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First Blackman Township fire truck returning

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A rolling piece of Blackman Township history is returning to the township after being stowed away near Onsted for 41 years.

History in this case comes in the form of the first fire truck ever owned by the Blackman Township Fire Department, a 1946 Chevrolet pumper.

“To me, it’s just amazing that we found out about it, and it’s still in existence, and it’s in great shape,” said Pete Jancek, Blackman Township supervisor.

Two police chiefs chipped in their personal money to buy the truck on Blackman’s behalf. Private fundraising is planned to pay them back and fully restore the truck, which will be displayed at parades, car shows, and other events.

“No taxpayer funds have been used, nor will they be used, for any part of this,” said Jancek.

The old Chevy fire truck responded to emergency scenes for three full decades before the township declared it ready for retirement in 1976. The sense of history was then less compelling, and the township unloaded it.

“My dad (Keith Johncox) bought that truck on bids from Blackman Township,” said Wendell Johncox of Onsted. “He paid $600.”

Wendell Johncox recalls that when his father picked up the fire truck, it had been stripped of hoses and other equipment. The elder Johncox objected that he paid for a truck supposedly fully equipped. Firefighters apologized and tossed the gear in back.

“My family, back to my grandparents, always had older collector vehicles,” said Wendell Johncox. “We kept it as a parade vehicle. It’s been kept in three different barns since 1976. We’ve hardly run it for the last 10 or 15 years.”

Keith Johncox passed away in May at age 79, and his family arranged to sell the fire truck at auction. Blackman learned the truck was available in an unlikely way.

At a meeting of the Leoni Regional Utility Authority, a board of 13 communities that use Leoni Township’s sewer plant, Jancek was approached by the Cambridge Township treasurer, who happens to be Wendell Johncox’s wife, Laurie.

“She said, ‘We have your fire truck. You ought to buy it,’” Jancek said.

A delegation of township officials visited the Johncox barn and found the truck still runs and is in relatively good shape. The interest level was high.

“I was afraid if the truck went to auction, we’d never see it again,” said Mike Jester, director of the Blackman-Leoni Department of Public Safety, successor agency to the Blackman Township Fire Department.

Jester called David Elwell, Columbia Township police chief and the county commissioner who represents Blackman Township. Jester essentially asked: Do you want to buy a fire truck with me?

Elwell and Jester struck a deal to bid on the truck, with the understanding that they would eventually be reimbursed by the township.

“The truck probably would have been gone forever from Blackman, so I agreed to do it,” Elwell said. “It’s not often that you get a chance to get something like that back.”

The auction was Feb. 25 in Saline, and Jester and Elwell were the winning bidders. They paid $7,000, plus $700 for the auctioneer’s commission.

“We actually went a little higher than we wanted to,” Jester said. “But we didn’t want to lose, either.”

Jancek sees no trouble finding private donors to repay Jester and Elwell, and also to finance restoration work.

“Pretty much everybody who has heard about this is excited about it,” Jancek said.

Tripp’s Auto Shop and Collision Center will fully restore the truck at cost, Jancek said. Jancek said he and his sons have volunteered to do mechanical work – the carburetor needs rebuilding, for one thing – necessary to put the engine back in peak form.

When everything is finished, Blackman expects to unveil the 71-year-old fire truck at a public event.

“It’s a pretty amazing piece of history. Not just Blackman history, but Jackson County history,” Jancek said.

“Not many fire departments can say they have the first truck they ever owned,” said Jester.

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