On October 7, 2000 (nearly 144 years to the day from when Aurora received it's first hand engine) the Aurora Regional Fire Museum purchased a rare 1850's era hand pumped fire engine.
In the summer of 1990, a local antique fire apparatus collector, graciously placed His Button hand pumper on long-term loan to the ARFM. (the engine's original city of origin is unknown but with the help of Handtub Junction, we have confirmed it to be a Button) Last summer, the lender received an offer from a third party to purchase the engine and he notified the museum. Word-of-mouth spread fast that we might lose this important artifact. Immediately we consulted with hand pumper experts nationwide to establish a fair-market-value and begin a campaign to "Save Our Hand Pumper" Then, a wonderful surprise! An anonymous donor came forward with the necessary funds -- the ARFM met the asking price, the third party buyer backed out, and we became the proud new owners of a hand pumper.
This is an exciting time for the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. Our building, (Aurora's Old Central Fire Station originally built in 1894), is undergoing a million-dollar renovation. While the museum is closed for this reconstruction, a group of ARFM board members and volunteers is actively working to restore this hand pumper to its original glory. This is the story of our progress...
February, 2001 - Hand pumper moving day!
I was supposed to meet a group of volunteers at 9am to "supervise" the loading of our hand pumper onto a trailer and its transportation to a new temporary home. I arrived at 8:50 and much to my surprise, the engine is GONE?! Three of our volunteers, (Aurora's Asst. Chief Bill "Rex" Rechenmacher, his son Alan, and Rex's brother, Asst. Chief Mike Rechenmacher from neighboring Naperville, Illinois) woke up early and got the jump on me. It is probably best, I no doubt would have worried about the damaged wheels cracking or falling off. To the untrained eye, our wheels are in poor shape. A large chunk is missing from one of the fallows, and all are cracked. We researched wheelwrights through a local museum and got the name of a fellow in Wisconsin. After several phone calls, arrangements have been made for him to come and look at our wheels.
March, 2001 -- Wheely-big day!
Tom Sveum and his son have come to town. After doughnuts and a quick tour of our soon to be empty museum, we regroup at the workspace - an unused garage of Alan Rechenmacher's. The day is cold, but the mood is jubilant. Tom says our wheels are not that bad off! The spokes are all there, (and tight) and the "cracks" that we have been worrying about are merely "checking" of the wood and not serious. Dispite this, the wheels still need to be rebuilt. Tom takes two of our wheels to begin.
April, 2001 -- Lets strip!
Sometime in the past twenty or thirty years, our hand engine had been painted (sprayed) a bright "fire engine" red color that was clearly not original. Under the paint we can see the outlines of inlaid five-pointed stars. Knowledge of other Button hand pumpers tells us the body is probably mahogany and the inlaid stars are made of a lighter maple. Our board of director's decided this was too great of a wood to cover up! One of the primary goals for the engines restoration project is to get rid of the the red paint and expose the natural wood.
Asst. Chief Rex Rechenmacher is the best volunteer anyone could ask for.... He is eager, enthusiastic. eager, committed, eager, passionate, (and did I say eager!) Just days after the engine was moved out of the museum, he removed the tool box lid and striped the red paint from its underside to uncover what we had all anticipated -- beautiful mahogany! Hoping that there might be original paint, lettering, or decorations under the red, I convince Rex to "wait for me" before striping anything else. A few days later with much trepidation, Rex and I sponged on the first layer of paint striper on the engine's front end. Within minutes the red paint bubbled off to reveal -- (drum roll!?) -- nothing but bare wood underneath. While Rex kept working on the front, I moved around to the engines side panels and did several test-patches. Much to my disappointment, I found nothing but solid black paint under the red. No stripes, no decoration, no name, no date. Nothing but red, black, and mahogany.
Once we began, striping the red paint went easier than we thought. Most places are taking two passes with paint stripper and a scraper, then we do another one (or two) passes with stripper and fine steel wool. This gets the final color out of the grain. As we worked inch-by-inch down the engine's sides we would uncover one inlaid star after another. We knew they were there, (we could see their shapes), but as the red paint bubbled off and the contrast of the two woods became clear, if felt like we were unwrapping a little Christmas present.
After getting all the red paint removed we have found seveeral small screw holes and evidance of a name plate on the engine's front and rear, (two screw holes on the front, six on the rear). In talking with the "experts" from Handtub Junction, we know that Button often stamped his name around the front or rear intake/discharge ports. In our case the engine's ports are bare and the manufacturer probably had a plate on the front and or rear. We'd like to do some more investigating and perhaps reproduce a plate.
As we continue to strip the body, we have removed several parts - the brackets that carry the suction hose, the eighteen thumb-screws and small metal plates that the wood deck gets screwed down with, the hinges for the toolbox, the large metal framework that supports the brakes, the brass intake and discharge fittings, and lots of miscellaneous screws. Several parts are missing or broken or damaged - one of the springs that belongs under the brakes, one of the brackets that holds the piston rod centered in the cylinder, and one of the brake-locks. These items have been taken to several local machine shops and will be repaired or duplicated.
The fifth wheel (the round piece of wood that allows the front wheels turn) is severely cracked and needs replacing. We unbolted this fifth wheel and axle easily came apart from the engine's front "truck" (the truck is the wooden part that holds the fifth-wheel to the body). When we chipped the red paint away from a few places on the truck and axle mount, we found... cream paint with red and blue pin striping! At last I had an example of the engine's original decoration.
Rex and his brother Mike worked on the engine a few days without me! Apparently they were starting to strip the inside of the box, and they found it difficult with all the pump and piping in the way. One thing lead to another and before I knew it (before they told me) the entire pump, piston cylinders, pressure dome, and piping were disassembled and removed leaving a clear open box to work in. Upon reflection, I am glad that we (they) removed and disassembled the pump. It has given us an opportunity to examine the pump first-hand and better understand its workings. while dismantling the pump, we also found a part that was broken. There is a small metal fork that is designed to keeps the piston cylinder flapper valve doors from hitting each other and they open-and close. Our fork was missing one of its two tynes, and another trip to a local machine shop is necessary.
Stripping - part two
The outside of the body is all stripped, and it looks beautiful! We have decided on a natural oil finish. Unlike any kind of varnish or polyurethane the oil will not yellow or crack, and it is a natural preservative. A test patch on the rear of the engine gives a stunning appearance. The natural red-orange-brown color of the wood grain pops out and the wood shines. Rex commented, "it looks like the finish on a grand piano!"
Before we can oil the rest of the body, we need to minor repair some cracks in the engine's wood side panels. We will tackle that task, and the major stripping and reassembly of the pump, next week. Stay tuned - to be continued...
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