Rekindling memories of early firefighting traditions, a vintage engine truck purchased for $8,500 in 1938 has been returned to town, ending a detour that spanned nearly five decades.
The iconic engine, decommissioned in 1972, was retrieved from a barn in Michigan three weeks ago and now is being stored indoors at the public safety building until local fire officials agree on a restoration plan.
“It’s been a real morale boost after a long year,” said Fire Chief Michael Kelleher, who was instrumental in recovering the former Engine 2. “It’s one of the best things that could have happened to us.”
Kelleher said local firefighters view the vintage pumper as a community asset, and aim to refurbish it for use on ceremonial occasions. The multi-year project will likely require a substantial fundraising effort, he added.
Kelleher said restoration work will be overseen by firefighter/mechanic Eion Bohnert, a Holden resident who joined the department in July 2019.
“I’m really excited to get going,” Bohnert said. “It’s like a legend has come home. Guys still talk about this truck like it’s mythic.”
The recent homecoming is notable for several reasons — not the least of which is that this vehicle was Foxboro’s first-ever white fire truck, and as such established a distinction from more conventional red coloring that still endures.
While no one knows for certain, Kelleher speculated the late Ed Truax, who was fire chief at the time, opted to have the truck painted white to aid nighttime visibility at a time when streetlights were far and few between.
Whatever the reason the tradition stuck — and Foxboro is still one of just a handful of agencies in Massachusetts with white fire and rescue vehicles.
Just as remarkable, however, were the unusual circumstances surrounding the truck’s return.
According to Kelleher, Foxboro firefighters have been aware since 2005 that the vehicle existed and was owned by a Michigan collector named Bill Conn.
Reached by phone this week, Conn said he acquired the truck in the mid-1990s for roughly $2,000 at a vintage truck meet in Hershey, Pa.
“I don’t remember the exact price,” said the recently retired fire protection engineer. “But it wasn’t a lot of money because it was the last day of the show and there hadn’t been much interest.”
Shipped to Conn’s home in Milford, Mich., a rural township just west of Detroit, it was parked in a barn on his property and sat virtually untouched for more than two decades.
Local fire officials learned of the truck’s existence several years later when Conn was working in the area for a retail client and had a chance encounter with Foxboro firefighters at a Route 1 construction site.
Conn, who had worked in the fire service before moving to the private sector, struck up a conversation with the locals and casually mentioned that he owned a vintage pumper from Foxboro — without knowing for certain that it came from Foxboro, Mass.
What made for a great conversation starter was later confirmed by photos from the fire department archives.
In time, Kelleher said local firefighters explored the prospect of purchasing the truck from Conn, but the asking price was too high.
“They would call every so often and ask about it,” said Conn, who owns three other vintage trucks in various stages of restoration. “But for me, it was going to be a retirement project.”
That changed when Conn actually retired and finally realized the Foxboro truck would require too much effort and expense at this stage of his life.
So when the newly hired Bohnert came calling — having overheard tales of the department’s 82-year-old engine truck sitting in a Michigan barn — Conn proved considerably more receptive.
Following a series of discussions, the fire equipment aficionado spontaneously offered the old pumper as a gift, provided it could be moved off his property and transported back to Foxboro.
“Eventually, I just interrupted the conversation and said they could have it if they could come and get it,” Conn said.
Delighted, Bohnert contracted a vehicle hauler who winched the old pumper out of Conn’s barn and onto a flatbed for the long ride home. Cost of the move was around $2,000, Kelleher said.
Local firefighters then went to work digging in to department archives and old purchasing orders.
When purchased in 1938 (the $8,500 price tag did not include a state-of-the-art siren equipped with red flashing lights, which was extra), the Ahrens-Fox pumper was Foxboro’s fourth “modern” fire response apparatus. Previously, the town purchased its first motorized fire engine in 1918, followed the next year by a ladder truck. A third vehicle was added in 1928.
Ultimately, the Ahrens-Fox engine remained in service here for 34 years. By the early 1970s, Kelleher said, the now-outdated pumper was used mostly to fight brush fires, as well as flare-ups at the old town dump on Belcher Road.
According to Bohnert, Ahrens-Fox is generally recognized as the “Rolls Royce” of fire trucks, reflecting both quality and a hefty price tag. However, the unit purchased by Foxboro in 1938 was more spartan, he said, probably owing to Depression-era austerity practices.
Founded in 1910 in Cincinnati, Ohio by John Ahrens and Charles Fox, Ahrens-Fox built its first motorized fire engine in 1911, just as manufacturers were transitioning from horse-drawn fire apparatus. Now a division of HME Firetrucks, the firm is located in Wyoming, Mich.
At this point, Bohnert said he envisions removing and rebuilding the engine and massive pump motor at the fire station, while outsourcing the chassis and body to be refurbished by a professional restorer. Though in rough condition, it retains many original features and accessories, which Bohnert has been documenting for inventory purposes.
Already, he has contacted specialty firms in Pennsylvania and Maine to gauge interest in the project, and has tracked down a similar vintage Ahrens-Fox engine which could be cannibalized for parts.
Bohnert said that he previously had been involved in a partial restoration while working for Boston Fire Department, but nothing approaching the prospective Ahrens-Fox project.
“A lot of people around here have restored old fire trucks, but not many have restored an Ahrens-Fox,” he said.
Depending on how much work is accomplished in-house, Bohnert estimated the total project cost at between $80,000 and $150,000 — most likely on the lower end of that scale.
Although none of the town’s active firefighters ever worked directly with the old pumper, Kelleher said a number of retirees have stopped by to rekindle old memories.
“There’s a lot of history there,” Kelleher observed. “People still talk about it like an old friend.”