One-Time Hero

A 15 HP Fairbanks-Morse lives the high life as a firefighter

The 1913 Fairbanks-Morse 15 HP.

The 1913 Fairbanks-Morse 15 HP.

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The town of Rubicon, Wis., covers about 35 square miles and has a population just over 2,000 people. It is unquestionably a small town, but it packs a big pump – a 1913 Fairbanks-Morse pump, that is. When the town’s small fire department bought the pump for dousing local fires in 1913, it is doubtful they ever thought it would remain in near mint condition nearly 100 years later.

Bill and Shirley Bremer now own the pump, and Shirley says the pump was only used once in its career as a firefighter. “The pumper was mounted stationary over a large pit of water in a brick building still standing in Rubicon,” she says. “It stayed in the building until 1976 when Thomas Nau purchased it, disconnected it and took it home.”

The town’s early fire department couldn’t even use the pump the first time it was needed. “A hand pumper that Rubicon sold to Neosho, Wis., had to be called in to fight the first fire following the purchase of the Fairbanks-Morse pumper because the hoses wouldn’t reach – they had 50 feet of hose,” Shirley says.

Though the fire department did use the pump once, it mostly sat unused in its brick home, kept warm by a potbellied stove. In 1929, the FM was of no use, as the town relied on the Hartford Fire Department, which used pumpers on trucks.

Working the pump

Shirley says engines such as the 15 HP FM Type N were only used for pumping water, whether it be for irrigation, getting water off a field or fighting fires.

The pump has a unique starting method. Shirley describes it this way: “Place a white-tipped farmer’s match in the head assembly and reassemble. (Can you imagine what would happen if only wet matches were available? I was told the matches were run through an individual’s hair to give them the drying friction from static electricity in the hair. Matches have changed over the years and some of our current matches will not work to start this engine. The assembly can and often is revamped to start by placing a rifle blank into the starting device. Today either is used to dry the mechanism.) Then open the priming cup to remove compression so you can turn the flywheel to where it is just beyond compression and firing stroke. Fill the cup with about a shot glass full of gas and close. Using a hand pump, pump up pressure into the cylinder until the flywheel starts to move. Then strike the starting device on top of its head with the palm of your hand, which ignites the match, which ignites the prime cup of gas, which starts the engine.”

Another feature of the FM is the pressure dome. Shirley says this is used to provide a cushion of air to facilitate a continuous stream of water flow during pumping, rather than the surge followed by the low flow of a hit-and-miss system on a gas engine.

Old vs. new

On July 17, 2005, the FM pump went head-to-head with the Neosho Fire Department’s 300 HP engine. While the competition was not fierce, the FM’s performance was nothing to be scoffed at. For a nearing-100-year-old engine, the fact that it is still working is a marvel. Shirley says the re-lived history was enjoyed by all who viewed it. “Many told both Bill and I of their memories concerning the 1913 Rubicon Fire Department Fairbanks-Morse pumper and how proud they were of having the chance of seeing it in action again,” she says. “Too often we allow our local history to get sold or destroyed for either the need of money or ignorance of its real historical value. We are privileged to be able to have saved this piece of history for future children to experience.”

Not only does the FM still run; it has never been re-conditioned. Since it was stored inside the fire hall building until 1929 and then kept inside by Tom Nau, the first owner, it still looks like new. It has survived the last 93 years unscathed, and un-doubtedly it will outlive us all in the small town it has always called home.

Contact Bill and Shirley Bremer at: W. 1056 Harding Road, Rubicon, WI 53078.