The saga spans 25 years and over 2,300 miles, with a touch of coincidence and a hint of mystery. And it ended last week in Fulton County.
On Thursday, a 1951 GMC Proctor-Keefe rescue truck rolled ceremoniously off a trailer at the county fairgrounds, opening the final chapter of a long history with local origins. If not for the resolve of a West coast car restorer, that history might have ended in obscurity.
Purchased in Toledo, and converted in Detroit for rescue use, the truck served the Wauseon Fireman’s Association for approximately 15 years. Used to transport firefighters, axes, and hoses to fires, it was at the scene of the fabled Wauseon elementary and junior high school explosion in 1960, which destroyed the building on Clinton Street at the site where the fire department now stands. A photograph of the fire shows the truck in the foreground, emergency lights flashing.
The truck was retired in 1966 in favor of a new model. After being sold to a Mr. Phillips in Swanton, who planned to transform it into a produce truck, its whereabouts grew murky.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Tom Towers, an auto body man for LeMay Collections at Marymount, a classic cars museum in Tacoma, Wash., saw the old rescue vehicle for sale in a truck trader magazine. Although it wasn’t in stellar condition, “it was the neatest art deco thing you’ve ever seen in your life,” Towers said.
He showed the item to Harold LeMay, the museum owner and a Guinness Book of World Records holder in 1996 for the largest volume of cars and trucks collected – 6,000 to date. “Every day of his life he didn’t buy a car, he wasn’t happy,” Towers said.
But LeMay, affectionately described as a self-made, hard-working man, was somewhat a tightwad, Towers said. He told Towers to buy the rescue truck but haggle for a much lower price.
The rescue truck’s owner lived in Sequim, Wash., a three-hour trek from Tacoma. Towers arrived there to transport the six-cylinder vehicle, only to discover he would need a larger trailer. He returned the next day and carried it off.
But that’s where the tale stalls. The rescue truck, one of thousands in LeMay’s collection with the potential for restoration, languished forgotten in an outside storage space for more than two decades, and well past LeMay’s death in 2000.
That changed in 2016, when the truck was moved to another storage area and Towers took notice. Covered in red primer, the vehicle was in rough shape but had retained its original wood and steel frame, seats, engine, and carburetor. The speedomoter read only 36,000 original miles.
While cleaning off the primer with rubbing compound, Towers made a surprising find: beneath were the words “Wauseon Fire Department” in gold leaf. Coincidentally, Towers’ family is from Stryker, which made him familiar with Wauseon.
The truck also caught the attention of Marty Lee, a museum volunteer who, also coincidentally, grew up in Fayette and attended the former Chesterfield School in the 1960s.
“I saw that it said ‘Wauseon’ on the side. I didn’t think there could be more than one Wauseon,” Lee said. “I thought it was kind of a strange thing being (in Washington State), and I wanted to know more about it.” But co-workers he spoke with were equally as stumped.
So on Feb. 23 of this year, Lee placed a photo of the rescue truck on the Wauseon Fire Department’s Facebook page. Then Towers called Wauseon Fire Chief Rick Sluder.
“He got so excited over this thing,” he said. “I don’t know how in the world it got from Wauseon, Ohio, to here.”
Sluder combed through old records in Wauseon’s city building and found an envelope containing the rescue truck’s original purchase receipts and blueprints. He sent copies to Towers in anticipation of a restoration project at LeMay Collections at Marymount.
But after several phone conversations, Towers informed Sluder in June that the museum would donate the rescue truck back to the Wauseon Fire Department. It was picked up in Tacoma Dec. 8 by Larry Bischoff, who owns a Napoleon trucking company, and came complete with boxes loaded with its original accessories. The truck was off-loaded Thursday at the fairgrounds.
Sluder said a restoration project will be in the works soon, using the knowledge of local vehicle restorers. There is no cost estimate yet, but Sluder said the project will be financed through fundraisers by the Wauseon Fireman’s Association.
“We’d like to get it going as soon as we can,” he said. “It would be nice to have it done in 2018. It’s a project we want to keep moving with.”
In the meantime, Sluder is trying to track down the vehicle’s history through the years it was lost.
“It’s kind of amazing when these things pop up,” he said. “It’s neat to see the history of Wauseon recreated.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.