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  • Dale C. Maley

Fairbury's first fire engine

The story of Fairbury's first fire engine began with the creation of the Maxwell Automobile Company.

In 1903, Jonathan Dixon Maxwell and Benjamin Briscoe started to develop a small car. Maxwell had worked for Oldsmobile as an engineer, and Briscoe had a metalworking background. Their new vehicle performed very well on its initial test runs.

In 1904, the two partners formed the Maxwell Company, and they started manufacturing their small car in a factory in Tarrytown, New York. Their small car had several innovations. Maxwell and Briscoe limited the engine piston speeds to preserve the longevity and efficiency of their automobiles.

Another innovation was a unique thermo-siphon type of water cooling system. Maxwell cars did not require a water pump to circulate the cooling water through the engine. Maxwells also used shaft drives instead of sprockets and chains to propel the automobile.

After a fire destroyed the original factory in Tarrytown, Maxwell and Briscoe built a new factory in New Castle, Indiana, which became the largest car factory in the world at that time. The cars produced in New Castle were a combination of luxury and budget vehicles that incorporated the basic designs and engines of the initial cars built in New York.

By 1910, Mr. Briscoe incorporated the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company into the United States Motor Company, combining it with several other automobile manufacturers. In 1913, the United States Motor Company was dissolved due to a loss of financial backing. This event left only Maxwell Motors as the sole surviving automobile manufacturer of the combined group.

Walter Flanders purchased Maxwell Motors in 1913. He then moved the company's headquarters to Highland Park, Michigan, where it became the Maxwell Motor Company, Inc. In addition to plants in Michigan, Maxwell Motors had plants operating in Ohio, where the company manufactured both luxury and low-cost vehicles. During this period, Maxwell Motors began marketing its cars to women and even hired women to work on the sales floor aside from their male counterparts. Women also worked in the factories during World War I, when men were sent overseas to fight in Europe.

Fairbury's fire fighting system developed as technologies changed. Around 1900, a hand pumper wagon generated water pressure to fight a fire. Men would press up and down on a bar that ran the pump. The hand-pumper wagon and hose cart were either pushed by men to a fire or pulled by horses. When the first automobiles started to appear in Fairbury around 1905, cars were used to tow the hand pumper cart and hose cart to the fire scene.

Before 1915, John L. Purdum established a Maxwell automobile and Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership in a store on Locust Street just east of Steidinger Tire. A rare photograph of the front of his dealership still survives today. In 1918, Purdum ran an ad in the Blade advertising the new Maxwell five-ton trucks available for purchase.

In 1920, the City Council approved the purchase of the first fire truck from the Maxwell Company. The chassis was purchased from John Purdum for $1,340. The truck bed was bought from Obenelain Boyer Equipment Chemical Company for $1,000. On August 5, 1920, the new Maxwell fire truck was backed from Locust street into its new home on the east side of old City Hall. The truck fought its first Fairbury fire on August 17, 1920.

In 1921, Walter Chrysler took over Maxwell Motor Company and moved its headquarters to West Virginia. As the chairman of Maxwell Motors, Chrysler began to improve upon the car models sold under the Maxwell name during its incorporation into the United States Motor Company. During this time, Chrysler also began to rework the body style of the Maxwell cars toward style types that would eventually become associated with the Chrysler brand. Walter Chrysler formed his own company in 1925: the Chrysler Corporation. Walter Chrysler then merged Maxwell Motor Company into Chrysler Corporation. 1925 was the last year of Maxwell automobile production.

The new Maxwell fire truck did not have a water pump to provide pressure to fight fires. It was used to haul the fireman and their hose to the fire scene. The manual pumper wagon continued to be used to generate water pressure. In 1924, a photograph was taken of the Maxwell fire truck with 20 men who were local officials or city employees. Fairbury's 1924 Sanborn Insurance map designated old City Hall as the Fire Station.

The Maxwell fire truck was in service from August 1920 until it was replaced by a pumper truck in August 1945. In 1956, the City of Fairbury sold the old Maxwell to the Fairbury Fair for $100. The old fire truck was often displayed at the Fairbury Fair just inside the main Third Street entrance gate. Children loved to crawl onto the vehicle and crank the siren.

In 2001, Randy Weber purchased the old Maxwell fire engine from the American Legion. Randy's goal was to restore it and to keep it in Fairbury. Refurbishing the old Maxwell was daunting because the vehicle was over 80 years old, and the company went out of business five years after Fairbury's truck was built. Randy had to track down parts from all over the United States to restore the fire truck.

Roger Friedman volunteered to donate his labor and restore the old four-cylinder engine. The original engine block had one damaged cylinder and could not be repaired. A similar engine was found, and Roger could use parts from the two motors to make one good engine. Since the engine had no water pump, Roger had to learn how the unique thermo-siphon water cooling system worked.

Randy's goal was to complete the overhaul of the Maxwell in time for the 2002 Fairbury Fair. The Blade did a short story about this project and included a photo of the Maxwell truck. The restoration was completed in time for the 2002 Fairbury Fair.

Since the restoration, the 1920 Maxwell has appeared in many Fairbury civic events. The Maxwell truck was also used in the weddings of two of the daughters of Randy Weber. Because of the efforts of Randy Weber, Roger Friedman, and other volunteers, a piece of Fairbury's history was preserved for future generations to enjoy.

(Dale Maley's weekly history article on Fairbury News is sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury and Doug & Dr. Charlene Aaron).

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