Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Modesto man rekindles piece of firefighting history

Fire damage from the Modesto Hotel fire of May 1944 can be seen on Bill Spidell’s 1919 Seagrave fire engine Monday morning, Sept. 29, 2014. Spidell has restored the old fire engine and is looking for a place to showcase it.
Fire damage from the Modesto Hotel fire of May 1944 can be seen on Bill Spidell’s 1919 Seagrave fire engine Monday morning, Sept. 29, 2014. Spidell has restored the old fire engine and is looking for a place to showcase it.

From the emails and voice mails:

FIRED UP, AGAIN – A few months ago, I wrote about the Modesto Fire Department’s 1928 Seagrave ladder truck that was given new life by firefighters. They got it running, but it still needs restoration.

That isn’t the case with a smaller 1919 Seagrave engine that was the second gas-powered firefighting vehicle ever owned by the city of Modesto. It once again is a thing of beauty, thanks to the talent, dedication and resourcefulness of Bill Spidell, a long-retired Modesto Junior College counselor.

The city used the engine from 1919 until decommissioning it in the early 1960s. In between, it joined the ladder truck in fighting the Modesto Hotel fire in 1944, and carried the casket bearing Modesto’s first fire chief, George Wallace, to the cemetery during his with-honors funeral in 1953.

In 1965, the city stripped and sold the old engine to a resident of Georgetown, east of Sacramento. Then, it went to new owners in Placerville and then to a group of firefighters who planned to restore it. But a month after the city relinquished the engine, the motor threw a rod and didn’t start up again for 43 years.

Spidell, 84, remembers growing up in Coalinga and looking forward to the fire crews warming up that city’s 1924 American LaFrance engine every morning.

“We’d sit on the grass and listen to it,” he said. “Of course, that was before television.”

Spidell came to Modesto to work for the Ford Motor Co. before joining the MJC staff and ending his 25-year career there in 1990.

When he saw an ad offering the old Modesto engine for sale in 2002, he bought it for $3,500 and embarked on what has become a labor of love with a purpose: to someday restore the engine to its original condition so future generations of Modestans can get a glimpse of the city’s history.

Over the past dozen years, he’s gone through the machine bolt by bolt, bringing it back to its vintage condition. He’s just about there.

“I’ve got a couple more things I want to do to it,” Spidell said.

He’s done plenty already, including locating two similar engines he could raid for parts. By the time Modesto sold the 1919 Seagrave, the solid-rubber tires and wooden-spoke rims had been swapped out for metal rims with inflated tires.

So he sent the original wood rims back to Canton, Ohio, where a company replicated the solid tires, mounted them and returned them to him in Modesto.

The core of the radiator came from England, with the restoration of that part done here. He sent the main bearings to Tacoma, Wash., to be reworked and other parts to Morgan Hill to be ground to fit the rebuilt engine that has only 2,774 actual miles. The engine also has its original Sireno siren.

Several years ago, Modesto fire officials gave him the purchase agreement from Seagrave to the city, signed April 12, 1919, by Mayor D.W. Morris.

He used those documents to determine the original paint color, called crimson red or tuxedo red, which was the same as an engine sold by Seagrave to the city of San Francisco that same year.

“What it is, it’s just burgundy,” he said.

And then-Fire Chief Jim Miguel found the original ladders that had been stripped from the engine when it was sold and gave them to him.

“He said they belonged with it,” Spidell said.

So did the piece of wood burned by an ember that fell onto the truck during the Modesto Hotel fire.

“The older guys (Modesto firefighters) made me promise I wouldn’t replace that piece of wood,” Spidell said, pointing to the sizable burn mark next to the hood near the left front fender.

The day after Thanksgiving in 2009, Spidell invited a crowd from the Fire Department for a barbecue and to witness him start the engine for the first time since the engine left Modesto in 1965.

“There was some debate in the neighborhood as to whether he should have fired it up sooner, to make sure it was going to start when everybody was here,” said his wife, Alma.

He reveled in the theater of it all.

“It started right up the first time,” he said.

The exterior restoration continued, with Denise Corbett of Modesto working her graphic artistry. She painted the gold-leafed fleur-de-lis and “Modesto” in 4-inch lettering, which Spidell had traced before repainting the engine.

So, with the job nearly completed, what now? Spidell would like to return the engine to the city, but it has to be in a secure place. Ideally, it would be a fantastic addition to the McHenry Museum. But the museum lacks the space needed to display it. Creating such a space takes time, and Spidell said he is thinking about waiting five more years to give the 95-year-old engine back to the city.

That would give museum and city officials time to develop such a showcase area as part of the museum or elsewhere in the city. It would coincide with the engine’s 100th anniversary of its arrival in Modesto.

“My hope is that it is still going to be around for another 100 years,” Spidell said.

BODIE BUGABOO – Monday, I received a request from a public relations flack in New York to give mention to a show to air Nov. 2 titled “American Super/Natural.” A production of The Weather Channel, the show is supposed to “unravel the science behind the curse of Bodie State Park ...” by featuring “interviews with local residents, re-creations of first-person accounts and testimonies from experts.”

Bodie, after all, is a ghost town. Shouldn’t it have ghosts and curses and eeriness? So I watched the trailer. It begins with the story of how W.S. Bodey found gold in the eastern Sierra near where the town eventually developed and all of the alleged weirdness that supposedly goes on there to this day. Way-up-the-dial TV is what it is.

Unfortunately, it sometimes isn’t always accurate. In the trailer, they re-enact Bodey panning for gold in a creek in a lush, green forest – not the windy, sagebrush-covered slope where the town is located and where his bones were later found. The show’s trailer teases that he was murdered, beheaded and might have deserved it.

Historians maintain he died in a snowstorm. If his bones were scattered, animals other than man likely scattered them. The show’s version makes for better TV, though.

AUTHOR! AUTHOR! – Linda Knoll will hold a signing session for her children’s picture book titled “Patient for Pumpkins,” Saturday at Barnes & Noble on McHenry Avenue beginning at noon. The event will include an art activity, with proceeds benefiting the Central California Art Association’s art education program. The book features watercolor illustrations, using Modesto’s farmers market to teach children about fruits, vegetables and the seasons.