by Candace Brown, photos by Jack Harrison
In July 2016, Wes Thompson of Blenheim, Ontario, Canada, took a risk. Ready or not, he was taking his gorgeous 1917 Bickle pumper to the Great Lakes International Antique Fire Apparatus Assoc.’s annual muster at Frankenmuth, Michigan.
Thompson and restorer Stan Uher, owner of Classic Coachworks in Blenheim, had worked on the restoration for approximately a year, with Uher doing most of the work. The Bickle looked great, but they had never tried pumping with it. As they nervously began to draft water from the Cass River, which flows through Frankenmuth, there was a lot of pride on the line.
“Nothing blows up when you’re by yourself—only when you have a crowd looking over your shoulder,” Thompson said. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
They did know how much work had gone into improving the old pumper, but the machine still held secrets. Although R.S. Bickle Co. of Woodstock, Ontario, built it to be pulled by horses, it was equipped with a 206ci, 4-cylinder gasoline engine. The engine serves only to run the pump. Thompson suspects it is one of only a couple left from a certain order Bickle filled. The other possible mate (or mates) is only vaguely similar, with different mechanical arrangements and engines. Some previous owner found this one near the Ontario tree nursery in the area of St. Williams. The words “Province of Ontario” were painted on the side. Thompson later bought it through eBay.
“The rig itself doesn’t have a serial number on it, so we don’t know precisely where it served,” Thompson said. “It was probably government property right up until, I’m guessing, the 1990s, then transferred from some government station in northern Ontario down to this tree nursery. They probably got rid of it at a surplus auction or something. That’s what I’m speculating.”
Neither Thompson nor Uher have been able to find any original paperwork or learn much about the history of this apparatus. Thompson believes his pumper was built during the aftermath of the devastating Matheson Fire of 1916, which destroyed 500,000 acres of bush in northern Ontario and killed 223 people. In an effort to bring badly needed fire protection to communities in remote areas, the provincial government paid to have apparatus put into service there.
In the case of Thompson’s pumper, taxpayer dollars were not well spent. When he and Uher opened up and examined the engine (built by Midwest Engine Co. of Indianapolis, Indiana), they saw little evidence of its ever having been used. The inside appeared pristine, and Thompson and Uher think they know why. Probably no apparatus ever built was more difficult to start, considering how its hand-cranked engine was permanently attached to the high-pressure pump. They speculate it did not run more than once.
“Just like in a Model T, you have to spin the engine fast enough to get it to work,” Thompson said. “By hand, you had to spin the engine and the pump fast enough to get the darned thing to start. It would require a very strong person to crank that engine and that pump all at once to get it to fire.”
Uher agreed, saying, “It’s still a little baffling to me why they would even produce it like that. We could see that the firefighters of the day had a whale of a time trying to start this thing. Consequently, I think it got relegated to the back corner of the fire hall just to look good. That resulted in very little engine and pump wear.”
The strange thing was, the engine could have accepted a starter and clutch from the beginning. Uher explained that when the bellhousing—the casting behind the engine, between the engine and transmission—was produced, it included a hole for a starter and a cross-shaft provision to use a clutch. Neither were used. During the restoration, Uher and Thompson designed and built a flywheel to fit and made an adapter plate for the starter, allowing it to be bolted into the bellhousing.
“Because we wanted to watch this rig pump, we fashioned a clutch so we could separate the engine from the pump and spin it separately,” Thompson said. “And we put on an electric starter so we didn’t kill ourselves trying to get it started.”
They bought an off-the-shelf reproduction clutch mechanism meant for a 1948 Ford. These two men who had known each other since high school next demonstrated their ingenuity and ability to improvise. To make the actual linkage and mechanism engage and release the clutch, they adapted a ratcheting arm from an old piece of farm equipment. As for the Bickle-Northern rotary pump, Uher simply took it apart and examined it. Just like the engine itself, it looked as good as new. With a clutch to engage and disengage the pump, the old Bickle apparatus became an entirely different beast.
“It makes it a lot more pleasurable and easy to operate, despite the fact that it was a lot of work, mind you,” Uher said. “These provisions were there, but it still took a lot of designing and creating and machining and such to make it all work effortlessly.”
After mastering the mechanical challenges, they went to work on refinishing the exterior. It had badly rusted and been badly repainted.
“I like to say someone had thoughtfully painted it with a broom,” Thompson said. “But in doing so, they saved the metal. Instead of letting it rust, someone had taken a paint brush and some red paint and just sloshed it all over the place, but that saved it.”
Oddly enough, according to Uher, the rusting action itself might have helped preserve the lettering on the hood. All the original paint was gone, yet under the bad repainting job, they could see a ghost image of the letters. He thinks the letters themselves, because of the extra layer of paint, were the last to rust. That extra layer made them slightly higher than the background, and therefore visible.
Uher had previously restored another uniquely-Canadian fire apparatus—a 1927 Lorne/Stewart triple combination in a certain shade of deep red, closely matching that of a Volkswagen paint with the code LY3E. Thompson liked it and wanted it on his Bickle. Uher replicated the gold leaf lettering on the hood. Kenneth Soderbeck, owner of Hand in Hand Restoration in Jackson, Michigan, did the rest.
“We asked him to do it in the fashion that he thought Bickle would have done it,” Thompson said.
The pumper originally had tall wagon wheels. Someone later replaced them with late-1920s Buick automobile wheels with pneumatic tires. Gone, too, was the original rigging that allowed it to be pulled by two horses. Thompson believes that toward the end of its career a tractor pulled it. They adapted the hitch so he could tow it behind a motorized 1921 Bickle built on an International Model “S” Speed Truck chassis. It is all original, including its paint and gold leaf adornments.
After a lot of last-minute scrambling, Thompson and Uher finished the project only about a week before the muster in Frankenmuth. Thompson will never forget the tension as they prepared to pump for the first time.
“We held our breath and closed our eyes, and our toes curled,” he said. “We gave it the throttle. Son of a gun, it worked! She revved up, she burped, and BANG, the water caught and away she went. Everybody cheered. It ‘done me proud!’”
In 1906, Robert S. Bickle founded the company that would make his family name famous in the world of fire apparatus. It started in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but was moved to his hometown of Woodstock, Ontario, in 1915.
The Bickle Story
In spite of the idiosyncrasies of our featured pumper, the Bickle name became iconic in Canada for producing high-quality, distinctively Canadian fire apparatus. In the early days, that included many drawn by horses but with gasoline engines powering their pumps.
Robert Sydney Bickle established the R.S. Bickle Co. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1906 and was its president. In 1915, the business moved to his hometown of Woodstock, Ontario, while Bickle himself moved to Chicago. His brother, William R. Bickle, led the flourishing Woodstock company with their brother-in-law, George H. King, who was in charge of sales. After King died in 1919, Robert Bickle returned and once again ran the fire apparatus business, which was renamed Bickle Fire Engines Ltd. His brother William became secretary-treasurer, and another family member, B.I. Bickle, managed sales.
Bickle produced not only its own designs, but was also licensed to build, for the Canadian market, those of other companies, including Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 1935, Seagrave Fire Engines Ltd. of St. Catharines, Ontario, became a victim of the Great Depression. A year later, it and Bickle Fire Engine Co. merged and became Bickle-Seagrave Ltd. The Bickle brothers retired in 1945, and ownership then passed to a holding company. Bickle-Seagrave Ltd. lasted until 1955, becoming King-Seagrave in 1956, which continued for another 30 years. Then, the Bickle family business was finally gone, but never forgotten.