On Friday April 5, 2002 Betsey the 1923 Seagrave Fire Engine was returned to the Valparaiso Fire Department. This ended a forty one-year extended leave. Her return on top of a trailer started in LaCross and ended when unloaded inside Valparaiso Fire Station No. 2 on Vale Park Ave.
Betsey began serving our community in 1923 before she was delivered for service in our city. Shipped by rail car, Betsey was side tracked behind the Smith-Nuppnau Planing Mill west of McGill’s office building at 259 Indiana Ave, today’s Dodrill’s Plumbing and Heating. Betsey had not been tested as required by the insurance companies of the day.
The only fire apparatus owned by the city was a 1920 Chemical truck that replaced the old horse drawn units three years earlier. Motorized fire engines were in their infancy, there were no trained fire truck mechanics in the area, leaving the fireman to undertake all repairs.
On June 20, 1923 a fire alarm was sounded for a structure fire at the Smith-Nuppnau Planning mill. The fireman responded with the 1920 chemical truck that had been repaired by them earlier in the day. While the firemen were fighting the fire, the chemical truck itself caught fire. Left with no way to extinguish the planning mill fire, it was apparent that the McGill’s office building next door would soon catch fire. Because of the extreme situation, the insurance underwriters who were in town to certify Betsey allowed her to be off loaded and used to extinguish the fire. The McGill’s office building was saved, the planning mill was destroyed.
One of the more unusual fires that Betsey responded to was on January 9, 1924. A locomotive of a freight train moving west on the Nickel Plate Railroad exploded in the front of the Valparaiso depot. The explosion killed two railroad men and injured another. The depot was untouched, several homes in the area were set afire by engine grates which flew through the air crashing through the sides of the buildings.
On Monday, May 14, 1963 after serving the City of Valparaiso for forty years, the City Council passed an ordinance calling for the sale of the Betsey. Refitted with a windshield a few years earlier, her open cab with the steering wheel on the right side, gearshift and break levers attached to the outside of the truck next to the seat looked and had become outdated.
On August 20, 1963, Betsey took her offical last trip through the streets of Valparaiso. Aboard were Mayor Don Will, Chief Stanley Connors, Councilman Everett Lembke and Fair board president Carl Hefner.
At 8:30 p.m. at the Porter County Fair Grounds judging ring, Betsey was sold at auction. City officials were surprised at the spirited bidding for the old fire-fighting equipment. Mayor Don Will turned the keys over to the late Walt Fetla, owner of Fetlas Trading Post after summating the winning bid of $2500 dollars.
Betsey was displayed in front of the Fetlas Trading Post on South State road 2 for about three years. The children of the customers were allowed to climb and play on the old fire engine.
Bob White, known today as Valparaiso’s hot dog vender became the next owner of the 1923 Seagrave Pumper. Bob said, "I was able to obtain her for $1800.00 when Walt Fetla put Betsey up for sale."
Bob took the old fire truck to a number of parades and special events through out the area. His wife said, "he use to take the kids on joy rides when they were younger." Over the years Betsey was drove less and less, until she was just a keepsake setting in a Quonset hut.
Many people offered to purchase the unkept fire truck collecting dust, as she sat undisturbed. Over the years, roomers about the state of disrepair of the old Valpo fire engine filtered through the Valparaiso Fire Department as well as many serious fire apparatus collectors. Ever conversation about Betsy’s condition remarked on two things, it’s not worth restoring and you would never believe the state its in. Interest was so discouraged; it was excepted as another piece of history lost forever.
Valparaiso Fire Department Historian Captain Gene Spencer was asked to speak to a group of Breakfast Kawanis on the history of the Valparaiso Fire Department. Questions arose pertaining to old fire apparatus that had seen service with the Valparaiso Fire Department. Information about the 1923 Seagrave than became part of the topic.
Dale Bagnell, owner of Indiana Furniture Showcase, a member of the Breakfast Kawanis was able to attend the meeting. Two days later the Fire Chief informed me that Dale offered to purchase Old Betsey and return her to the Valparaiso Fire Department. As Dale explained it, "this is my way to return something to the community, its school children and of course the fire department. What had only been a what if to the Valparaiso Firemen, was now a reality.
Since Betsy’s return, her body has been cleaned, all crome shined and the tires inflated. The motor did turn when hand cranked; her firebell was intact along with a working siren. Many of the operation levers and attachments have been freed and are operable. Its turns out, Betsy’s is very restorable after all. Plans have been made to return the old 1923 Seagrave to her prior youth.
Thanks to kindness of Dale Bagnell and Art Miller of Miller Shopping Center, part of the history of the Valparaiso Fire Department has been returned to the community. Our school children now have a solid piece of history to see, touch, and ride when they visit the Valparaiso Fire Department. Betsey will be the center of attraction at our fire department museum at station #2 on Vale Park Ave.
Some of Betsy’s seventy nine-year-old parts need replaced, such as tires, tubes and batteries. Many parts like the starter, magneedle and carburetor may need to be rebuilt. Any one interested in helping with materials or funding, contact Captain Gene Spencer at the Valparaiso Fire Department.
Thanks Dale and Art
The Valparaiso Fire Department