SEELEY LAKE — “How many people can say they still own their first vehicle?” asked Seeley Lake resident and car enthusiast Bob Stine. “Well the Seeley Lake Fire Department still owns its first fire engine.”
The 1929 GMC fire engine, known in Seeley as the 1929 Buick, was purchased from the city of Kalispell in the spring of 1967. The Seeley Lake Volunteer Firefighter Foundation still owns the engine - a mainstay at the Fire Department events and during the Seeley Lake’s Fourth of July parade.
According to a Missoulian article dated July 9, 1967, the Seeley Lake Volunteer Fire Department started in 1957 with a truck loaned by the Blackfoot Forest Protective Association. Later came a truck on loan from the State Forester.
The Valley Times, in their Feb. 2, 1983 issue, reported that Elvin Rovero donated the first fire truck around 1956.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the Department purchased its first fire engine, a 1929 GMC. The fire body was built on a 1929 Buick chassis. Stine said fire bodies were also built using the Model T’s Ford’s chassis but the Buick was heavier so it could carry more water.
The Department purchased the engine for $1005.50. The Missoulian article reported the odd numbers were an effort to keep other bidders from getting the truck.
While the engine was purchased in June, past members of the Department remember Dan Cainan telling the story of him and Jim Sullivan driving the engine from Kalispell to Seeley Lake in February.
“They would drive about 10 miles with all the winter clothes they could have on,” Stine recounted the story. “Then Jim and Dan would switch positions. One would get warmed up in the cab and the other one would drive [the engine] another 10-15 miles.”
Stine said that top speed for the fire truck was around 35-40 miles per hour, “That is pretty fast in that fire truck even though it was a lot younger then.”
Past Fire Chief Colin Moon said it carried less than 100 gallons of water. It was originally a ladder truck and then was converted to an engine before it came to Seeley Lake.
“It was Seeley Lake’s main line of defense for a while,” said Moon.
The entire department in 1967, including equipment and the fire hall, consisted of a $5,000 investment and many hours of volunteer work. The department answered about a dozen calls per year utilizing a special phone hookup that alerted about 10 volunteers. Then they notified their neighbors.
“When we have a meeting only about five to seven of us show up,” said Sullivan in the July 1967 Missoulian article. “But when we have a fire everybody who knows about it turns out.”
Cainan, who was the secretary for the fire department for more than a decade, told past volunteer Curtis Friede several times that until the early 1980s “The Department was 100 percent on saving foundations.” Friede explained with just one engine, town spread out and no fire hydrants, firefighting was a very difficult task.
It wasn’t until October 1983 that the Seeley Lake Fire District formed. The District took ownership of all the equipment and the fire hall. The District collected tax money which helped upgrade to new fire apparatus. However the volunteer firefighters still worked for the Seeley Lake Fire Company, now called the Seeley Lake Volunteer Firefighter Foundation. The Company maintained ownership of the 1929 GMC.
“I don’t think the Fire District really wanted it. It would have just been a financial burden to them,” said Moon. “It sat there in the shed for a long time getting covered in dust and buried with hose. Finally there was enough interest, spurred a lot by Bob Stine, so the Company put some funds together towards restoring it and did a lot of work. It became a hobby for the Fire Company.”
Stine joined the Department in 1986 after being convinced by Moon and Mark Hail to join.
“I said I’ll join the Fire Department if we have a car show,” said Stine who organized the first car show in August 1986. “It was as a fundraiser to restore the 1929 Buick.”
“The car shows were big money for us,” said Moon and laughed. The Pathfinder reported they raised anywhere from a couple of hundred to $500 for the Company, depending on the year.
Moon recalled the first year the 1929 GMC was dug out and they got it running, it was put in the Seeley Lake Parade with an upright piano in the back. Department volunteer Brian Jamison played the piano as it was driven in the parade.
After that, the 1929 Buick was essentially used only in the parade to start water fights and chauffeur Smokey Bear and Sparky the Fire Dog.
Stine estimated they fundraised for 20 years to pay for the restoration of the 1929 GMC.
The Seeley Lake Auxiliary, started by Carla Boule and Cindy Carlson in 1987, hosted a Fireman’s Ball starting in 1988. The event was always around Valentine’s Day and the money raised helped with the restoration work.
In addition to the Car Show, the Fire Company also hosted the Seeley Lake Pig Roast starting in 1992 as a fundraiser on the Fourth of July. This event switched to the annual Fourth of July sausage and pancake breakfast in the late 1990s, Stine said, because volunteers got tired of digging a pit and cooking an entire pig for the event.
In 2006, the Fire Company finally had the funds for the restoration. Randy Reinitz at Seeley Lake Auto Body sandblasted and painted the engine. He added the pin stripping in 2007. Stine said there is still work that needs to be done including restoring the wooden-spoke wheels. Wooden spokes require extra care to balance.
“The engine probably doesn’t have 5,000 miles on it,” said Stine. “However the bulk of the engine use was for pumping water not driving down the road.”
The 1929 GMC is now parked at Station 2 north of Seeley Lake. Stine, along with current department members, still does volunteer work to keep it running. It continues to be an icon at Fire Department functions including last year’s Christmas Tree Lighting, the annual Fourth of July Pancake Breakfast and one among the many engines in the Seeley Lake Parade.