Brussels fire engine being restored for Calgary museum
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
A piece of Brussels history is currently being restored in Calgary, Alberta and when it’s rehabilitated there’s a possibility it could make its way to the village of its creation.
The Firefighters Museum of Calgary has recently been in touch with unofficial Brussels historian Paul Nichol about the museum’s ongoing restoration of a Ronald fire engine, which was manufactured in Brussels.
Nichol estimates that the engine was produced between 1890 and 1905 in Brussels and those from the museum are on the hunt for parts and/or blueprints and pictures of the old engine to aid their restoration efforts.
The museum, in an effort to get in touch with people from Brussels, reached out to the Municipality of Huron East and landed with Economic Development Officer Jan Hawley, who then directed them to Nichol.
Nichol has long been a collector of all things Brussels. He even has an old picture of a Ronald engine framed in his home, which made him the perfect person to help the museum along.
In speaking with someone from the museum working on the restoration efforts, the museum representative said there may be as many as eight of the vintage fire engines still out in the world. Nichol said he knew of two before the call from Calgary: one in a museum in Nova Scotia and another in Winnipeg.
The story goes, Nichol said, that a Calgary firefighter with connections to the museum was on vacation in the United States when he spotted the Ronald engine in poor condition, sitting as an outdoor display piece. The negotiations began and the engine eventually made its way to Calgary for restoration.
Nichol says the restoration is about 85 per cent complete, but museum staff are stalled, needing parts and some guidance for the historic engine.
He has been doing some research on behalf of the project, but has come up empty so far other than a few pictures in his own collection. He’s on the hunt for parts or any documents that might aid the museum volunteers in their efforts to restore the engine.
Nichol, in discussing the machine with a museum representative from Calgary, asked about repatriating the engine to Brussels and he said there’s some hope that it might make an appearance.
He said there was discussion about bringing the engine to Brussels once it’s fully restored and housing it in its home village for maybe six months, but nothing official has been negotiated.
Ronald Fire Engines was not founded in Brussels, but rather, the company began its life in Chatham.
In August, 1876, after a large swath of the Brussels main street was decimated by fire, J.D. Ronald of the company spoke with Brussels Village Council about fire protection in the village. However, the conversation turned at one point and council offered Ronald a $20,000 loan to entice him to move the company to Brussels.
The company was profiled in the Huron Historical Society’s Huron Historical Notes 2008, which detailed its whole story, from Ronald’s work with a Mr. Hyslop to be the first to manufacture steam fire engines in Canada to Ronald’s move to Brussels.
The machines varied in size, but they guaranteed a full head of steam from cold water within six minutes, according to the Historical Notes.
The Historical Notes also detail the composition of the engines, which were almost entirely created from raw materials in Brussels. The exceptions were suction hoses from Cleveland, boiler domes from New Jersey, head lamps and lanterns from New York and copper boiler tubes from England.
As the company began producing fire engines in Brussels, the company was making agricultural implements as well. In March of 1879, J.D. Ronald took one of his newly-created steam engines for a spin around the area, driving it to Wingham for a trial.
Soon enough, Ronald saw orders coming in, with engines heading to Dunnville, Hamilton and Ridgetown, while a new “improved buckeye mower” had been purchased by J.N. Knechtel for his farm in Brussels. Purchases would soon be made even further afield, with Ronald shipping engines to Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie and Vancouver.
A Ronald engine was purchased by the City of Toronto just before it hosted the World’s Fair. It would be honoured for its performance there, according to the Historical Notes.
“The Ronald engine won honours at the World’s Fair in Toronto in September, performing beyond firemen’s expectations by throwing a vertical stream over 100 feet and a horizontal stream of 225 feet,” the Notes recalled, quoting The Brussels Post.
The business was sold to E.H. Thomas of Norwich, Ontario in 1898, at which time J.D. Ronald retired after 30 years in the business.
According to the Historical Notes, the business floundered for a bit under new ownership, but was still producing new fire engines into the very early 1900s. One of the last known engines to be sold by the Brussels company went to Exeter in 1900.