I remember huge barn-like doors being opened so the rig could be driven into the shop. My first but not last meeting with the jovial Mr. Fire Truck!

I had several opportunities to drive the ’48 but don’t think I was ever allowed to drive it to a fire. It was a strange little critter because it had no booster tank so it was second due in town to support the 42’ GMC/Central and to cover the town when the GMC left for an out of town call or mutual aid.

My first experience with a Towers fire truck
was with the closed cab unit on the right
in this photo. It also has had more than one
home but was born in my hometown and
is a 1948 Chevy one-ton converted to a fire
truck. Note the top-mounted ladder rack.

It was eventually either given or sold to Silex, Missouri, and the very bold double shaded beautiful Towers old English lettering on the hood was changed to “SILEX FD.” Silex is in Lincoln County and now part of the Northwest Fire District.

For years after the “48” left Silex, it sat in a row of traded-in apparatus at Firemaster in Springfield when they were located on the interstate. When they moved to their present location in town, most of that used inventory disappeared. For years I kidded Gerald Shelton and his wife Carol, the owners of Firemaster that I was going to purchase that truck and restore it!

About a year before Gerald passed away I was again on his case about getting rid of “my” truck and he took me to a shop building east of Springfield and showed that he had retained it for his collection. It was just the cab and chassis with no hood, pump, or any equipment. I opened the door to look inside the cab and there was the siren switch with my lettering above it.

Needless to say, neither one of us had the opportunity to do any restoration to our favorite 1948 truck.

OTHER TOWERS APPARATUS FOR BOONE COUNTY

This unit number at Boone County was E 901 and primarily served the Midway area west of Columbia from station nine. The station is on old highway 40 adjacent to I-70 and is called Midway because it was believed to be halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis on US highway 40.

Another design note is the pump panel on the passenger side of the rig to protect the pump operator while working the interstate. Subconsciously, I think the rig ended up with an overhead ladder rack because of the same rack being ordered on the ’48 Chevy for O’Fallon thirty-two years before! Just sayin’.

AND A NEW FIRE DISTRICT IN 1970 HAS TRIPLETS

Even though we are going back to 1970, no coverage of the interaction with the Tower’s family and Boone County as well as my career would be complete without mentioning the first new apparatus ever purchased by BCFPD.

On July 11, 1970, the good folks of the majority of Boone County voted to tax themselves to provide fire and rescue services, thus forming the largest fire district in the state.

Being the well-seasoned and all-knowing fire chief that I was at age thirty-one, the thought I had was to form a “truck committee” and also to call my friends at Towers for advice. Gary and Dale were Mr. Towers’ sons and had been involved in building hundreds of units for departments across several states.

Sometime in 1971 three new Towers rigs rolled into Boone County, MO after voters approved a tax-supported fire district to be formed with an election on July 11, 1970.

In addition to being the Boone County Fire Chief, I made my living by being part of the staff of the University of Missouri Fire Training program.

Mr. Towers knew I had met and worked with lots of folks around the state and asked me on the phone if I knew anyone who could draw pictures of fire trucks. I figured out after a while that he meant he was looking for an engineer type with drafting skills to which I replied, “Have I got a deal for you!”

Boone County Fire District had this International Harvester chassis that had been a tanker. They had a Knapheide utility body installed and took it to Towers for completion. It was order #1687 on December 18, 1980, and was completed March 3, 1981. Towers installed a 300 GPM Hale PTO pump and a 500-gallon booster tank, overhead ladder rack, and finish paint and graphics.

As a member of our truck committee, Grady North had already started on the specifications for our new engines. He was also about to graduate from the University of Missouri with an engineering degree. He was one of several individuals who came to Columbia for school who had previous experience with their hometown department and were very valuable to BCFPD.

Grady became a Towers employee for years, then continued in design and sales for Crash Rescue Equipment Services in Dallas and retired from E1 Fire Equipment in Florida. Grady was one of several dozen individuals who started their fire career at BCFPD because they were MU students and continued as fire chiefs and industry leaders throughout the country. Mostly because of the station resident program, hundreds of MU students have served this department over the fifty years it has been operating.

The three International 4X4 750 GPM front mounts were assigned to BCFPD station one in Columbia, station two in Rocheport, and station three in Hallsville.

Two examples of the twelve engines, tankers, and heavy rescues purchased by the Boone County Fire Protection District in their last apparatus acquisition. A far cry from the 1970 triplet IH/Towers rigs but just as proud that taxpayers continued to support the district with bond money for the entire fifty year history.

THE TOWERS FAMILY TRADITION

The Towers Fire Apparatus founder Mr. Gene Towers started building fire trucks in 1946 and the company produced thousands of units over three generations of family involvement. They terminated apparatus building in the late 1990s and continued in apparatus and equipment sales and became dealers for Rosenbauer apparatus.

I recently attended the Missouri Association of Fire Chief’s annual conference here in Branson at Big Cedar Lodge. I had lunch with Bill Franz, a long time fire apparatus company owner from the St. Louis area, actually Arnold, Missouri. Bill told me that his company had acquired all of the Towers holdings.

His company is now known as Sentinel and operates out of Arnold and is a Rosenbauer dealer. Rosenbauer also provided the last twelve or so new rigs purchased by the BCFPD after voters approved the last of many bond issues over the fifty years of operation for apparatus replacements and improvements.

It’s a stretch but you might say that “Mr. Fire Truck” Towers still has a hand in the business.