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Antique firetrucks showcased at museum

Fifteen years in the making, a rare Packard fire truck from 1938 will be on display in Wisconsin

By Samantha West
The Leader-Telegram

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — When Al Finseth of Augusta looks back, acquiring and restoring his “unbelievably rare” antique firetruck was entirely a tale of luck and one-in-a-million circumstances.

Along with nine other antique firetrucks, Finseth’s pride and joy, a 1938 Packard firetruck, was parked in front of the Chippewa Valley Museum Sunday afternoon as part of the Chippewa Valley chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America’s Antique Firetruck Show.

Spectators of all ages wandered around the lawn, admiring the gleaming firetrucks dating from the 1930s to the 1960s.

“I’m a volunteer firefighter, so I like seeing all the old vehicles and all the history,” Dan Smith of Sand Creek said. “Back then you didn’t have a lot, so they did with what they had.”

Another truck displayed was the museum’s own 1931 Seagrave fire engine which is not usually publicly displayed.

This, Chippewa Valley SPAAMFAA President Jack Running said, was why he decided to reach out to the museum for help with the event.

“We wanted to get involved with them so that people could see (the firetruck), because it’s in a building in the back and no one gets to see it. So this is what kind of brought this together, so we all collaborated so people could see some of these things,” Running said. “I’d like to make it an annual fair so each year we can build on it as we get more and more trucks restored.”

Because the museum’s truck and Finseth’s ran around the same time, Running reached out to Finseth to showcase his recently restored truck, too.

During the show, Finseth sat in a lawn chair shaded from the sun and directly in front of his truck, looking on with pride and enjoying community members’ interest in his vehicle.

“I like to see little kids that like it, and we run the siren for them once in a while,” Finseth, 77, said. “You get a lot of satisfaction out of it, understanding how much people appreciate it. This truck and restoring it was really one in a million.”

Restoring the truck, a process that cost him about $131,000 and spanned over 15 years since he purchased the truck in 1999, was not easy for Finseth — it took about a year for him to get the firetruck, which started its run in Eau Claire in 1938, then moved to Fall Creek in 1954, where it was eventually retired in the late 1990s and given to the Fall Creek Lions Club.

Finseth, who had kept his eye on the one-of-a-kind truck, knew he wanted to help when he heard the Lions Club was working on the truck. So he offered to help, having restored several other Packards in the past. To his dismay, they never called him back.

But a year later, he finally got the phone call he’d been waiting for.

“I felt kind of bad about that. But then a year later he called me and said they were giving up on the firetruck,” Finseth said. “Everyone talked about it and had ideas, but there was no one working on it ... so he said ‘We decided you would be the guy, of anybody, that would preserve it and restore it.’”

So Finseth bought the truck, and set to work restoring the vehicle, which was not in good shape, the paint completely worn down to the metal, he recalled. The truck was also missing many parts that were important to restoring the truck to its former glory, including the original siren and a hubcap.

In order to find both parts, Finseth did extensive research, traveling to a museum in St. Louis that had a similar firetruck. There he examined the siren, taking over 40 photos to determine what he needed for his truck.

While Finseth was searching for the hubcap, he randomly happened upon it at a thrift sale in Augusta, which Finseth took as yet another sign he was meant to restore the truck.

“What is that, one chance in a million? I should’ve went to the casino that night, my luck was up at the moment,” Finseth recalled with a chuckle.

With the help of his friends Gary, who performed most of the electrical and engine work, and Charlotte Moore, who documented the process with photos, the truck was finished in June 2015.

Sunday left Finseth feeling thankful for his luck and the people, including the Moores, who have helped him along the way.

“Tomorrow, I’ll be 77, but … I don’t feel that old and for a guy my age, I’m lucky ... I’ve done a lot of things, I’ve had a full life,” Finseth said. “And I can climb under these cars and still work on them.”

Copyright 2016 the Leader-Telegram