September 16, 2006 in HandleX

LABOR OF LOVE

Jacob Livingston Correspondent
 
Kathy Plonka photo

“This engine has character,” said Dennis Woolford, ranger at Farragut State Park, as he drove around the park in the 1942 Peter Pirsch open-cabin fire engine.
(Full-size photo)

Dennis Woolford calmly surveys a stark concrete, cell-like room littered with antique automotive parts, his demeanor notably composed and collected given that he and another mechanic have been working for nearly 30 hours straight on a restoration project. As a 1:30 p.m. deadline approaches, the restoration is nearly complete – except for an unknown wiring problem that has kept the World War II-era Peter Pirsch fire engine from firing up.

It’s a Saturday afternoon at Farragut State Park in North Idaho, and nearly 800 World War II veterans have gathered to commemorate the 60-year anniversary since the closure of the Farragut Naval Training Station in 1946. As the veterans and many of their accompanying wives, friends and family members have passed through the storied and historically-decorated halls of the Brig Museum, Woolford, a park ranger, and mechanic Bob Scunderwood have worked tirelessly in a nearby wing of the museum to complete – and more importantly to start – the 1942 Peter Pirsch, open-cabin fire engine.

But that prospect is looking less and less likely.

“We are going to have to work to get this thing going,” Woolford said. Of this kind of restoration, he added; “They are labor intensive. It has to be a labor of love for this type of project.”

Originally intended to be the centerpiece of the day’s “Salute to the Heroes” afternoon parade, the meticulously restored fire engine has so far refused to go along with the plan. That plan, which was put in motion more than a year ago through the combined efforts of neighboring fire crews, local volunteers and more than 500 man-hours in the past week alone, has been a shared vehicle restoration project from the beginning.

“It was really a combination effort,” Woolford said, adding that they have spent “a few miles on the road to pick everything up” to put the entire fire engine package together.

Since it was reacquired by Farragut State Park in December 2004, the vehicle has come a long way both aesthetically as well as figuratively in its long journey back home.

The engine – one of 28 built for the Navy during World War II – was first brought to the state park in 1943 after being built at the now-defunct Peter Pirsch factory in Kenosha, Wis., which operated from 1857 through 1990. The engine arrived at Farragut just as the 22,000-member work crew was completing construction of the World War II Naval Training Station – which at more than 50,000 people was the largest town in Idaho at the time.

“It was a frantic effort to get it all built,” Woolford said. “It could be a tree one day and a rafter the next. Surprisingly, some of the quality of work was just incredible, even to this day.”

However, at the end of World War II in 1945 the need for soldiers to fight abruptly stopped and, as a result, the naval training station soon began to shrink in size. In 1946 the engine was transferred to the Naval Acoustics Research Division in Bayview, where it served until 1965.

Back at the once-sprawling and nearly four-mile-long Farragut Naval Training Station, most of the original 600-odd buildings had disappeared by 1960. The many buildings and miles of interior corridors were sectioned off and sold cheap, the camps’ connecting trails were reclaimed by nature, and soon all that was left was the Brig and a few scattered remnants of the base where more than 290,000 Navy recruits had trained for war. In 1965 the Navy transferred the site to the state of Idaho and the 4,000-acre Farragut State Park was created.

Meanwhile, the fire engine’s tour of duty had continued on to the small town of Kooskia, Idaho, where it was acquired in 1965 by the local volunteer fire department. It stayed on the front lines of firefighting there until the mid-1970s, said Mark Anderson, the fire chief of the Kooskia volunteer fire department, when it was retired and used mainly as a parade vehicle.

Anderson had heard a rumor in 2004, about the Farragut Park rangers plan to restore the vehicle for the naval-base closure anniversary and 20-year-running veterans reunion. The two groups got in touch, and the vehicle, which had only 13,000 original miles on it and had a 512 cubic-inch engine in running condition, was returned to the park after a 60-year absence.

“We knew we didn’t have the money to restore it, so we were really quite happy to give it to them,” Anderson said. “That’s about the best end for an old firetruck, to go home again.”

Visually, the dual ignition – with a hand crank and switch ignition – firetruck was in need of cosmetic repair. The faded and chipped body was repainted with a glossy red coat complete with the stenciled-black N.S.D. (Navel Supply Depot) fire engine insignia on the sides, the missing windows of the open cabin were replaced, the mechanical siren that starts low and builds up to a high tone was fixed and the peeling interior was refurbished with era-specific upholstery and topped-off with a period-specific fire extinguisher. Much of the original equipment was even found in the storage facilities of the several fire departments involved: the original and recently restored ladder, the original tires complete with a U.S. stamp of victory and a hard-leather firefighter’s helmet worn by the Farragut firefighters in the 1940s.

“We tried to bring it back into the context that it was built in,” Woolford said while still working away in the Brig Museum, adding that “what we are so tickled about is (that) even the hoses are original Pirsch.”

As the 1:30 p.m. “Salute to the Heroes” tribute got under way at the Sunrise Day-Use Area, Woolford and Scunderwood were still diligently working on the engine problem, determined to unveil the fire engine before the day’s events were through.

Next door in the Brig Museum, Fred Owyen and Jack Allen, friends since childhood and both World War II veterans, recalled their experiences when they were 17-year-old recruits in 1943 at different camps on the former Farragut Naval Training Station grounds. Now 82 years old, both Owyen and Allen had enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“We were crazy,” Owyen recalled about their decision to leave their hometown of Oroville, Wash., and to dually enlist for war.

For this year’s veterans reunion, the restored engine was one of the biggest draws for both Allen and Owyen.

“That’s what my husband came here for,” said Barbara Owyen, Fred’s wife.

About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the Peter Pirsch fire engine finally roared to life in the concrete barracks-turned garage after the engine’s bad switch and wiring were fixed. After 38 hours without sleep, Woolford and Scunderwood broke into a spontaneous victory dance.

“We were pushing it right up to the wire,” Woolford said. “But the big thing was that it was there and it was unveiled.”

The finished project was well worth the effort, both Owyen and Allen agreed as they studied the engine.

“It’s a pretty thing,” Owyen said. “I think it’s wonderful. They did a great job.”

With an impromptu ambulance and police escort, the restored fire engine rolled down the hill toward the Sunrise area, much to the surprise and applause of the hundreds of gathered guests.

In a telephone interview after the reunion, Owyen remarked “It was beautiful.”

The Peter Pirsch fire engine will be on static display at the Brig Museum at Farragut State Park and can be seen in future parades around North Idaho.


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