Jeff Jardine

Modesto’s 1928 firetruck rumbled back to life in 2014, but will restoration effort sputter?

From left, fire Chief George Wallace, Mayor Sol Elias and fireman O.E. Boyd on the ladder take delivery of the Seagrave fire engine on Aug. 1, 1928.
From left, fire Chief George Wallace, Mayor Sol Elias and fireman O.E. Boyd on the ladder take delivery of the Seagrave fire engine on Aug. 1, 1928. McHenry Museum

Back in the spring of 2014, the motor of the city’s 1928 Seagrave ladder/tiller firetruck – Modesto No. 1 – rumbled to life for the first time in decades.

Some veteran Modesto firefighters including Jim Gunn and Brian Whitcomb made it happen, getting an important chunk of Modesto history up and running again.

Gunn ended his 37-year career with the Modesto Fire Department just a few days after I wrote a column about their rejuvenation of the truck, which requires a driver to steer from the rear as well as the one in the front. Whitcomb continues to work on it, and now has it running so well that it takes eye-opening excursions down McHenry Avenue and through the neighborhoods that lead back toward the firehouse near the corner of Briggsmore and McHenry avenues.

Modesto city officials would love to see the old Seagrave – one of only two known trucks of its type west of the Rockies – motoring down I Street during parades, and you can bet the local city pols would be clamoring for the high-profile ride-alongs. It would be a tremendous public relations tool for the city. Restoring it something close to its original grandeur – paint and patina, polished brass and restored ladders and accessories – would be spectacular, too.

Decisions need to be made soon, though. No one – most of all Whitcomb and the others who have worked on it – wants to see the truck left idle, stored in some nondescript warehouse and virtually forgotten again.

After my column appeared, people began stopping by the fire station, located just yards away from where another piece of Modesto’s history, the Burchell Fountain, once gurgled. They wanted a closer look at the truck, purchased by the city in 1928 and used into the 1960s. Many visitors told the firefighters they remembered it fondly from their youth. Some individuals and others representing service clubs, Whitcomb said, offered to contribute money toward restoration. Local body shop owner Brent Burnside met with the fire crew in May to assess what it might take to restore the paint and patina.

“The project is of a sensitive nature, as the rig is from the ’20s” Burnside said. “We take great pride in restoring vehicles to their original state and, with this one, we would preserve its history.”

That is where it stands. The firefighters lacked the clout to authorize the paint restoration. Nor did they feel comfortable accepting cash, because there is no account established to properly monitor the donations or expenditures.

City Manager Jim Holgersson said the city can establish such an account through its Parks & Partners program, among the options. But it hasn’t happened yet.

There are other hurdles. Whitcomb worked on the Seagrave between fire calls. But he is being reassigned to another station and won’t be able to return to Station 5 – or wherever it ends up being stored – to continue tinkering with it. Likewise, he said, interested retired firefighters including Gunn aren’t allowed to come back and work on city-owned equipment – even as volunteers – due to liability concerns. Will others at Station 5 be as interested in the truck?

Finally, the city isn’t exactly rolling in the cash needed to restore an 89-year-old firetruck for parades when it just leased five engines and two firetrucks to replace outdated equipment for daily use. Also, Mayor Ted Brandvold’s 100-day committee looked to streamline the city’s finances, not expand them. Among its recommendations is to wean the McHenry Mansion and the McHenry Museum & Historical Society off of the city budget, putting the onus on their existing foundations to raise the money – or at least most of it – to keep these gems afloat.

So how can the city restore the firetruck? One option is to hand it over to the McHenry Museum & Historical Society Foundation, which would allow the retired or off-duty firefighters to work on it. Wayne Mathes, who directs the mansion and the museum, said he wants to build a two-story, 30-by-60-foot addition to the museum building.

“If the city sells the McClure Mansion, we’re going to be scrambling for storage,” Mathes said, referring to a city-owned property that contains furniture and other items that would not be included in the sale.

The upper level would be used to store artifacts. The lower level could house the ladder/tiller truck and possibly a 1919 Seagrave fire engine – Modesto No. 7 – that Modesto’s Bill Spidell purchased and spent 15 years restoring. He received an offer from a man in Los Angeles who wanted to display it in that city. Spidell refused that offer because he wanted to gift the engine back to the city of Modesto and still does.

“That’s always been his intention,” his wife, Alma, said.

Fire Chief Sean Slamon said the city is exploring all of those issues: establishing a fund that would allow cash or in-kind donors to claim tax deductions, allaying risk-management concerns that would allow Whitcomb – just a few years from joining Gunn in retirement – and others to work on the truck, or turning the equipment over to the museum foundation.

“I want it to stay in Modesto,” Slamon said. “I want the title to remain here in Modesto. I don’t want it in a situation where it could be sold or whatever.”

Just don’t wait too long to decide. Firetrucks, new or really old, are all about urgency.