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A History of our Local SPAAMFAA Chapter

By Dick Downs  

The national SPAAMFAA organization began in Syracuse, NY in 1958.  The original chapters were bunched together in the East.  Annual reports were issued in the early years, and in 1970, the first quarterly “SPAAMFAA NEWSLETTER” came out.  This marked the beginning of what in 1974 became “ENJINE! ENJINE!”  the wonderful magazine we enjoy today.  Professional typesetting and color pictures followed.  By the time we in Colorado got on the bandwagon, SPAAMFAA was a well-respected and fast growing institution in the US and Canada.  

   Inevitably the small group of fire buffs existing in the Denver front range area became aware of SPAAMFAA even without formal advertising coming from Syracuse headquarters.  Prior to 1980, there were just a few guys in this neck of the woods who owned a rig or thought they would like to acquire one.  John Bergquist, longtime fire buff and dealer in antique autos and fire rigs, recalls that in 1975 there was a single meeting where he and Jim Jordan Jr. and several others formed what they thought would be a viable chapter of SPAAMFAA.  Jordan was to be president. Nothing lasting came of that effort.  In early 1980, Bergquist made another attempt to start a chapter, by sending postcards to all potentially interested persons and volunteer companies that he could think of.  The card announced an organizational meeting to be held on February 3 at John’s place of business in Loveland. That start-up chapter with John as president ran into problems as well and apparently experienced long time gaps without meetings or activities.  However, those early members did manage to craft a set of by-laws.  Meanwhile In 1983, apparatus collector Pete Van Huysen sought to establish a SPAAMFAA chapter in the Parker area (where he lives), and made application to the national to do so.  He stated that this would be THE Colorado chapter and that he had been elected president. This confused Tim Elder of the national who couldn’t immediately determine what was what, out here in Colorado.   Bergquist responded to an inquiry from Elder saying that there was never a valid election to put Van Huysen in the president’s seat, and that the 1980 guys were alive and well, still headquartered in Loveland.  Along with his letter of March 8, 1984, John furnished a current list of members to Elder.  The officers at that time were listed as…..          

  President  - John Bergquist

                           VP            -  Deane Fehrman

                           Sec/Treas -  Nancy Bergquist

                           Directors   -  Ray Bury and Don Metzler.  

   The chapter was re-organized and re-vitalized once again in March, 1985 by Kevin Sweeney of Aurora and Bart Thorpe of Littleton, and has operated since then without interruption.  They rounded up a handful of interested people at what was then West Adams County Station 4 at 105th and Huron St.  Thorpe was made president.  Kevin had just bought his first rig, the red ex-Aurora ’51 ALF, and considered making this rig the focal point of the chapter.  His idea was for club members to join in with him for the needed restoration.  As it turned out, the prospective members of the new chapter had other ideas; they each had a rig to work on or were looking to buy one. The chapter nevertheless continued in business.   

   The club found its most lasting focus the following year when Thorpe, who knew Jim Biner (of Ralph Schomp Automotive) conceived of a fire apparatus muster on the Schomp’s South Broadway campus in Littleton.  Jim and his boss, Ralph Schomp, were enthused about the idea.  Mr. Schomp even sprang for the cost of acquiring and re-habbing the nice red 700 Series LaFrance with the letters “RSVFD” on the side standing for “Ralph Schomp Volunteer Fire Department.”   We held the first muster on a Saturday in May of 1986.  The setup was a pump-in and static display in a half-day format.  A downpour dampened the proceeding somewhat so we thought a better bet with weather next time would be a day in July.  For our second year, we tried a two-day Saturday-Sunday format, on a weekend just after July 4th.  What better way than a parade to start things off?   All participating rigs lined up at a shopping center along Littleton Blvd about halfway between Broadway and downtown.

  The law required us to have motorcycle police to see us through the main intersections along Littleton Blvd as we noisily proceeded east to end up at the big Schomp lot at Broadway.  The parade proved to be such a highlight of the muster that we kicked off that way in all the following years.

  Schomp’s picked up the tab not only for our police escort but for printing and mailing expenses as we blanketed the front range fire departments with invitations.  It was no small item for Schomp’s to lose most of a busy weekend of sales by turning over their premises to SPAAMFAA. Then there was the matter of moving dozens of brand new cars from the show lots to the high school parking areas across the street.  Although the crowds were good, the two day format proved too much for everybody, so in year three and after, we settled on one day only, picking a July Saturday just past the 4th.

  Our club and Schomps together set up a fund raising raffle, activated each year.  Proceeds went the first year to the Cystic Fibrosis organization, and in the second year we helped the Kemper Child Fund. After that it was Children’s Hospital of Denver.  The raffle prize was a sporty new car donated by Schomp’s.  Everybody was involved in the selling effort. It was odd that we found the one buck tickets hard to sell with such a great prize, and chances of winning infinitely better than the Colorado Lottery!

  As the number of participants grew, we needed more parade staging space. About the fourth year, we made a deal with Arapahoe Community College to line up in their big north parking lot.  This gave us the room we needed, and lengthened the parade route by about a mile.  At the height of our 10 year series (1992 or 1993) we had over 100 rigs in the parade and muster display!  They came from urban and rural departments all across the front-range.  There were rigs large and small, old and new.  Plenty of white paint jobs, shades of red, and of course some of the lime yellow variety. Littleton’s rescue rig was always with us and on duty!  Several times they left running hot in the middle of the day.

   Who made all of this happen? Here’s the cast of characters as I remember them.

  Our chapter president for quite a few terms was Bart Thorpe, who while he lived in Littleton could boast of owning four or five rigs at any one time.  Rosalie Danskin was the secretary/treasurer.   Several guys took turns with the vice president job.  We focused our energy on the muster since it was our main (and just about only) activity of the year, and set up a position called “Muster Chairman.”  The lucky holder of that office had to deal with the thousand details that go with an event of that kind.  That job and the president’s job were the hardest.  Kevin Sweeney became president about 1990 and continued in that post as long as the Schomp musters lasted.  He was ably assisted by Garry Aranda who was Muster Chairman most of those years.  I think a couple of other guys had the MC title along the way, but title or not, Garry was doing a killer job every year.  Kevin was the other key player making things go.  Of course everyone else pitched in as well, for there was plenty to do.  Rich Curtsinger, Buzz McEldowney, Neil Davis, Robb Ahlgrim, Nat Fay, the late Dave Dollarhide, Jim Lipper, Mike Barth, Chris Komlowski, Roger Rogers and others that I can’t remember worked as available.  Jim Biner was our contact at Schomp’s and a major overall prime mover. He and his secretary worked months ahead to get publicity out, the muster set up and then kept things on an even keel while the event was on.  He was aided by two other key Schomp employees, Russ Viles and Bill Pittman, who were also members of SPAAMFAA. Those two were jacks of all trades when we needed anything in a sudden hurry.

  As mentioned above, the parade was the big starting event of our musters.  It was a huge task to set up dozens of rigs in proper order, issue ID signs to the drivers, and copy down the salient information about each one. There were prior sign-up arrangements and pre-mailing of packets to be done. The Benoits, Les and Ellen, took care of those responsibilities every year that there was a parade.  Someone ran the info ahead to the muster site by golf cart so that by the time each unit turned into the Schomp lot, the PA announcer could call out the name of the department and description of the rig. Most years that announcer was Kevin, speaking from way up in the bucket of a tower rig.

  Most years, we ran some competitive events with volunteer companies vying for the prizes.  The two that caused the most excitement were the barrel blast and the midnight fire alarm.  Then there was a bucket brigade event that any individual could enter and the infamous dunk tank. We had food vendors set up on the premises, and ran the cold pop concession ourselves.  

   A big time crowd pleasing event was the extrication of the victim of a mock auto crash with fire department spreaders and cutters brought to the fore, and the landing of a Flight for Life Helicopter.

  As mentioned earlier, Bart Thorpe was chapter president, and continued for most of the Schomp years. Various other folks held the jobs of VP, secretary-treasurer, safety officer and muster chairman.  The latter job was (is) probably the toughest responsibility of all.  Kevin Sweeney, Garry Aranda, and Rich Curtsinger are three names that come to mind who did yeoman service as muster chair in the Litttleton Schomp years.

  A muster T-shirt was designed starting with 1991.  Each year, we honored a chapter member by picturing his rig on the front.

  In the final Schomp muster year of 1995. Kevin Sweeney was president of the chapter, and remained so for a number of terms with the other jobs changing from time to time.  Mike Barth had one year in the top job in 1999.  Les Benoit was president in 2000, 2001, and 2002, with several VPs.  Nat Fay, who we regret to say has left our chapter, was secretary and treasurer for so long that nobody remembers when he first took on the job.  Since his departure, Jennifer Kopp has assumed those twin duties   For several years into the 2000s, Roger Rogers and Luke Bernander have co-held the muster chair position.  Garry Aranda is our perennial safety officer.    

   I, Dick Downs (now writing this account) am the chapter historian.  There’s lots of memorabilia from the past in a big box at my house.  My dilemma is how best to arrange that stuff to make it available for other people to look at.

  The year after the final Littleton event, we held a mini-muster at Lakeside Park. This was just a short parade through surrounding neighborhoods and a line-up of the rigs afterwards.

  After a couple of non-muster years, we participated in four joint shows with the Denver Firefighters Museum.  These were July Saturdays in 1999, 2000, and 2001 while the one in 2002 was on the first Saturday of August.  The street in front of the museum was blocked off for the muster rigs to park.  There were rides, free admission to the museum, and a chance for the kids to throw water with a deluge gun down 13th Street.      

   We had maintained contact with Jim Biner of Schomp’s, who invited us to hold a muster at the company’s Brighton location.  Although already committed to the 2001 joint muster with the fire museum, we nevertheless decided to go for it at Brighton, and on August 8 put on a really decent show with about 18 rigs.  The Brighton muster was repeated in 2002, with more participation and general interest than the first time. Chances are, we’ll do that one for a third time in 2003!

  We have certainly been in our share of parades over the twenty + years of our chapter’s  existence. For years, every St. Pat’s parade saw our participation.  Once we mustered twenty-two rigs!  Even on a snowy day we turned out two or three. Nat and Kathy Fay who then lived in a wonderful firehouse (Old 15’s) always invited all hands to drive over after the parade, park rigs in and around their driveway and come inside for corned beef sandwiches.  Then in 2001, the St. Pat’s parade people announced that we would have to shell out $25 per rig to appear in the lineup.  Previously it had been $25 for the whole club!  We balked at that and told them that they would have to get along without SPAAMFAA!  Too bad for the St, Pat’s Parade.  

   Our members have taken their rigs to many other parades outside of  Denver, including Commerce City, Littleton, North Washington, Brighton, Louisville, Edgewater, Englewood—you name it. Then there were the pump-ins.  We have enjoyed about 8 or 9 such events that I can remember.  Several times at Washington Park at the north lake, once to Sterne Park lake in Littleton, and once at Rocky Mountain Lake.  Our favorite spot seems to be the boat jetty at Sloan Lake Park.  We wonder why some of these jurisdictions want us to pay for the privilege of doing them the valuable service of aerating the lake!

   Most years we have had a Christmas party, and when the Fays lived in Old 15’s, they regularly hosted that happy conclusion to the year’s activities. In 2001, the Fays sold the firehouse, and moved into a more conventional residence.  Now the Christmas party with slide poles and the ambiance of the huge firehouse kitchen will be just a cherished memory for those that were there. A resounding “thank you” is due to Nat and Kathy for many good times at the Fays!

  For some years, Ray Bowman has been the able writer, editor and producer of the club’s monthly newsletter and meeting advisement publication.  This is a daunting and time-consuming effort, and we hope that Ray knows how much we appreciate his work and dedication.  The publication’s title was “THE ROTO RAY” for a few years until for some reason the members voted a new name: “BUFF’S BELLOWS”.  Maybe to avoid confusion with University of Colorado varsity football players, we changed the name again…..back to “THE ROTO RAY.”

  We agonized for a long time about a better name for our club than “Colorado Chapter.” For one thing, we are not alone in the state as there is another SPAAMFAA group in Colorado Springs.  By way of soliciting suggestions and taking a series of elimination ballots, we settled this spring of 2003 on the name:  “Mile High Hook and Ladder.”   Pretty classy!

  We used to suspend regular meetings once the muster was over until the next January when it was time to elect officers and think about the up-coming year. In the last six or so seasons, we have decided to keep what momentum we have by meeting every month of the year.  We have moved our meeting place from time to time to visit interesting places we might not see otherwise, generally firehouses around the area.  One that stands out is the Southwest Adams County Fire Department who have hosted our meetings half a dozen times.  With several of our members being directors of the Denver Firefighters Museum, it was natural for us to arrange to meet at the 1326 Tremont Place location, a good central location.  Most of the time this is our regular spot.

  Following the untimely death of pioneer member Dave Dollarhide, the chapter established an award in his name.  The first to receive this (in 2001) was Jim Biner.  In 2002 the honor went to Kevin Sweeney, and in 2002 to myself (Dick Downs).

  Our small membership number has kept fairly steady at about 30 over the years, with 20 or so being the regulars that we can count on.  As members have died or drifted away, new folks have introduced themselves to us and become active. We have never had a formal means of advertising.  People see us in parades or hear of us by word of mouth.  Anyway, it seems to work.  Our club represents an interest that is as old as America, and universally admired.  I think we’ll be in business for many years to come.