Fire trucks worth chasing

Fair exhibit has it all — history, technology and lots of human backbone

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer



If you go

• What: Clark County Fair.

• Hours Saturday: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

• Where: 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

• Admission: Adults, $10; seniors 62 and older, $8; kids 7-12, $7 after 5 p.m.; kids 6 and younger, free. Group packs available for admission discounts daily.

• Getting there: Parking, $6 per vehicle. C-Tran shuttle, $2 round-trip from free park-and-ride lots around the area. C-Tran riders get a $1 discount on fair admission. C-Tran fair schedules:

• Carnival: Noon to 11 p.m.; unlimited rides, $30.

• Grandstands: Monster Trucks & Pro Arena Tuff Trucks, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., free with fair admission.

• Other highlights:

Toddler Trot Contest, noon; register at 11:30 a.m.

Harbor Patrol Jazz Band, 5 p.m.

• Pets: Not permitted, except for personal service animals or those on exhibition or in competition.

• Send your fair photos to The Columbian:http://columbian....

• More information: or 360-397-6180.

No question: Big, red fire trucks get American hearts pumping.

Actually, a display of 200 years’ worth of pumpers, fire engines, ladder trucks and all types of fire fighting gear offer a quiet respite from the bustle of the Clark County Fair.

The free exhibit — 44 fire trucks and wagons in all — is steeped with history from one end to the other, adjacent to the fair’s main exhibition hall and next to the food court.

“It’s great. I’ve never seen a bunch of ’em together like this,” said Denny Casteel, 60, a regular fair visitor from Portland.

“It’s like a kid watching them going down a street. They always fascinate you,” Casteel said, upon reflection. “You see ’em in a parade, people cheer. There’s something about ’em.”

Indeed. And, with an eye on the looming 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Fair Manager John Morrison thought it appropriate to pay homage to all firefighters, including the hundreds in New York City who perished that awful morning.

Fitting, then, that the gleaming 1899 pumper carriage just inside the door is stamped with “FDNY.” If only for Hollywood’s sake.

Turns out the vintage American model, precursor to the famous American-La France brand, played in a pair of feature films, one of them “Hello Dolly.”

Knowing that, La Center fire equipment buffs Cathie Bigelow and Dick Blackburn rushed to view the movie, specifically, a parade scene.

“If you put it in slow motion, it was (visible) maybe three seconds,” Bigelow said, laughing. The pumper would land in a Sacramento, Calif., museum, before Bigelow and Blackburn snapped it up for their own Whitefire Antique Fire Brigade.

Fair visitors should definitely seek out the gregarious couple, or any other expert enthusiasts lingering in the building.

Behind each hulking, gleaming (or battle-scarred) engine, there’s an amazing history.

For example: Early firefighting wasn’t quite in slow motion, but surely had its issues, Bigelow explained.

Nineteenth century “volunteers” were recruited with help of shiny and sophisticated equipment, she said. For instance, see the amazing, carved-wood Hope hose carriage, just behind the 1899 pumper. Built in 1805, it’s the oldest piece on hand. “There isn’t a straight piece of wood on it,” she said, admiringly.

These private teams would typically rush to a fire, and gain cash or some other recompense from a grateful resident or shopkeeper if they snuffed a roaring blaze in time.

But in larger cities and towns, units rarely were alone: Competing teams would arrive, the first to “show water” earning the right to battle the flames and collect the reward, Bigelow said. And, yes, brawls often broke out between hungry crews, she said.

It was only after a good slice of Cincinnati, Ohio, burned while ornery crews scuffled that city leaders chose to hire a public service fire crew, Bigelow said. That came in 1854.

A whole new era of U.S. firefighting was born. For the next hundred years, evolving from horse-drawn wagons to gleaming trucks with massive rubber wheels, brass headlamps and rails, American factories cranked out an increasingly impressive array of equipment.

Family legacy

That swings us to the opposite end of the building.

There stand a dashing trio of large Ahrens-Fox trucks: a hose tender, a pumper and ladder truck, all purchased by the family of Dick Streissguth, 82, former longtime fire chief in Clark County and ardent collector of all things fire-fighting — trucks, hoses, suits, tanks and all manner of gear.

In fact, the Streissguths supply 11 of the 44 machines on display. These three 1927 products share an incredible history, all apparently in production on the same (Cincinnati) factory line at the same time, models considered “the Rolls Royce of fire engines” of that era.

Dick’s son, Rick, himself a fire captain with Fire District 6 in Hazel Dell, and his good friend, Doug “Jake” Jacobsen, were killed in a Montana pickup crash in late 2009, en route to pick up the hose tender.

“Everyone else didn’t want it. But (a cousin) and I said, after all the trouble, we wanted to (finish it),” explained Jacob Streissguth, 15, Rick’s son and Dick’s grandson, and a passenger who still bears scars from that wreck.

And so the trinity of Ahrens-Fox machines is whole, the N-S-44 tender with its mammoth 998 cubic-inch engine worthy of a second look.

“It took about five months to complete,” in contrast to the five years required to restore the Streissguths’ first Ahrens-Fox, Jacob said. “So, we’re getting better at what we do.”

Jacob is a skilled “polisher and re-assembler,” in Dick’s proud words. But he eagerly anticipates his 16th birthday next spring, and the chance to actually drive one of the vintage engines in some of Clark County’s homespun parades, after riding and waving from atop them all his young life.

After all, it’s in the family’s — and in Americans’ — blood.

As solemn signs in the room observe, and Dick reminded, “everyone seems to appreciate firefighters.”

The noble profession is “one of the nicest things that ever happened for humanity,” he said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or