Monday, May 23, 2016

Back on the Road Again

When some people these days hear the name REO Speedwagon, they think, "oh yeah, I've heard them on the radio a time or two," but they don't realize the origin of the band's name stems from one of the workhorse vehicles of the early Twentieth Century and it has an Owingsville connection.  Ransom E. Olds, founder of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company that later became Oldsmobile, established the REO Motor Car Company in 1905.  Based in Lansing, Michigan, the REO line of vehicles lasted until 1975 and at one time was one of the wealthiest automobile manufacturers of the early 1900's.  Touring cars were largely produced by the REO Company those early days; usually open top convertibles that people used to drive across the dusty country roads on a leisurely afternoon. 
A truck manufacturing division was established in 1910 to help move products across the booming nation.  A light duty truck called the REO Speedwagon hit the production market in 1915 with a state of the art chassis and basic design that became a widely used service vehicle until around 1953.  These trucks were the predecessor of the modern pickup truck and used as hearses, ambulances, delivery, tow, dump and fire trucks.  Prior to World War I, the Speedwagons were a highly successful and durable line of vehicle.  

Fire trucks have been in service for hundreds of years throughout the world.  The earliest trucks were hand drawn pumps that were deployed by men carrying or dragging them to fire scenes.  Cities soon began to sprawl out, demanding the need for more efficient trucks to carry more water and get to fires more quickly.  The first self-propelled fire truck was a steam powered engine built in New York City in 1841; probably the first modern fire truck powered by a combustion engine was manufactured by the Knox Automobile Company in 1905.  The REO Speedwagon fire trucks usually featured what was called the 'Gold Crown' type six cylinder power plants; a heavy duty motor which gave them extra power to pull the weight of the truck with a load of water and other equipment.  The top speed, however, was left to be desired; most of the trucks only managed about 45 miles per hour at best. 
Classic open cab style 
The City of Owingsville sought a new, modern fire truck sometime in the 1930’s.  The earliest known fire truck Owingsville had was an old hand-drawn Howe pumper housed where the Hometown Mortgage office now stands.  Water was drafted from cisterns or wells into the truck via large rubber hoses as men used a lever/piston type mechanism to get water pressure through the cotton fire hoses.  The City Council voted to purchase a reliable fire truck and settled on a 1932 REO Speedwagon vehicle.  Unfortunately, the council meeting minutes from that era have been lost, so the actual date is unknown.  Current Fire Chief John Barry Staton recently sat down with Tom Byron and discussed some of the history of Owingsville’s ‘Old REO’.  In the early 1930’s, Owingsville’s water supply was upgraded with new fire hydrants to better protect the city under the direction of Ernie Downs.  Byron said that Downs was in charge of the water company and held a significant role in the city’s affairs.  He wasn’t sure of Downs was fire chief at the time, but Tom says his uncle, Ed Byron, was the mayor during this time.  “I believe Dinks Jones may have been the Fire Chief when the truck was bought,” said Tom.  “Jones actually went to St. Louis and drove the fire truck all the way back to Owingsville".  This was an interesting feat due to the slow speed of the truck and the fact it was an open top.

The 'Old REO' stayed in service many years and was housed at the old city hall building which is located across from Gray's Funeral Home on Slate Avenue.  During this time, the fire truck was only allowed to respond to fire calls within the city limits; a policy that remained until more recent times.  Tom Byron said that the city bought another fire truck around 1953 or 1954; a Ford that with the Speedwagon, were the two front line trucks for the City of Owingsville. It was mentioned that the REO fire truck was an open topped vehicle, which maintains that vintage, classic look.  The padded wooden seat probably wasn't very luxurious or comfortable for long rides, but it served the purpose.  The truck's hose bed is wooden planks that were stained to protect against the wet cotton hoses that were stored until the next call.  Unlike today's fire trucks that hold 1,000 or more gallons of water, the REO Speedwagon only held maybe fifty gallons of water.  There is a coupling that is fitted onto the driver's side of the truck that hooked to a hose firefighters secured to a fire hydrant which fed water into the tank for larger fires.  In its day, the fire truck was a vibrant red with gold trimmings painted on it and Owingsville F.D. painted in gold on the hood.  A simple 'O.F.D.' was also painted in gold on each side of the truck's body just behind the cab.  Only a couple of people could ride in the open cab, which left the other firefighters to ride on the side boards or tailboard to the fire scene.  One can envision this classic sight of a fire truck roaring down the streets as firemen hung onto the sides.

Eventually, standards in firefighting were streamlined and certain rules were established regarding how much water a fire truck needed to flow to effectively extinguish a large fire, rendering the REO Speedwagon truck obsolete.  The truck went out of service sometime before the fire department reorganized in 1975. Jeff Adkins, who has been a member of the Owingsville Fire Department since 1984, recalls seeing the 'Old REO' sitting at the service station that once stood where Owingsville Fire Department's station is now located.  Around 1982 or 1983, the truck was even decorated as a parade float and pulled through the May Day Parade.  As time went on, the REO Speedwagon was moved to the old water plant that used to be along Slate Avenue, and next door to Tom Byron.  Tom told Chief Staton that he was talking to the late Mayor William Steele and the mayor told Tom, "this old truck needs to go away somewhere soon".  Understanding the historical and local tradition the old truck had, Byron purchased 'Old REO' , saving it from being scrapped.  The truck was moved to a barn Tom owned and there it stayed for twenty-eight years. 

About a month ago, Tom Byron needed help repairing a tractor that was on the farm.  Randy Ferrell, who owns a local repair shop and tow service on East High Street, came to help Tom.  Along with him was Jeff Adkins, who had always knew the truck was somewhere on the property.  With permission, Jeff opened up the door to a barn and before him was "Old REO".  Randy and Jeff negotiated with Tom and was granted permission to haul the vintage fire truck out of the barn to the shop on a journey of restoration.  The truck is in quite remarkable condition; the vibrant red and gold paint has faded and oxidized, the tires have dry rotted and seat cushions are gone, but the truck is just stunning to look at. 
Owingsville's REO Speedwagon fire truck will be restored back to its original state over the course of the next several months.  If you attended the May Day Parade last week, you saw the truck poised upon
Randy Ferrell's roll back truck with Mayor Gary Hunt and Owingsville Fire Department junior member Jacob Purvis atop it.  Randy said that over the past month, several people have stopped to snap pictures or even asked to buy it.  The truck still belongs to Tom Byron, who has the original title dated 1932, and there are no immediate plans to sell it anytime soon. There are only 7,000 original miles on the REO Speedwagon, most of which were tacked on when the maiden trip from St. Louis to Owingsville was made. One piece of equipment that isn't on the truck is the old bell, which was donated to the Bath County Memorial Library in honor of Mayor Robert Gilmore, but an old pike pole and section of hose is still there.  The spotlight and red beacon light is still on the truck and appear to be in great condition.  Randy said the power plant six cylinder motor is in remarkable shape, and has been pulled out to be restored along with the rest of the truck.  As months go by, it will be interesting to see the restoration progress of this vintage gem of a truck; a true visual relic of Owingsville's history.

Hand crank type windshield wiper

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Faint Owingsville FD on the hood

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