Antique fire engines do not come with the promise of domestic bonding, but when Bill and Nancy Foley’s children reached their teenage years, the hobby created a bond that kept these teenagers and friends involved with the rest of the family.
Bill Foley bought one truck; then another, until he owned eight. His son, Eric, continued his dad’s legacy, and there are now 25 fire trucks in the family collection. From among many fine choices, a 1930 Ford Model AA caught the attention of Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment.
Sadly, Bill Foley’s life ended in October 2012, but his wife and three adult children—sons Eric and Randy and daughter Glenda—continue to preserve and treasure not only their memories of him, but also the tradition of good times and positive influences those fire trucks represent. They have preserved the collection, as well. This Ford Model AA was Bill Foley’s second piece of fire apparatus, and research into its mysterious history would connect us with a man who drove it more than 60 years ago.
“It must have been about 1978 or ’79 when Dad bought our very first fire engine—a large American LaFrance chain-drive,” son Eric Foley of Olympia, Washington, recalled, “and we did musters.”
Musters are competitive displays of traditional firefighting skills. They involve teams of six people racing against the clock to haul the fire hose out of the truck, hook it up, and use the force of water from the nozzle to knock down a target. They were very popular in the 1970s and ’80s.
“The mustering was a family affair,” Nancy Foley said. “We all participated. Both Eric and Randy were on the men’s team. Bill usually drove the engine. Glenda, our daughter, was the driver for the women’s team.”
That American LaFrance, when purchased, had the words “Old Village Fire Co.” on the hood, so the family adopted that phrase for its muster team name. They ultimately had it painted on every fire truck that came into the collection, along with the name of each truck’s hometown. A man well up in years, who had lettered fire trucks for the City of Tacoma, agreed to paint “Old Village Fire Co.” and “Falmouth, Maine” on the hood of our featured Model AA.
This fire truck first went into service in the town of Falmouth, Maine, in 1930. Two embossed metal plates—one on each corner of the tailboard—say, “Rutledge South Portland,” the name and location of the shop responsible for building the truck’s body on the 157-inch Ford Model AA chassis. Later, the truck somehow ended up in Stowe, Vermont, as the property of Charles F. Black, the man who sold it to Bill Foley. What happened in between, no one knew until we researched it for this article. In a letter dated November 28, 1983, Black stated he had last driven it in 1969. After that, he stored it in a barn until he shipped it to Foley in January 1984.
The truck needed little restoration, since it was in such good condition, with only 4,615 original miles on the odometer. It now registers 5,500. The original tires remained on the truck until 2014. Eric Foley removed a small, unattractive windshield and turn signals on the fenders, which were not original equipment. He also got rid of the ribbed black rubber that once covered the running boards and overlaid the wood hidden underneath with new oak. The 4×10-foot wood plank bed was replaced, too. When Bill Foley took delivery, it held a 250-gallon water tank, which Eric Foley still has, along with the plumbing and chrome pieces that came with it. Shortly after the purchase, his father removed the tank, “… to lighten up the truck for mustering and give us more room for taking people out for ice cream.”
After receiving a new paint job, new chrome on the headlights and radiator shell, plus new seat upholstery shortly after it was purchased, the Ford appeared once again ready to race down a street in Falmouth in 1930, its siren’s warning clearing the way. Bill Foley’s first drive in it must have felt like time travel.
“It drove like a brand-new Model AA,” Eric Foley said. “Nothing was worn out on it. It always started, always ran, and it always got the looks. Dad liked things that were reliable and easy to use, and that one was definitely reliable.”
Rather than a playful brush with history, the experience of driving this fire truck during its working years is an actual memory for a 77-year-old gentleman living in Falmouth, Maine. With help from Lieutenant Erik Knudsen of the Falmouth Fire-EMS Dept., Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment had the privilege of speaking with former Fire Chief Freeman Cleaves III, who knew the Model AA well and confirmed its identity through photos, recognizing it at once by its features. He remembered everything about it—the ladder, bell, hose reel, dual rear wheels, and especially a particular arrangement of three red lights in a metal disk, mounted on a stanchion behind the driver’s side. How many times had he changed those light bulbs? When he looked at the tailboard again after decades, in his mind, he still saw up to six men standing on it, hanging on tightly to the eye-level handrail above.
Although too young to have witnessed its arrival at the fire station designated “Engine 3” in the Pleasant Hill section of Falmouth, Cleaves grew up with the Model AA. His uncle and father—brothers Elmer Cleaves and Freeman Cleaves Jr., respectively—served as fire chiefs for “Engine 3.” Later, the city’s four separate fire departments merged to become districts within one fire department, under a single chief, and Freeman Cleaves III himself served in that capacity for three years, 1984-1986.
“I actually first drove that truck when I was 15, in 1953,” Cleaves said, chuckling. “I snuck in there a little early. We called it ‘Tank 3.’ Even the bay it sat in was marked ‘Tank 3.’ I’m guessing it was very close to 1960 when the truck [was] retired.”
He recalls hearing that an antique dealer bought the Model AA with Vermont as its destination. At some point later, a letter arrived at the fire station containing photos of it, including one showing a Vermont license plate designating it as an antique vehicle.
Cleaves also remembers that a bed divider provided storage areas for 2½- and 1½-inch hoses. The pump gauge can be seen in the panel below the seat, on the truck’s right side. It shows readings up to 300 psi, more than enough to destroy those hoses.
“It was a gear pump, rather than a centrifugal pump,” Cleaves recalled, “a ‘positive displacement’ type of pump. If you weren’t cautious, you could bust hoses with it, because the water coming out of it would exceed 250 psi. I pumped a lot of fires with that truck.”
In fact, he still remembers the first time he drove it to a fire, which happened to be in the woods right across the street from the station. Unlike with larger modern trucks, the firemen did not hesitate to use this tough Ford with its dual rear wheels as an off-road vehicle.
”You could take it right out in the woods and not worry about scratching the paint,” he said. “And of course, every week, a lot of firemen trained on that truck.”
Some of his other memories of driving it sound more miserable than exciting. Imagine how it felt to be in an open-cab fire truck in the middle of a Maine winter.
“In the wintertime,” he recalled, “it was brutal cold. If you hit snow, you looked like an igloo going down the road, because the snow would come right into the seat and just cover you up. It had a little windshield for a little protection, but that was about it.”
Cleaves remembers using the Model AA’s mechanical brakes and taking corners with no power steering. Its top speed was about 50 mph. In fact, its speed, along with the truck’s lighter weight (compared to the American LaFrance) and ease of towing, were reasons Bill Foley wanted it.
“We’d enjoy these fireman musters with our whole family and our friends,” Eric Foley said, “but the big LaFrance chain-drive was just too slow. Dad went back east on a trip, found this Model AA, looked at it, bought it, and had it shipped out.”
Another member of the Old Village Fire Co. muster team who remembers Bill Foley, his collection, and the good times they had is family friend Gary Hauenstein, a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He remembers how Bill Foley appreciated the fire truck’s 4-cylinder Ford engine with the designation of “Model A” (not to be confused with the body style) but dreamed of more.
“I do know they had a Model A engine and a Model B engine,” Hauenstein said, “and the Model B was kind of a souped-up engine. Bill always talked about putting a Model B in there.”
The Foleys began participating in more musters in Washington and Oregon, winning state championships, even traveling as far south as California to compete. Eric Foley described them driving a one-ton Chevrolet dually pickup with their third fire engine—a 1917 Ford Model T with an American LaFrance “chemical wagon” fire engine body—in the bed, and the Model AA on a trailer custom built for it.
“It was quite the show going down the road,” he remembered. “That went on up to about 1987. At that point, the musters kind of went by the wayside. Randy and I were off to college.”
When home on Christmas break, the boys helped continue a tradition that began during their teens. The local fire department had ended its practice of driving a fire engine through the neighborhoods to hand out candy canes to children with Santa Claus on the back of the truck. Bill Foley made arrangements with his good friend, the assistant fire chief, to start using his LaFrance to transport Santa. The Ford Model AA, covered with colored lights and carrying a big sound system, ran ahead of the LaFrance to get people to come out of their houses. This went on for five nights.
“We handed out a lot of candy canes, and it was a lot of fun,” Eric Foley said. “All my friends would come out, and their girlfriends would help, too. I usually drove the LaFrance. My brother, Randy, drove the Model AA, and we just had a lot of fun.”
Hauenstein remembers how much his friend Bill cared about the community, like Nancy and her adult children still do. In addition to this Christmas activity, Bill Foley initiated the building of floats for the area’s annual Daffodil Parade. Hauenstein said Foley did not care much for committee work but always accomplished great things on his own. Nancy always supported him.
“The fire department gave out food baskets,” Hauenstein said, “and Bill would say, ‘Give me about 12 names.’ Then, he and Nancy would fund 12 families and deliver everything on the fire engine with Santa Claus. That all came out of their pockets. That was all from the heart. Bill was a very, very giving person.”
Those times are gone, but Bill Foley’s attitude toward life and his fellow human beings lives on in his family and those who knew him. His spirit of fun and love of life (and the people in his) seem to have even permeated the old 1930 Ford, the family’s favorite, by far, in the collection.
“Out of all the rigs we had, it was the most enjoyable to drive,” Eric Foley reminisced. “The number of times we loaded into that thing and went down to the local ice cream store was numerous. It was definitely the most loved.”
Because of those feelings, Eric Foley thought to assign the truck its most important, and poignant, duty in all of its 72 years of service. At the private family funeral for his father (which was followed by a public memorial), the dear old Model AA bore in its bed, not hose for mustering or teenagers on an ice cream run, but his father’s casket, for a glorious last ride.
“Bill’s legacy, his love of vintage fire engines, their history and preservation, as well as his love of vintage trucks and cars, has been passed to his three children and grandsons,” Nancy Foley said. “He would have loved to have been here to share his stories about the Model AA for this magazine article.”
Model A or AA?
Although Bill Foley, his family, and his friends always referred to this truck as “the Model A,” he questioned whether it was an A or an AA. Fire apparatus expert Walter McCall, of Windsor, Ontario, Canada—who has studied this subject for more than 50 years and written many books—confirmed the truck’s designation.
“The Rutledge Model ‘A’ fire engine is most definitely built on the 1930 Ford Model ‘AA’ commercial truck chassis, as evidenced by its five-stud steel disc wheels, dual rear tires, and the radiator shell without the little downward-facing ‘peak’ at is center, as seen on Ford Model ‘A’ passenger cars and light trucks.”
Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment is grateful to Deanna Robinson, owner of Thornewood Castle, for the use of the home’s grounds for this photo shoot. The “castle” sits on four acres of forested land in Lakewood, Washington, where its huge leaded-glass windows face American Lake. Chester Thorne had it built between 1908 and 1911 as gift for his bride. A solid three-foot-thick foundation supports its 10-inch-thick concrete floors and concrete and steel walls, covered with imported bricks from a dismantled 400-year-old Elizabethan manor in England, as well as some bricks from Wales. Oak paneling, an oak staircase, and medieval stained glass from the manor were also included in these building materials transported to the Pacific Northwest on three separate ships, which traveled around Cape Horn. Thornewood Castle has provided the setting for several films and many photo shoots.
Although still a private residence, it is available for rent as an event venue, as well functioning as a bed-and-breakfast inn. For complete information, a gallery of photos of this historic inn and its gardens, and more, please see thornewoodcastle.com or call 253-584-4393.
Other Firefighters Enjoyed Ford’s Reliable AA Trucks
Lieutenant Erik Knudsen of the Falmouth Fire-EMS Dept. provided invaluable assistance by connecting us not only to Freeman Cleaves III, but also to another of Falmouth’s former fire chiefs, 88-year-old Ted Vail. He, too, went into fire service in Falmouth as a teenager, during World War II, and drove a similar 1930 Ford Model AA, built as a hose truck. His descriptions of the city’s four original fire departments, the kinds of trucks they owned, and the nature of the work they did contribute background information and valuable insights.