Part of GRFD’s history returning to service

A 1937 American LaFrance returning to the Grand Rapids Fire Department. (Courtesy photo)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Along with saving lives, tradition is a hallmark of the fire department.

For Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church’s Father Dennis Morrow, a piece of that tradition recently brought back to the city is also very personal.

The longtime Grand Rapids Fire and Police Department chaplain remembers the 1937 American LaFrance’s 85-foot aerial ladder showing up to fire scenes through the decades it served with the city. But it was a big part of his life before he put on the collar.

A Grand Rapids firefighter riding a 1937 American LaFrance.
A Grand Rapids firefighter riding a 1937 American LaFrance.

Morrow’s family has been a part of the fire department for three generations.

The man who inspired Morrow to take on the additional duties of ministering to Grand Rapids’ finest and bravest was his late father Bud, who drove the rig as a Grand Rapids firefighter in the mid-1950s.

For years, Morrow hoped to find a way to bring the classic, nearly 80-year-old firetruck back to Grand Rapids. Hope turned to reality this summer after Morrow found the ladder truck still in good condition for sale in Ohio.

An anonymous donor paid $11,000 to have it brought back home.

“Everything fell in place so well. I thought,” Morrow said as he pointed towards heaven. “He’s got something to do with this.”

The old firetruck arrived back home last Saturday, greeted by Morrow and other GRFD firefighters both active and retired. A heavy mover provided the truck for free. An off-duty firefighter who drives for the company on his off days donated his time.

Both active and retired Grand Rapids firefighters welcoming back a 1937 American LaFrance.
Both active and retired Grand Rapids firefighters welcoming back a 1937 American LaFrance.

They don’t make them like they used to. The rig is in good working condition because of the upkeep. Purchased along with two companion American LaFrance pumper trucks, one of which the city still owns. The three machines were purchased during the Great Depression, when money was tight and things had to last.

World War II would soon follow, when new fire apparatuses were scarce as the industry converted to wartime production. Very few communities were able to acquire apparatus during the war years.

To call the old rigs heavy duty would be an understatement. The 1937 American LaFrance was typical of its time. There’s no lightweight metal ladder to climb. The 85-foot “stick” as they called it was just that, made of wood. And there are no hydraulics.

The ladder was hoisted about 40 degrees by a heavy spring, then lifted and extended the rest of the way by hand crank. Despite its length, this type of truck was much more maneuverable on narrow streets. It’s called a tillered aerial. Another firefighter sits at the back of the trailer and steers the rear wheels.

“When this thing pulled in on the truck, I know I had tears in my eyes. It was pretty cool,” said GRFD Lt. Matt Keusch, who was part of the welcoming party for the old ladder.

For Morrow, the rig is an important piece of his past. For the men and woman of the GRFD, it serves as more than a reminder of their history.

It’s yet another gift from a man who has spent the better part of the last four decades helping them through the rough times.

“He’s just done so much for us in his almost 40 years here with department,”Keusch said. “He’s always there for us. He’s always got our back. He shows up to everything. He’s here for everything.”

Watch for the old rig to soon return to service. While it’s set to become part of the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s collection, the fire department plans to roll it out for fire prevention and other community events.