Oden and the other members of the association are eager to share their passion for vintage fire equipment with the public, but to do so the organization needs its own facility — a place to permanently display their collection of trucks, as well as dozens of other items, including axes, helmets, fire alarm boxes, and even a couple of vintage life nets that required a minimum of 12 firemen to hold them as victims jumped for their lives from burning buildings.
“We’re all interested in starting a Birmingham Fire Museum, and we have plenty of equipment to do it with, but we need a permanent home,” Oden says. Most large American cities, including Memphis, Phoenix, San Francisco and Mobile, have fire museums, according to Oden. “But we don’t have one here, and a lot of good stuff has been lost because there’s no place to put it,” he says. “Nobody was interested in it until we came along.”
Oden has been interested in fire trucks for most of his life, and with good reason. His father, Norman Oden, was a fireman in Birmingham for more 30 years, attaining the rank of district chief. “I have always been interested in history, especially the history of the fire service,” he says. Oden is also the mayor of Mountain Brook, works as a security consultant and was an agent with the U.S. Secret Service for 25 years, guarding such notables as Jacqueline Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
Oden recently gave the Weekly a tour of the warehouse on Fifth Avenue South where he and the other club members have stored nine trucks, just a portion of the vehicles they have available to put on display at a new museum. According to Oden, many of the club members have additional vintage trucks stored at their homes and other locations around the metropolitan area. “Around town we can muster up 30 trucks,” Oden says. “A muster is where we get together as many as we can around the city and put them on display.
“So many of these trucks, when the fire departments were taking them out of service, they didn’t have room for them,” Oden says. “They sit outside for a year, and of course that nearly ruins them, and then they scrap them. We’re doing the best we can to save as many of the unusual ones as we can.”
The term “truck” is used generically to describe all of the vehicles in the club’s collection, but Oden explains that there is a difference between a fire truck and a fire engine. “A fire engine is a pumper,” he says.” A fire truck is a ladder truck.” Using a 1955 Dodge fire engine as an example, Oden describes how the pumpers worked. A hose connects a fire hydrant to a fitting on the side of the pumper, he explains, and the water from the hydrant is then pumped out through another hose that the firemen carry.
One of the most visually striking trucks in the club’s collection is a 1953 Ward-LaFrance, black and silver, with a shiny corrugated metal tread plate. Originally used in New Paltz, NY, the truck is now adorned with a tribute to the heroism of the fireman of New York City during 9/11. The phrase, “The courage to act, the ability to perform, gone but not forgotten, Company 43,” is painted on the driver’s side door: “This is a beautiful truck,” Oden says. “Very unusual. They paint them all colors, but I’ve never seen a black one.”
Oden points out a beautifully restored 1960 Seagrave 100-ft aerial ladder truck that he obtained from the city of Birmingham. “They were going to sell it for scrap, if you can believe that,” Oden says. It is now labeled “Birmingham Fire and Rescue Truck No. 3,” and Oden added his dad’s name to the truck. “They used to do that, put the chief’s name on the trucks, and they quit for some reason, 15, 20 years ago,” Oden says. “But my dad was stationed at No. 3 for years and years.”
He also points out a 1954 Mack pumper in the midst of what he calls “a ground-up restoration,” a vehicle that belongs to club member Jerry Northington, whose dad was a Birmingham fireman and was friends with Oden’s dad.
The club’s collection includes a unique item originally used in Center Point, a so-called powder truck dating back to around 1960, according to Oden. It is a short flatbed truck designed to carry a dry chemical fire extinguisher used to put out gas fires. “This is highly specialized,” Oden says. “I’ve never seen another one.”
“Now these are really old,” Oden says, referring to a collection of hose carts, one of which dates back to 1890, with their large metal spoke wheels and reels designed to hold fire hoses. “Before they had motorized fire equipment, you’d have a steam pumper or a hand pumper at the water source, be it a creek or whatever, and the guys would come along with this and hook the hose up to the pumper and then pull it to the fire,” Oden explains.
Oden and the other members of the association look forward to the day when they can share their treasures. “Our goal is to find a home, a building,” he says. “A Butler building, a steel building, is what we would use. It would need to be insulated and have a concrete floor. It would need to be at least 20,000 square feet and would need roll-up doors. Probably a couple of hundred thousand dollars.” Oden also has an idea for a possible location for the fire museum. “We have to do a lot with the city, but we might put it over at Sloss Furnaces, which would be a great place to put it,” he says.
According to Oden, the projected annual budget to operate the facility would be very small, especially since the members of the club pay for any maintenance or renovation of the trucks and other items. “All we would need is utilities,” Oden says. “Everything else is volunteer. It would be great if we could get somebody to donate the building. We’d have to figure out some way to pay the service on the debt. But once we got it paid for, utilities would be just about it. Add we’d charge a small admission.” According to Oden, the club is in the process of obtaining its non-profit status and has not yet begun fundraising.
George Barber, developer of the Barber Motorsports Park, which includes the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, has given Oden’s group a lot of support. The warehouse in which the trucks are presently stored belongs to Barber.
“Mr. Barber has been very generous in letting us use it, but of course that won’t last forever,” Oden says. Barber also had the club bring 10 trucks to display at the Motorsports Park last October during a major motorcycle race, according to Oden.
The club takes advantage of almost any such opportunity to display their trucks for the public. According to Oden, the club displayed several trucks this summer during Mountain Brook’s annual Dog Daze festival and the Stokin’ the Fire barbecue festival at Sloss Furnaces. Club members also participate in numerous Fourth of July and Christmas parades, including the Christmas parade in Gardendale. Oden would like to continue such activities after the museum opens.
“In cooperation with local fire departments, we would do whatever kind of educational thing they would want to do, anytime,” Oden says.
Running Oct. 17-19, the event highlights the American Historic Racing Association (AHRMA), and will feature vintage motorcycle racing, a swap meet and more. Park admission includes all events. Three day tickets are $35 in advance, $45 at the gate. Single-day tickets for Saturday or Sunday are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate. Gates open at 7:30 a.m. each day. Children 12 and under admitted free with paying adult.
Visit www.barbermotorsports.com for more information.