Observing 100 years of fire apparatus manufacturing in Oakdale, special recognition was given to P.E. Van Pelt – and several trucks manufactured by the firm came back for the party.
It was hosted on Saturday, June 24 in Oakdale, in the city parking lot along Yosemite Avenue between G and H streets, the site of the original Van Pelt business.
There was a display of vintage Van Pelt fire engines, a hand pumper demonstration and a fun bucket brigade for kids, plenty of stories and memories shared and many of the trucks were part of the All American Bash parade on Saturday afternoon.
Offering some history, Amy Velasco welcomed those attending, leading an ‘opening ceremony’ at 10 a.m.
“Van Pelt became the largest fire apparatus manufacturer on the US West Coast,” she explained, manufacturing and delivering its first truck for the Oakdale Fire Department in 1923 and expanding from there to service countless fire departments throughout the state and into surrounding states as well.
Its successor, Hi-Tech, was created by former Van Pelt employees after Van Pelt was bought out. Between the two businesses, Velasco said, over 3800 fire trucks have been produced in Oakdale over the last century.
“Today we celebrate P.E. Van Pelt for his dedication and ingenuity, we celebrate all of you, those that strive to keep his legacy alive and we celebrate Oakdale, our glorious little city,” Velasco said.
Ed Hass of Sacramento is secretary of the P.E. Van Pelt Fire Apparatus Preservation Society and was both extremely pleased and overwhelmed by the turnout of fire engines and the crowd that came to see them.
He said he spent a lot of time around firehouses as a youngster and has always had an interest in the specialized equipment.
He is part of a national antique fire truck club and the Van Pelt Club is a chapter of the national organization.
“In 2020 we began talking about, well in 2023, Van Pelt is going to have been around 100 years, the first Van Pelt was delivered June 25, 1923,” he said of the first truck manufactured for Oakdale. “All of our officers, seven officers for the club, we’ve been phoning people, emailing people, harassing them for three years and this is the result, we’ve got this amazing turnout here today … to see this actually come together, it’s amazing.”
He said those bringing trucks to display came from as far east as Reno, west to Santa Cruz, north almost to the Oregon border and as far south as San Diego.
“Even the weather cooperated,” Hass said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of people who worked for Van Pelt who were here today, that’s just amazing too.”
Hass gave special recognition to the Oakdale Fire Department for its continued caretaking of some of the first trucks put into service in Oakdale.
“Today we are here to honor the 100-year anniversary of Van Pelt but I also want to honor Ed and his wife for all that they have done,” Mayor Cherilyn Bairos said in presenting a special proclamation from the City of Oakdale to Hass for his efforts in coordinating the anniversary event. “We love fire, we love police, of course we love our emergency responders but this is really extra special for us.”
Ben Ruthman, who is president and owner of Hi-Tech, the local fire apparatus firm in Oakdale now, worked for Van Pelt previously.
“Van Pelt’s been in business a hundred years and all these old trucks you see here were built right here, on this lot,” Ruthman explained while standing in the parking lot off Yosemite. “The old plant was located right here so all these were born right here. The fabrication shop, the mechanics, everything was right here.”
Van Pelt was bought out by FMC back in the 1970s, Ruthman explained, and he opened Hi-Tech in Oakdale in 1987.
“FMC shut the company down and moved to Florida; that’s when me and three other employees opened up Hi-Tech,” he added. “We were doing mainly maintenance and service and repairs.”
Then, a chief from San Ramon Valley Fire Department came to them and asked if they could build him a Van Pelt fire truck.
“We said, well we don’t have the money to do that; he said I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to buy the chassis, I’m going to buy the pump and give it to you guys and I want you to build me a truck,” Ruthman explained. “We built it and after that, it just kept going.”
Stanislaus County District 1 Supervisor Buck Condit, who represents Oakdale and Riverbank on the county board, spent his career in the fire service.
“I spent most of my career working on Van Pelt fire apparatus and it was a joy,” Condit told the crowd. “Never had a breakdown.”
He then presented a certificate from the Board of Supervisors recognizing Hass for his efforts with the preservation society and also commemorating 100 years of fire apparatus manufacturing in Oakdale.