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Fire trucks, large and small

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This collection has miniature models and something to ride in parades


Story by Barbara Schuetz

Remember the thrill of finding a shiny, red fire engine under the Christmas tree, or touring a “real” fire station with your first-grade class?

Growing up in New Hampshire, Ed Hunt was one of those kids captivated by fire trucks and firehouses — a fascination that has never burned out. For some 40 years, Ed has been collecting fire engines and related memorabilia that now fill a meeting room in his northside Racine business.

Ed, a former volunteer fireman, says the collection “started by accident” after he purchased a beat-up 1924 American LaFrance fire truck in 1971. Back then he was working in agribusiness in Pennsylvania, and one of his customers had been using the vehicle for irrigation during droughts. “It was sitting in a field. I asked him about it, what he was going to do with it, and he said, ‘Are you interested?’ I said yes.”

When he and his wife, Ellie, and their three children moved to Wisconsin, so did the fire truck. He never got the old pumper up and running, though, so four years ago, he purchased a 1972 Peter Pirsch fire engine, made in Kenosha, and this one runs.

“We had the other one for all those years, but we could never have fun with it,” says Ellie.

Now the couple hops in the fire truck and drives to a fish fry or takes guests to breakfast. Ed proudly steers it in Racine’s Fourth of July parades and has rented it out for the annual Rotary Post-Prom event. In fact, last May a photo of Ed’s fire engine appeared in the Wall Street Journal, accompanying a story on prom rides.

The two “real-life” fire engines are impressive bookends to his engaging collection of about 250 miniature, toy and collectible fire engines, many displayed on the shelves of large bookcases in the business’s meeting room.

“I have real quality stuff, and then I have junk. But it all has value,” he says.

Fire trucks range from small Matchbox replicas to a remote-controlled model, complete with siren and flashing lights. Many are die-cast metal; “the details on some of these are incredible,” Ed notes. A few are made of rubber: “During World War II,” he explains, “you couldn’t get things made out of steel; it went to the war effort.”

Ed has procured the trucks and other fire-related objects from flea markets, toy stores, or an occasional garage sale, and some were gifts. One of his favorites is a large, handmade metal fire engine he received for Christmas last year.

“I like the handmade stuff,” he says, pointing out a lamp on his desk that’s made with a cutting board holding a fire truck. “I like things that are old, have a character to them, a story to tell. And there are so many stories behind a lot of this stuff.”

In addition to the variety of fire trucks — from classic and European to whimsical and even a Hummer — Ed has amassed models of fire chiefs’ cars and historic firehouses, fire extinguishers, patches, prints, figurines, Christmas plates, ornaments and even some clothing.

He invites an occasional guest or family to see his collection. He and Ellie hosted a dinner for some church friends in the “museum room” and then took them for a ride in the fire truck. Scott Tangerstrom, a fellow collector and president of Racine Fire Bells, thinks Ed’s collection is just great. “It’s nice to see somebody with more than I have!” he jokes.

Ed’s on the Fire Bells’ board, which occasionally uses his museum room for meetings. The not-for-profit club provides relief for firefighters battling blazes from its mobile “rehab” units, stocked with hot coffee, Gatorade and snacks. The units also provide air-conditioned or heated shelter from the elements.

“We’re available when we’re needed; we’re there to serve,” Ed says.

“We raise funds for supplies on our own (through events such as golf outings) but also receive gifts from fire departments and community organizations, thanking us for what we do and helping us to support the firemen.”

In addition to running and maintaining the “mobile canteens” for firefighters, the Fire Bells also maintain their headquarters, the Firehouse 3 Museum on Sixth Street in downtown Racine. And Ed’s always happy to help out, dusting furniture or painting windows amid the museum’s collection of artifacts.

He also enjoys exploring other museums, and high on his list is the Hall of Flame in Phoenix, Ariz., run by the National Historic Fire Foundation. He’d also pop his head into the local fire station when on a business trip.

“I’ve always had a passion for the equipment,” he says. When asked why, Ed thinks back to those growing-up years in New Hampshire. “A fire truck was unusual,” he says. “It wasn’t like a dump truck or a semi … it had all these neat things.”

He’s still enthralled with the big red machines, but it’s more than just blaring sirens and flashing lights. It’s about paying tribute to the firefighters who serve and protect.