Sometimes, Tom Wenzel just sits on a nearby bench and watches the reactions from passersby — hints of familiarity from the older ones, gleeful looks from the children and grandchildren. No matter who is looking, they almost always have a reaction.
That’s just fine for 85-year-old Wenzel, whose fully restored 1936 Diamond T Pumper fire engine — originally purchased by the Carbondale Fire Department before falling into eventual decay and subsequent restoration — has been on display at Carbondale’s University Mall since late November and will remain there through the spring.
Wenzel, who himself retired from the Carbondale Fire Department in 1989 after a career spanning more than 29 years, has devoted the better part of the past two decades to restoring and then showing the truck. When he found it in 1999, its appearance was a far cry from the cherry-red sheen currently on display.
“When I found the truck, it was in terrible shape,” Wenzel recalls. “It was sitting in a field. The wheels were down in mud, and there was corn growing all around it. Most of the running boards were in terrible shape. All the rubber was gone off of it.”
According to the history of the vehicle pieced together by Wenzel, Carbondale purchased the truck brand new and used it for nearly 20 years, eventually selling it to the village of Cutler in 1955. That department used it for around a dozen years, after which it found a new home in the retired Cutler fire chief’s front yard.
A man from Marissa eventually purchased it with intentions of restoring it, but he never quite got around to it. Eventually, more than 60 years after the truck first rolled off the line, Wenzel found the truck in Marissa, half-buried in the earth.
“I didn’t want to pay as much as I did, but I wanted the truck so bad, and we negotiated $250 for a piece of junk,” Wenzel says.
The truck was a disaster. The passenger side was chewed through by rust; at one point, salvagers had attempted to remove the 245-gallon brass water tank, failing to do so but damaging the truck in the process. With his work cut out, Wenzel started on a restoration project that spanned about five or six years, he says, utilizing resources at Carbondale’s Industrial Park to return the fire engine to its original condition.
Now, it serves as a relic of Carbondale history. Situated at the mall’s east end, the old engine shines with the luster of new life, and Wenzel enjoys watching the looks it elicits without fail from those strolling by.
He said that after all the work he put into its restoration, he wants the old engine to be seen. Plus, there are other advantages to it being on display at the mall.
“It’s a good deal for me,” Wenzel says. “When it’s at home in my garage, I don’t have room to park anything else.”