Fire escape

These collectors of vintage firefighting equipment make stamp collection seem about as exciting as collecting paint chips

Photo By David Robert

I’ll tell you one thing: You don’t know what it is to ride in style until you’ve cruised in a vintage fire engine. Everybody waves at you, kids stop riding their bicycles and stare enviously, and if you turn on your flashing lights and crank your siren, other drivers will actually pull off to the side of the road to let you pass.

The engine that I enjoyed riding—just a short jaunt around a rural block—was Jeff Coonce’s sleek 1939 GMC open-cab pumper. The engine is vibrant red and thrilling to behold, but just two years ago, before Coonce began the restoration, it sat rusting in the sagebrush of the Virginia City Highlands. But after a lot of elbow grease and hunting down of parts, it’s now parade-ready. It’s the show vehicle for Coonce’s respected local fireworks company, Pyro Guys, and has obvious big-kid appeal.

Coonce is one of the younger members of Firematic Collectors of Northern Nevada, a local group of fire memorabilia collectors. It was founded in 1986 with only a handful of dedicated collectors but now boasts around 35 members. The primary functions of the Firematic Collectors are preservation and to provide a support network for collectors. The group also participates in parades, fire musters and friendly competitions among fire departments. It’s also been involved in efforts to open a fire museum in Sparks and to revive the semi-defunct Reno Fire Museum.

John Fuller, the group’s president, adds a 1954 Packard fire chief’s car to the Firematic fleet. He restored the automobile in honor of Bill Farr, a former Sparks fire chief.

“The car was in bad shape,” he says, “It had been left outside for a long time, but after many hours of work, it has been brought back to life. But that’s what our organization is all about: We’re saving the history, saving the past.”

Richard and Bernard Lund are founding members of Firematic Collectors, two brothers devoted to fire vehicle restoration. Their grandfather was a mechanic for the Reno Fire Department, and as children they were enthralled by his work. Now, based partly out at the “Wedekind Mine Antique Fire Department,” the brothers have, between the two of them, a rather daunting collection of fire engines and fire trucks (the difference, by the way, is that fire engines pump water and fire trucks carry ladders).

Bernard Lund has a 1936 Mack, a 1955 American La France and a 1956 Peterbilt. Richard has a Las Vegas Army Air Base 1941 American La France and, the crown jewel, a breathtaking 1925 open-cab American La France type 75. It’s a beautiful machine that will be featured on Antiques Roadshow next season. It was originally stationed in Palestine, Texas. The blood-red vehicle is a 750-gallons-per-minute pumper with a hand-cranked siren and brake, and it’s decked out with all the accouterments, such as gold lettering and brass fittings. Lund did all the restoration himself, sometimes ordering parts from as far away as Florida and New York.

“The American La France is the royalty of fire engines,” Richard Lund says.

Photo By David Robert

“American La France is the royalty of fire engines, as far as we’re concerned,” says Richard.

The brothers regularly participate in Veterans Day, Christmas, Nevada Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and other parades.

Quest for fire (collectibles)

Though not every member of the Firematic Collectors has a fire engine, others collect smaller though no less interesting items. Duane Warth, retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department, has a vast collection of firefighting antiques and memorabilia.

From the fire alarm box standing just inside the front door, to the throw pillows depicting a fire hydrant, to the upstairs hydrant top used as a doorstop, nearly everything in Warth’s south Reno home has a firefighting theme. His diverse collection is almost overwhelming. It includes fire nozzles, fire convention ribbons, helmets, lanterns, post cards, “dry powder” extinguishers, extinguishing shakers, bottle openers, bubble gum cards and, as Warth says, “The largest known collection of Nevada fire badges—I’ve made that claim a few times, and no one has ever disputed it.”

Many of the items from Warth’s collection come from the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. He has a number of advertisements featuring the company logo: an old, bearded fireman carrying a young girl away from a fire. Looking at Warth’s collection, you can trace the evolution of the image from the 1860s through the 1930s, into the 1980s. Many of Warth’s antiques were originally promotional items, including match safes, letter openers, pocket knives, paperweights and an inkwell shaped like an old fire hydrant.

Warth also has a large collection of speaking trumpets, the precursor to the bullhorn. Some in his collection were used in service but many are ornate presentation trumpets, presented for achievements or as trophies awarded at fire musters.

Grenade launchers

Duane Warth retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department and owns a vast array of fire-fighting memorabilia.

Photo By David Robert

Since there is such a dizzying array of firefighting collectibles, it’s no wonder that some collectors choose to specialize. Willy Young, also of Reno, has the largest American collection of antique fire grenades, handheld glass fire extinguishers meant to be thrown at the base of a fire. Fire grenades were in widespread use from 1865 to after the turn of the century. They held a fire-extinguishing liquid that was usually about 80 percent salt water and 20 percent muriate of ammonia.

The fire grenades are beautiful, well-crafted objects that come in an array of shapes and colors, including blues, greens and purples. There are different embossed emblems on the grenades, including an anchor, a crescent and a California bear.

Others are embossed with company names such as Harden’s, Hayward’s, Babcock and Acme or the names of railroad companies such as B&O and Santa Fe.

Young’s collection includes grenades from Canada, England and France. He also has a German grenade shaped like a miniature fire hydrant and an Argentinean one similar in appearance to a military grenade. Young has one of only two known diamond-shaped Harvey S. Nutting grenades. Some of the grenades are still labeled: “How to use: throw the grenade into the hottest part of the fire.” The individual grenades in Young’s collection range in value from less than $100 to as high as $4,000-$5,000.

Young has a few other firefighting collectibles, many of which relate to fire grenades. There are old ads, newspaper clippings and a comic book starring fireman Wide Awake, the cover of which entices readers with a warning about a mad scientist who replaced the fluid in fire grenades with a dangerous explosive.

Young’s fire grenades are beautiful objects, fascinating for the collector because of the nearly endless variation, the subtle differences—some practical, some aesthetic—in necks, bases, shapes, patterns and colors.

“What’s really remarkable is that these were made to be broken,” Young says. This fact contributes to their rarity and therefore, their value to collectors.

One fascinating aspect of fire-memorabilia collecting is the range: minuscule fire badges to enormous fire engines, from the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of examining subtle differences in blown-glass grenades to the primal thrill of riding around in a big red fire engine.

And who wouldn’t, like firemen and the members of the Firematic Collectors, want the thrill of rolling around the block in blazing style?