By Candace Brown, Photos by Brad Bowling
If fire engines had memories, Bill Rausch’s 1926 Chevrolet-Jaeger triple-combination fire truck would probably savor those of its former life on a beautiful country estate in Michigan—before everything changed. According to Rausch, it went to only two fires during its first four decades. After that, challenges to this engine’s survival included fire itself.
In spite of its life of leisure, this truck was well-built to do a job, using advanced technology. In the mid-1920s, Charles Jaeger, of Detroit, designed a system to power various types of machinery directly off the crankshaft of automobiles or tractors and founded the Jaeger Portable Power Corp., which existed from 1926 to 1928.
According to an article in the Escanaba Daily Press (of Escanaba, Michigan), published May 23, 1928, Jaeger’s inventions included pumps suitable for farm, construction site, and firefighting applications, as well as power take-offs, “auto-powered” woodworking tools, and more. He collaborated with Chevrolet Motor Co. to produce fire apparatus his company assembled on a Chevrolet chassis. In many cases, including that of our featured vehicle, he wrapped it all in a body by Peter Pirsch & Sons. The fire trucks were marketed by Chevrolet and others, and a later model was based on a Ford Model A chassis.
Rausch and his wife, Jan, live in Clarkston, Michigan, where he spent 29 years as a volunteer firefighter with Independence Township Fire Dept. They love old fire engines, which Rausch has collected and restored since 1972. He currently owns six, including this pumper, purchased less than a decade ago. It runs on its original 4-cylinder Chevrolet engine, has a 3-speed transmission, and features a pump on the front bumper, designed to draw water from an outside source, such as a lake, pond, or stream. A chemical tank is located under the seat.
“I’d known about this truck for a long time,” Rausch, said. “At one point, I owned part of the property where it was—part of the Scripps estate, Wildwood Farms. William Scripps was the owner of the Detroit News.”
William E. Scripps (1882-1952), the only son of newspaper tycoon James E. Scripps, continued his father’s legacy as publisher while simultaneously going his own way. He shocked Detroit society in 1901 when he eloped with Nina Downey, the daughter of a local policeman. He was 19; she was 18. Their long marriage included four children and the establishment, in 1916, of the country estate they would name Wildwood Farm, which eventually grew to 3,830 acres. (Note: Research for this article uncovered references to the estate, both historical and recent, as either “Wildwood Farm” or “Wildwood Farms.”)
There, he pursued his passions for science and technology. He sought to improve agricultural practices, as in reclamation of depleted soil and mechanization. Scripps was an early and bold aviator, became famous for breeding cattle, created a wildlife preserve, had his landscaping professionally designed, built a school for the children of his employees, and more.
Scripps also loved his fire engine.
“The interesting part,” Rausch said, “is that the truck served the Scripps estate from the time he bought it in the 1920s until the late 1960s or early 1970s.”
The estate included numerous structures, in addition to a large mansion. Scripps bought the brand-new 1926 Chevrolet-Jaeger truck because of concerns about the ability of the local Lake Orion Fire Dept. to respond in time, should a fire occur on his property. An article titled “Favors Chevrolets With Fire-Fighting Equipment” appeared in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s Wilkes-Barre Record, on November 24, 1927, stating Scripps’ endorsement of the Chevrolet-Jaeger truck.
Scripps’ instincts proved correct. The article paraphrased his claim that the truck prevented losses worth half its selling price by extinguishing a fire in one of the estate buildings within a week of its arrival. A decade later, in 1937, this engine arrived first at the scene of a blaze on a neighbor’s farm. He made it available to the Lake Orion firefighters as a back-up and kept it handy in case of a fire in the hangar that housed his auto gyro or a disaster on his private runway, where Amelia Earhart once tested an experimental glider.
Rausch keeps this truck in an historic fire hall he and his wife purchased in the 1990s, in the Village of Goodrich, Michigan. It was originally purchased to house an 85-foot 1957 Mack tillered aerial fire truck his wife once owned. The Chevrolet-Jaeger had very different quarters back on the estate. According to a 1983 manuscript titled “The Story of Wildwood Farm,” written by Charles Baas, Scripps parked it in the garage built for his limousine, but this required a special “pocket” to be built, extending out from the back wall, to encase the protruding ladders. Other accounts place it in the hanger near the estate’s airstrip.
Scripps’ death in 1952 ultimately brought about the subdivision of the Wildwood property and the dispersal of all of his worldly possessions. In 1972, a man named Don Woods bought the fire truck from the Scripps estate.
“He had it for six months to a year, then sold it to a friend of mine by the name of Junior Reed, who had it for awhile,” Rausch said. “Then, Junior decided to sell the truck back to Woods.”
Later, Woods sold it back to Reed, and Reed eventually sold it to John Ingamells, the fire chief of the White Lake Township Fire Dept., in Oakland County, Michigan. After Ingamells died, Reed asked Rausch if he would visit Ingamells’ widow, look at the truck, and tell her what it might be worth. At that time, it was stored in darkness in an over-the-road trailer.
“I couldn’t see much, but it looked like it was all there,” Rausch recalled. “So, I told her what it was worth—$2,500–$3,000 at the time. That was 20 years ago.”
She would not sell it to Rausch. Years went by. Then, a friend from the fire department dropped by and told him he knew of a 1926 Chevrolet fire truck for sale.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know which one it is—the one from Wildwood Farms. It’s the only one around. Who’s got it?’” Rausch recalled. “He says, ‘A guy by the name of Tom Whitehead, and he wants to sell it.’ So, I purchased the truck.”
Reed, who happened to own a towing company, helped by hauling the partly-disassembled pumper to Rausch’s old fire hall. Then, Whitehead’s son, Chris, called to say he had a “bunch of stuff for that fire truck” and arranged to leave the parts on the large front porch of Rausch’s home.
“So, he brings me over this stuff,” Rausch said. “It was the most complete truck I’ve ever had. It had the original motor in it. It had the lanterns, lantern brackets, the bell, the headlights. The only thing that was really missing was the pair of ladders. So, we just started restoring it.”
Rausch recalled it being “very, very rusty.” In some places, the front fenders were rusted all the way through. He and his friends took it apart down to the frame. Bill Mackey restored the original 4-cylinder Chevrolet engine, which was frozen, and a friend named Steve Speagle helped with cleaning and painting. Gary Smith restored all the wood, and friends Scott Waggett, Scott McIntyre, and too many others to mention, helped in various important ways. The process included a few surprises.
“Jaeger did not even build the pump,” Rausch said. “When we took the cover off, we discovered that it was actually a Gould pump. All they did was put a plate over the top that said ‘Jaeger.’ Gould was a big pump manufacturer, so they were just buying the pumps from Gould and putting their name on them.”
Kenneth “Ken” Soderbeck, the renowned owner of Hand in Hand Restoration in Jackson, Michigan, restored the gold leaf designs. After Smith redid the woodwork on the cowl, Rausch took it to Soderbeck for the gilding. However, in April of 2010, before he could retrieve it, disaster struck. Soderbeck’s restoration shop caught fire, resulting in terrible damages and loss.
“That was really heartbreaking for Ken,” Rausch said. “A lot of years of work—a lot of priceless stuff—got destroyed in there. That was quite an ordeal.”
Rausch was among those who came to help clean up the mess. It took a while before he could even reach his cowl, by crawling under the tangle of burned debris. When he found it at last, it was “as black as black could be,” he said, but the sheetmetal survived without warping. He took it home and had it stripped again. Then, Smith started over on the wood.
From the Roaring Twenties through years of neglect, this truck might not have fought many fires, but it did survive one. It also witnessed the life of a famous American family and history being made. Now, it rests safe and secure, its Jazz Age glamour restored.
“It just needed to be loved again,” Rausch said.
Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment offers special thanks to Peter Molloy, curator of the Hall of Flame Fire Museum (6101 E Van Buren St, Phoenix, AZ 85008, www.hallofflame.org, Phone: 602-275-3473) for providing a rare photo. Authors Matthew Lee and Walter P. McCall served as helpful consultants.