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Pa. fire company celebrates 125th anniversary with focus on hand-drawn ladder wagon

The 1899 ladder wagon built by American LaFrance Fire Engine Co. will be the centerpiece of the weekend celebration


Mifflinburg Hose Company/Facebook

By Justin Strawser
The Daily Item

MIFFLINBURG, Pa. — Members of the Mifflinburg Hose Company No. 1 don’t have to go far to remember their roots since the first vehicle in its history is on display in their engine room.

The 1899 hand-drawn ladder wagon built by the American LaFrance Fire Engine Co. in Elmira, N.Y., was placed in a glass display case eight feet off the ground last year and illuminated at the company’s headquarters at 325 Chestnut St. It was the first vehicle the fire company purchased when it was founded on June 10, 1898.

“It’s really neat to know that when this place started, that was what they had. When you look at what we have sitting in the front row now, we’ve come a long way,” said Chief Steve Walter, a 35-year member and chief for six years. “It is definitely a conversation starter with anyone who walks into this fire station. Whether they are affiliated with the fire department or not, they are intrigued by the ladder wagon.”

The fire company on Sept. 29-30 will be celebrating its 125th anniversary with a parade, a two-day carnival, live music, a car show and fireworks from the Mifflinburg Community Park. The goal is to honor the fire company’s heritage and history with the community.

Little is known about the wooden ladder wagon’s history. It was commissioned for the fire company in 1898 and used for an unknown number of years into the 20th century until the hose company purchased its first motorized vehicle.

“It was pulled by humans,” said Walter. “There were a number of leather buckets on there where they would get water from any type of water source, fill them and throw water on the fire. There were also ladders that were utilized to get to second-floor windows.”

Newspaper records show that the Mifflinburg Hose Company kept the ladder wagon, using it for displays and celebrations. An advertisement in The Daily Item in 1982 indicated the ladder wagon would be on display at the second annual Susquehanna Valley Mall Fire Prevention Expo in October. It was also used in the parade for the company’s 100-year celebration in 1998 and the Firemen’s Parade in Milton in 2005 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Great Milton Fire of 1880.

Max “Pappy” Zeller, a 61-year member, said he helped pull the wagon in the 100-year parade.

“That’s the only time I recall doing it,” said Zeller. “I know it was displayed elsewhere, but I didn’t go along with that.”

Walter said the wagon has been housed in various locations throughout the years.

“There were a couple of other barns it was housed in, covered up throughout the years,” he said.

Displayed and restored

In 2005, according to newspaper records, the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum, using objects on loan from the fire department and its members, opened a temporary exhibit called “Hook and Ladder.” The centerpiece of the exhibit was the ladder wagon.

At some point, the Buggy Museum placed the wagon in storage. It wasn’t faring well in storage and company members didn’t want to see it fall into disrepair, according to previously published reports in The Daily Item.

When the wagon came home in 2021, the fire company commissioned a full restoration. Isaac Reiff and sons from Vicksburg Buggy Shop carefully photographed the 16-foot steel-frame wagon before beginning the $10,000 worth of work.

“We did retighten the wheels. Otherwise, it did not take any repairs. It was just cleaning, removing all the paint and with these good pictures we were able to get it (to its original look) as close as I could,” Reiff told The Daily Item in October 2021.

The wagon was sanded down, much of it by hand, and sprayed with a candy apple red paint. Reiff replicated by hand the detailed striping and lettering in metallic gold, straw gold and black. That took the most time. All told, the restoration of the wagon and its three original ladders took more than six months of work.

The wagon has an extended arm at its front with two sets of handles — two firefighters on each side. There are two spools at its front end where ropes could be unwound, allowing another 10 firefighters to aid in moving it about.

There are hooks to carry about 20 leather water buckets. There are also spaces for helmets, axes, a hook, lanterns and a tool box. A cog on the rear wheel rotates to trigger a fire bell as the wagon was put in motion.

Glass case constructed

Retired Deputy Fire Chief and former District Judge William Yohn, who died in 2006, left behind money in his will for the company to build a display case for the wagon, said Walter.

Alex Haines and firefighter Andrew Walter built the glass display case and the wagon was put on display in August 2022. The display box is 28 feet long, seven feet deep and five feet wide.

The wood and glass structure has ventilation and LED strip lighting. It’s sitting on I-beams, welded to several posts, said Walter.

The glass display also has a bell from a 1968 Hahn truck, said Walter.

Zeller said it’s nice to have the wagon on display at the fire department.

“Anybody who comes in can see it,” said Zeller. “That’s the history of the company right there.”

The wagon is not the only item on display at the fire company. Several shelves are dedicated to pictures, helmets, tools, buckets and nozzles. The department has been sharing photographs on its Facebook page of former apparatus leading up to the 125th anniversary.

Eric Scicchitano contributed to this report.

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