Studebaker Stories:

My Post-Omaha Experiences

by Frank Drumheller

As background, I own a 1948 M16-52 Studebaker/Boyer fire truck. When I purchased this vehicle in 2000, I received all of the paperwork with it from the original owner, the Bloomington, WI Volunteer Fire Company. Since the purchase, I have had a strong desire to visit this small town in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin. Going to the International Meet in Omaha, NE in September 2006 facilitated this desire.

On Friday evening, following the meet banquet, I was reviewing my map to plan my next day’s route to Bloomington from Omaha. Suddenly, I realized the route took me within 30 miles of Earlville, Iowa. Earlville, IA is the small town in which Gary Hearn’s 1946 M16-52 fire truck began life.

So, I determined to visit Earlville on Saturday afternoon rather than driving directly to Bloomington. I arrived in Earlville at 12:30 PM on a beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon. I noted the current population stood at 920 Earlvillians. As I drove down the main street, I spotted the fire house, but the town was dead, absolutely nothing moving. As I stepped from my van, the only sound of life was a hot rod engine sporadically revving to the limit somewhere in the distance. I crossed the street to the Earlville Fire House, it was locked. Several photos were taken to prove to Gary I had been there. After 10-15 minutes, a car with two ladies drove by me silently without acknowledging my presence, nothing else moved.

So I decided to seek out the revving engine(s), when a lady stepped out the door of the local watering trough down the street It was obvious she was opening up for business. I entered the tavern and took a seat at the bar, ordered a hamburger and a beer. A local gentleman entered and climbed on a stool. When I ordered, I asked the lady if she knew any local firemen. She and the man conferred and asked why I needed to know. I explained my mission in coming to Earlville and immediately she picked up the telephone and placed a call. She then told me someone would be at the fire house in about 15 minutes. I hurriedly ate my lunch and walked back to the fire house.

A young man had already arrived and had the building opened, showing off their six motorized units (both fire and rescue). Within minutes, several other members arrived, shaking my hand in greeting. I shared the photos I had of Gary’s Studebaker fire truck from my album. We had a great time talking about Earlville, the reason I was there and the history of Gary’s truck. They stated they had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the truck or if it still existed. All they had heard was that the fire truck was sold to a local auctioneer in the mid-50’s and he had then sold it ‘somewhere in the East”. One of the guys said to another, “Call Al, he knows more about the Studebaker than any of us”. I found out Al was a mechanic who worked for the local Studebaker dealer following WWII. Al Otting arrived and told me the story of the Studebaker dealer, and of the story behind Gary’s fire truck.

At the end of WWII, Earlville was in desperate need of new fire apparatus to protect the community. Of course, trucks were hard to find and buy in 1946. Al said the owner of the local Chrysler-Plymouth and Studebaker dealer promised the Town fathers he would find a truck for them. Al says they had to settle for a 1946 Studebaker M16 standard 1 ½ ton chassis without heavy duty equipment, not even a brake booster. A local man built the body on the chassis and the firemen equipped the truck. This Studebaker served as Earlville’s main fire fighting unit from late 1946 until it was replaced by a 1951 Ford F-6 with a Big Six. As Gary’s fire truck has only registered 2300 miles from new, I felicitously asked Al if they ever used the truck to fight fires! He laughed and said, “Well, let me tell you. We tried several times, but with a full load of water, it took a long time to get ‘er up to speed and when we got to the fire, we couldn’t stop ‘er. By the time we got ‘er stopped and turned around, the fire had burned out!!” All the guys laughed and slapped their knees. Then Al, with a twinkle in his eye, leaned up to my ear and said, “And you know what, that dxmn Ford wasn’t any better”.

When I indicated I needed to move on, Al asked me to wait a minute. He said he was going home to get something for me to take home for Gary. He was back in no time with a new, mint dealer plate from the Studebaker dealer, PARKIN Motor, Co. Al stated Mr. Parkin was first a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer beginning about 1937, adding Studebaker in late 1940. Al related that Mr. Parkin was a proud man who always wanted everything neat and he put up with no half measures on anything. He painted his buildings every year and was proud his dealership stood out from the other three dealers in town at that time. He had to drop Studebaker in 1965 and closed the doors forever in 1974. There are no car dealers in Earlville in 2006.

As the firemen and I shook hands and said good-by, Al asked if I would like to see the former dealership. Of course, so I jumped in his truck and we stopped in front of the sad and unkempt former dealership. Al shook his head and commented Mr. Parkin would turn in his grave if he saw how the building looks now. I took several photos for Gary and we returned to the fire house. Al thanked me for coming and sharing, I thanked him for taking his time to come out to meet me and for the gift I was taking back to Virginia. As I drove out of town, I found the reason for the revving engines. Earlville has a drag strip at the edge of town. I guess that’s why the town is deserted on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in September.

After leaving Earlville and heading East on Iowa Rt. 20, I mused at the nice welcome and sharing moments from a group of guys who had no idea I would step into their Saturday afternoon. This trip was my first in the so-called mid-West and I was finding it an extremely friendly environment in which to be.

Several hours later and many miles of corn fields, I arrived in Dubuque, IA. It was near evening and I debated the option of driving on to Bloomington, which lies about 55 miles North across the Mississippi River, or spending the night in Dubuque. As I had sent a message to Bloomington earlier that I would be there on Sunday (Oct. 1) afternoon, I decided to stay in Dubuque for the night. I did tour the city before dark- nice city. By this time I was convinced that I would have to drive out for the Studebaker International Meet in 2009, which is scheduled to be held in Cedar Rapids, IA. I really like this part of the country!

On Sunday morning, I got an early start to my Wisconsin destination. My intent was to find a church to attend prior to my meeting at the fire house in Bloomington. What a fantastic day, beautiful weather, beautiful dairy farms stretching forever to the horizon, beautiful scenery! I arrived in Bloomington (population 701) about 10:00 AM. It was as deserted as Earlville was the day before. I drove through the down, which has two churches, both with 9:00 AM services. All of a sudden my attention was diverted. While driving by one of the churches, in a neighboring driveway, sat a red 2R10 pickup. Oh happy days, this was going to be a great visit. I stopped to take several photos. The truck turned out to be a 1950 model and it looked solid with an older repaint. No one seemed to be at home and I didn’t attract any attention while taking photos and looking over the truck. I now wondered if other Studebakers lurked about the town. I made a second pass by the fire house and decided to stop and take photos of the firemen’s memorial out front and the then of the fire house itself. At this point, I had observed only two cars moving in the town! I figured everyone was at church or still in bed.

On the click of the camera, a moped came puttering up. Denny, a long-time fireman, introduced himself as an officer and that he had been alerted to watch for a stranger in town. We entered the town’s new fire house (built in 2004) and Denny took me on a quick tour of the facility. The town has six motorized fire fighting units and very nice quarters, training area and office space. I was impressed with this facility in such a small town.

Denny picked up the phone, dialed six numbers and simply said, “Come to the Fire House”. Within five minutes, eight firemen appeared. Introductions were made and I had to explain who I was and why I was there. I shared my photo album with them and they shared their records and photos and we had a great time telling stories. They also summoned the son of the former Studebaker dealer and he came to add memories of his Dad’s business, RICHTER’S STUDEBAKER CO. The dealership was in business from 1938 to the end of Studebaker production in 1966. The dealership had occupied three different locations over the years. Several of the men remembered my truck, old No. 2, when it was driven in from Logansport, IN by several of their fathers. That was a big day for these men as the Town needed new equipment. They had weathered the war years with their old No. 1, a 1930 Chevrolet. They were impressed that the officers were able to order and purchase a new Studebaker M16-52 chassis in late 1947 with the assistance with Mr. Richter. They ordered the chassis with the heavy duty equipment package which included a two-speed rear axle, fish-plated chassis rails, hydrovac brake booster with reserve pressure tank, shock absorbers and the largest tires and wheels available. No. 2 was this fire company’s main fire fighting unit from 1948 until 1959 when it was replaced by a new Ford C-800 unit. No. 2 was placed in reserve status for the next 20 years. It was sold to Mr. John Bradel of Cranberry, PA in 1979, from whom I purchased No. 2 in 2000.

We had a fun time for over two hours. These guys gave me a Bloomington fireman’s badge, circa 1948, a newer badge, a fireman’s hat, a new book on the history of the fire service in their county, as well as several other printed memorabilia items. Reluctantly, we finally had to break it up as several of the men had family matters to attend to on this fine Sunday afternoon. One of the older members volunteered to take me on a tour of the Town so I could photograph the three former dealership buildings. I was also promised by the former dealer’s son that he would send me photos of his father and the group that had driven my truck in from Indiana (which he honored). Unfortunately, I did not see any other Studebakers in town.

I left Bloomington about 3:00 PM and headed for Chicago. What a pleasant drive with the fresh memories of two great groups of dedicated firemen who took me in with open arms and shard the beautiful environments in which they live and work. I was struck with the similarities of Earlville and Bloomington. Both are small communities, both needed new fire apparatus at the end of WWII, and both purchased Studebaker M15-52 fire trucks. The towns are only about 40 miles apart, as the crow flies, but are on separate sides of the Mississippi River. Yet no one in either town knew of the other town or its fire apparatus stories.

I was truly impressed with this part of America. Much cleaner that the East Coast and just as friendly, perhaps a little more relaxed. The miles flew under the van and by 10:00 PM, I was in a motel in South Bend, IN. I had a great night’s sleep. I felt as a king who had just toured his kingdom.

On Monday, I drove the remaining 600 miles to Louisa in the glow of the friendliness of the people I had met in Omaha, Iowa and Wisconsin. No man could ask much more from his country and the greatest society in the world.

NOTE: This material is copyrighted by the author who reserves all right and privileges permitted under the law.

This story was printed in the newsletter, The Studebaker Menu, a publication of the Greater Virginia Chapter, SDC in the fall of 2006.

By Frank Drumheller, Editor
The Studebaker Menu

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