Antique Luverne Fire Truck Pride of Town

1923 Luverne fire truck is South Dakota town's pride and joy.

Antique Fire Engine

Just left of the opening to the driver's seat is a dry cell lantern, used much as a flashlight would be today. 

Photo By Loretta Sorensen

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“The boys came into town Sunday night with their new purchase with the bell clanging and siren open and are mighty proud of the truck and promise any fires breaking out from now on a very sudden death.” 

When the southeastern South Dakota town of Delmont bought a nearly 20-year-old Luverne fire truck in June 1941, it was front page news in the Delmont Record. Describing the purchase as “much needed,” the article went on to conclude that “Delmont need no longer take a back seat to any of the surrounding towns when it comes to firefighting equipment.”

While the intensity of that initial excitement may have faded over the past 72 years, the vintage pumper truck remains a prized piece of local history. Kevin Hanten is a lifelong resident of the Delmont area and a 34-year member of Delmont’s Volunteer Fire Department, which was organized in 1903. During 18 years as fire chief, he never had the opportunity to use the Luverne to fight a fire but recalls seeing it on the scene of numerous fires in the past.

“We haven’t had many major fires here,” he says. “We had an elevator fire and a couple of house fires, and the Luverne was used at all of those. The last time the Luverne was at a fire was in 1984, when the Delmont Inn burned down.” By 1994, the Luverne had been pushed aside. Newer fire trucks had been added to the department’s fleet and the Luverne a relic of the past was retired.

State of the art

According to an article in the Delmont Record, the used truck was purchased in 1941 from W.H. Griffen, Luverne, Minn., a dealer in fire department and municipal supplies. The $650 purchase price ($10,300 today) was paid by the city of Delmont, which contributed $350, and Delmont’s fire department, which chipped in $300. When new, the truck sold for $6,750 ($91,952 today).

The truck was equipped with a 250-gallon-per-minute triple-action pump. Its chemical tank was supported by 100 feet of hose, ladders and extinguishers. Even as a secondhand addition to the fire department’s fleet, the nearly 20-year-old truck was a major step forward in technology.

That truck replaced our department’s hand-drawn chemical cart in 1941,” Kevin explains. “There are about 250 residents in Delmont. Our fire protection district covers about 200 square miles. The cart just wasn’t practical by that time.”

From wagon builder to truck manufacturer

The Dell Rapids, S.D., fire department was the original owner of the Luverne. A small rural community about 110 miles from Delmont, the city of Dell Rapids traded the Luverne for newer equipment in about 1940.

In all its travels, the fire truck was never far from where it was manufactured. Luverne (Minn.) Motor Truck Co. operated just across the state line in extreme southwest Minnesota. The company was launched by brothers Al (Fenton A.) and Ed Leicher. The brothers got their start in 1896, when they purchased Luverne Wagon Works. During their first six years as owners, the Leichers produced quality horse-drawn wagons and buggies. In about 1905 they began producing a luxury automobile (the Luverne) and specialty vehicles like hearses. By 1917 the company had produced some 300 cars. Most Luverne bodies were crafted totally of wood.

The Leichers’ first vehicles were built from kits from a St. Louis manufacturer. They also produced a series of high-wheeled vehicles powered by engines that came from the David Buick (founder of Buick Motor Co.) plant. When Buick’s company was bought out by W.C. Durant (the first building block in creation of General Motors), the Leicher brothers sought out other engine manufacturers. They went on to produce a 16 hp Model A touring car, a 21 hp surrey (Model B) and a 10 hp runabout (Model C). The brothers had a reputation for keeping up with new technological developments and ever-increasing competition.

In 1909, the Leichers captured the industry’s attention when they unveiled a 40 hp, seven-passenger touring car. Three years later, the “impeccably finished” Luverne with 122-inch chassis was the hit of the 1912 Minneapolis auto show. The car boasted 17 coats of hand-rubbed brown paint and Spanish leather upholstery. Most cars of the era were black. Seizing the opportunity to set their product apart from the rest, the Leichers dubbed their car the “Big Brown Luverne.”

Luverne Motor Truck Co. offered its first 1-ton truck in about 1911 and followed with the industry’s first tilting-box dump truck. In 1913, Luverne built a fire truck for its local fire department. By 1915 the company produced its first engine pumper. In the mid-1920s, the company name was changed to Luverne Fire Apparatus Co. Luverne eventually produced fire trucks for Chicago, Cleveland, Tulsa and other cities.

Local treasure

The popularity of the 90-year-old fire engine is widespread. In recent years, members of the Dell Rapids fire department made a foray to Delmont to inquire about the possibility of buying the Luverne and returning it to its original firefighting home. But the truck is staying put.

“We have no interest in selling it,” Kevin says. “We had a hard enough time retiring it from the department here. Our firefighters love that old engine. Our entire community is proud to have such a special piece of history.”

According to the 1941 newspaper account, volunteer firefighters cleaned the truck and gave it a new coat of paint during the days immediately following the 1941 purchase. Over the years, the truck has been repainted, and the original engine also been replaced. It’s due for a cosmetic restoration, but other than that, its position in Delmont is secure. “There’s some paint flaking off, and it could use some more restoration,” Kevin says. “None of that matters a lot because we have no intention of letting the Luverne go any further than the original fire house where it’s stored.” FC 

For information on the Pumphouse Museum in Delmont, contact President Earla Strid, (605) 779-2211; Sam Grosz, (605) 779-2801; or Ray and Phyllis Dewald, (605) 935-6628. 

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at sorensenlms@gmail.com.