The ODHFS is tracking fire apparatus manufactured by Oren, in Roanoke, VA. Although we already have many entries, we need your help in locating, and documenting, Oren fire apparatus located around the country.
If you know of any Oren fire apparatus in your area, or if you own an Oren truck, we'd really like to hear from you. We're looking for the year of manufacture, serial #, chassis type, history, current status of the truck, and a photo or two. If the truck is for sale, please contact us!
Oren Fire Apparatus History
By Tom Herman
Author of the "Oren Fire Apparatus Photo Archive"
In 1916, a 33- year- old craftsman by the name of Oren O. Lemon decided to start a business and leased part of a shed type row building located at 530 Rorer Avenue, Roanoke, Va. The business was incorporated in 1917 under the name of "Roanoke Welding Company". Oren was known as a master craftsman and could do most anything with metal. Roanoke Welding Company was first listed in the Roanoke City Directory in 1926 as an acetylene and electric welding shop. Though welding was the primary trade, they also began various fabrication jobs and started a reputation as an auto body repair shop. In 1932, needing more space to operate, the Company moved to larger facilities a little closer to downtown Roanoke, at 327 Campbell Avenue, SW, Roanoke, Va. With larger facilities they started to greatly expand their line of business with machine shop operations, automotive rebuilding services of all kinds, their own line of fabricated truck bodies as well as a retail outlet for other manufacturer's truck bodies and equipment, which they would install in their own shop. The automotive repair business was doing so well, they even operated a wrecker service. Oren Lemon devised and built what was later thought to be the first roll back type wrecker for hauling automobiles. It had a platform to put the auto on and a winch and cable would pull the platform with auto on it onto the truck chassis. In 1940, a patent was applied for but denied because a patent for a similar truck for hauling pianos had already been granted. A few years later, a larger version would be built to haul the military fire trucks that were to be shipped overseas, the government contract required the trucks to be covered in cosmolene, secured inside a wooden crate and hauled to the N&W railroad shipping dock.
The Roanoke Welding Company built a reputation for rebuilding wrecked automobiles that others considered not fixable. This mix of business continued to operate until the mid 1940's or 50's in conjunction with the fire apparatus business. It has been said that the auto repair business contributed the cash flow necessary to sustain the business.
The First Emergency Equipment
It is a fact that the first fire pumper built by Roanoke Welding Company was built in 1934; However, according to family members, the first "emergency Equipment" built by Roanoke Welding Company was due to a close friendship between Oren Lemon and Julian Wise, the founder of the Roanoke Life Saving Crew. The Roanoke Life Saving Crew was officially chartered in 1928 and was the first volunteer rescue squad in America. By 1934 the squad had needs for more and better equipment. The squad purchased a 1934 REO van type chassis. The inside was built out with cabinets and partitions specifically for various pieces of equipment. It is unknown if Oren Lemon built the entire body onto the chassis or just the inside, as the squad does not have this detail in their records. Oren did build at least two complete squad trucks for the unit in later years.
The Oren master builder's record list's the first fire pumper as having been built for Bishop, SC, in 1934, on a Dodge chassis with a Barton 400 GPM front mount pump. The list also shows that 17 of the first 20 units built for which there is a record, had Barton front mount pumps. Unfortunately, the Oren master list is blank for the 7th, 8th and 9th units built.
Also unfortunately, Oren Lemon passed away on May 18, 1934 at the relatively young age of 51. The early section of the builders list does not state the actual date of build or delivery date so it is unknown if Oren actually had a hand in the fire truck manufacturing.
The Oren Fire Apparatus Years
With the passing of Oren, the oldest daughter, Kathryn, took over as president at 25 years of age. Younger daughter Dorothy was only 13 at the time, but became an officer of the company as secretary at age 20. Oren's wife, Lucy Beale Lemon, was never listed as an officer of the company but was said to be actively involved and came to the plant every day. Over the years, she was regarded as the "matriarch" of the company and loved by all that knew her. She passed on February 11, 1960, just as the company was going into receivership.
Once the first fire pumper was built and delivered, the second was delivered close by the first, to Chester, SC. Word got around that fire trucks were being made in Roanoke. There being no other fire truck manufacturer in Virginia, Virginia fire companies wanting to deal with a close by builder began to order units. The third fire truck, also on a Dodge chassis with a Barton pump went to Radford, Va. At least 6 units were delivered on a 1934 Chassis with No.'s 7-9 unaccounted for. The next delivery listed was for Tappahannock, Va. Built on a 1935 Ford Chassis, the Tappahannock department has kept and has had it restored. The unit was Tappahannock's 1st apparatus and their records show it cost two thousand dollars. The list shows 4 units delivered in 1935 and 7 units delivered in 1936. This trend continued for the next few years then gradually grew in numbers. A total of 84 fire pumpers, all on commercial chassis, + 6 pump trailers were delivered prior to the start of the first 1942 US Army government contract.
By 1940, the business again needed more space and moved a little farther out to 1201 Salem Avenue, SW, Roanoke, Va. Also in 1940, the first use of a new name, The Roanoke Welding & Equipment Company, was put into place. This is confirmed by the Serial #'s on the master list starting at this time with the letters RW&E. The new name appeared in the Roanoke City Directory listing for this year. About 20 units per year were produced in 1940 and 1941. The craftsmen at RW&E were learning as they went and also studied apparatus produced by other major builders. Over the last few years they had produced some rigs with totally one off, highly custom bodies. The quality of their work was by now outstanding and gaining much recognition throughout the region. Just as they were set to really expand their production, World War 2 started and government restrictions went into effect virtually stopping all fire departments from buying new fire apparatus.
The War Years
In 1942 Roanoke Welding & Equipment Company Inc. entered into several contracts with the US Government to construct fire apparatus for the war effort. From 1942 to February of 1944, with just a few exceptions, all of the apparatus production was done under these contracts.
In 1943, five of the principals of RW&E formed a partnership, to be named the Oren Fire Apparatus Company, specifically to complete the government contracts. This involved investments by the partners to fund the materials for building the trucks, with the profits to be shared proportionally. At the same time RW&E signed a contract to sell the materials on hand along with the equipment necessary to build the apparatus, to the newly formed Oren Fire Apparatus Company. It is also interesting to note that Oren's wife Lucy was listed as one of the partners and she was also listed as the only one of the five not required to work full time at the plant.
The plant built US Army Class 125, 135, 500 and 525 apparatus. Oren assigned a total of 662 serial numbers to units built under these contracts. There were an additional 18 units built for other government authorized agencies or fire departments during this time frame, for a total war time production of 680 units, an amazing figure coming from a relatively small plant and work force. Documentation on file contains a letter from the plant production manager to the plant personnel, explaining how they would go into a 2 shift work plan, to start on July 29, 1942 with the day shift working from 7:00 AM - 4:30 PM Monday - Friday and 7:00 AM - 12:00 noon on Saturday. The night shift worked from 5:00 PM - 2:30 AM 5 nights and 12:30 PM - 5:30 PM on Saturday. They were given 15 minutes to clear the parking lot after work and ordered not to arrive for work early, as there was not enough parking area. There were 48 personnel assigned to the day shift, including production management and 19 assigned to the night shift.
In return for this tremendous effort, The Oren Fire Apparatus Company was awarded an "E" Award, which stands for "Excellence in war Time Production". The award was presented at the plant with all Oren personnel in attendance on March 15, 1944.
Normal Production Resumes
The first fire department unit produced after the war was a Chevrolet pumper for Arlington County, Va. and was assigned Serial # RW&E 882. Orders for new apparatus would now flow steadily as fire departments had not obtained new or replacement apparatus for the last few years. The remainder of 1944 and 1945 would see 35 units produced. Production would gradually increase with 37 units produced in 1946, 52 in 1947, 68 in 1948, and 61 in 1949. These units were mostly pumpers with just a few special purpose or squad type units mixed in. Custom body work and a wide variety of seating arrangements with custom cab designs were a feature of Oren built rigs.
Oren started making news when the November 1945 issue of Fire Engineering magazine ran an article announcing they had just sold their first fire apparatus in New York state. It was a 500 GPM pumper on a Dodge chassis for Cicero, NY.
The first city service ladder also went to NY state with an order from the Waterville, NY fire department. Built on an International chassis, it featured an enclosed pump panel and an overhead ladder rack housing a 55' Bangor ladder. Serial # 500B-958 was delivered on 2/17/47. Both NY units were sold by the Doray Fire Equipment Company, who had signed on to sell Oren apparatus in the area.
Another prominent apparatus dealer signed on in 1945 when Mr. Ernie Day of the New Jersey Fire Equipment Company began selling Oren. Because Oren was not producing aerial ladders at the time, New Jersey Fire equipment also represented the Pirsch line of apparatus for their renowned aerials. Ernie Day went on to become one of the most prolific of Oren salesmen, with many units going into the New Jersey/Delaware area. Mr. Day would eventually begin placarding his apparatus with name plates of his own "Great Eastern" name brand. Oren produced most of the apparatus that would carry the Great Eastern name, but not all, as Mr. Day would sometimes contract with local builders to produce specialty units such as brush trucks, squads, utility type body rigs, etc.
In 1947 Oren began looking for ways to be even more competitive with the big name fire apparatus manufacturer's such as American LaFrance, Seagrave, and Mack. They needed a "heavy duty" chassis with larger motors to drive larger pumps, carry more weight and be highly dependable. They ventured into the "custom" apparatus field by constructing a heavy duty rig on an Available Truck Company chassis. Available Trucks were manufactured since 1910 in Chicago, Illinois and were considered a highly dependable unit. This 1st custom was delivered to Uhrichsville, Ohio on June 13, 1947 and was assigned Oren Serial # 750A-973. The August 1947 issue of Fire Engineering Magazine ran the headline "Oren Announces New Line" which stated that "In addition to the line of 500, 600 and booster apparatus, a complete line of triple and quadruple combinations, with pump capacities of up to 1,500 GPM, built on chassis with high output engines is now available. New features include fully enclosed pump compartments, larger booster tanks, extra wide cabs and hose bodies and compartment type bodies.
The same article also stated that "The original Roanoke Welding and Equipment Company and the Oren Fire Apparatus Company are being merged into the new Oren Roanoke Corporation, the facilities and personnel of each being pooled for what is hoped will be a most effective organization with a production capacity capable of better handling the growing demand for Oren fire apparatus".
There were a total of five custom rigs built utilizing the Available Truck chassis before Oren decided to switch to the Corbitt Truck chassis, which was readily available from the much closer Corbitt plant in Henderson, NC.
The Custom Era
With the switch to Corbitt, Oren enjoyed great popularity, as the Corbitt Truck was highly respectable in the over the highway trucking business, not to mention the classic and very rugged tough looking styling. These rigs were produced in the open semi cab, standard 2 door closed cab, sedan cab with 3 or 4 doors, rear entry jump seats or any other configuration a fire department could dream up. The first Corbitt/Oren was delivered to Stratford, CT on 9/30/49 and was assigned Serial # 600A-1122. From October of 1949 to October of 1954, there were a total of 76 rigs built by Oren on the Corbitt chassis. Unfortunately, the owner of Corbitt, Mr. Richard J. Corbitt , was 76 years old in 1952 and in poor health. He had two sons. His one son who was to carry on the business died and no one who worked there wanted to carry on the business. The business was sold to a liquidation company and the last Corbitt truck produced was in 1954.
Oren purchased the remaining inventory of the Corbitt Co. and began to assemble the chassis themselves from the parts stock. The first rig produced from this process was a pumper for Alpha, NJ, delivered on 12/21/54. These units would continue to be assembled until the parts began to run out and then a switch to Duplex chassis was made. Production began to fade in 1958 with only 3 built that year, 1 in 1959, none in '60-62, with the last one going to Bellmawr Park, NJ on 2/2/63. A total of 52 of the Oren assembled/Duplex chassis conventional custom rigs would be produced. It is interesting to note that since the 1947 announcement of pump sizes up to 1,500 GPM, only two rigs were built with 1,500 GPM pumps, the first was a semi cab for Greensboro, NC and the second was a sedan cab with rear entry for Bladensburg, Md. Both of these rigs survive today and are being preserved by private collectors.
By now the cab over engine (COE) design was catching on and the Oren customs would now be built on the International VCO model chassis or the Duplex/Cincinnatti Truck Cab Mfg. Co. chassis.
While the custom fire truck market produced the highest profit margin per unit generally speaking, the staple of the industry was still the bread & butter commercial cab rigs, which were turned out along side the customs by the hundreds.
Oren Roanoke Company Fails
At some point in the 1940's or 50's, management decided to shed the automotive repair parts of the business and sold the frame straightening and alignment equipment to another local auto dealership, in order to concentrate fully on fire apparatus. Many of the employees thought this was a mistake, as the auto repair business produced a steady and profitable income. The loss of this cash flow may have been the start of the financial problems. Even though they had plenty of orders for new apparatus, financial management became a huge issue. In business, there is a fine balance between expenses, overhead and income. Capital reserves are required to weather down turns in income. According to family members who were there at the time, the owners utilized every bit of capital they had and went into debt to attempt to build their own custom chassis line. The money ran out before the line could be completed.
By May of 1960, there were only 7 administrative and 20 production workers on the payroll. The last Oren payroll was September 29, 1961 in which a total of 18 employees received checks.
The combination of the failed chassis line along with other money management issues caused the Company to go into receivership and the court ordered the business sold. The court then entertained offers for the purchase of the business and awarded the sale to Dick Howe of the Howe Fire Apparatus Company, of Anderson, Indiana.
The Howe years
Following the final Oren payroll at the end of September 1961, the remaining Oren management staff walked out and locked the door. On October 1, 1961, Dick Howe and his associates took control of the operation. There were not enough orders for new apparatus to keep the production workers busy, so Howe immediately transferred orders from the Indiana plant to the Roanoke plant. They realized the quality of the craftsmen at the Roanoke facility and wanted to ensure they kept the experienced workers.
Dick Howe also immediately began plans for a new facility. In 1963 they moved into the facility at 720 3rd Avenue, Vinton, Va. From this point on, both Howe and Oren apparatus were produced in Vinton. There are many Howe delivery photos with mountains in the back ground, taken by the same commercial photographers who produced the Oren delivery photos.
The Vinton plant produced what was at the time billed as the world's largest fire apparatus, a tractor and trailer aircraft crash unit for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. It was delivered on August 31, 1963 to the Lockheed, Marietta, Georgia facility. It was pulled by an Autocar tractor with a 320 HP diesel engine. It had 2 cardox, 6,000 GPM foam pumps and turrets, with the foam pumps being driven by 2 Ford V8, 477 CI engines. Two other Ford V8's drove the water pumps. The water tank was 10,000 gallons capacity and the foam tank held 1,000 gallons of foam concentrate. Also included was a 10,000 watt Koehler generator. The turrets were so powerful they could throw foam at a rate of 12,000 GPM and a distance of 180'.
There were in fact some differences between the rigs built in Indiana and the rigs built in Roanoke but over time pieces and parts became more standardized. In order to have national representation and service centers nationwide, Howe also purchased Coast Fire Apparatus in California.
As the business continued to grow, three additions were added on to the Vinton plant and a steady stream of commercial and custom apparatus continued to roll out the doors.
In the early 70's Grumman aerospace began to expand their business and venture out into fields other than their traditional airplane industries. They were said to have courted a couple of fire apparatus manufacturer's but neither came to fruition. They approached Dick Howe and eventually negotiated the purchase of Howe Fire Apparatus, along with the two subsidiaries, Oren Roanoke Corporation and Coast Fire Apparatus. Grumman took over the operation of the facilities in 1976. The Howe, Oren and Coast names gradually faded into obscurity.
For the history of Grumman Fire Apparatus, continue this story by purchasing the Iconografix book, Grumman Fire Apparatus, 1976-1992 Photo Archive, By Kent D. Parrish.
You can purchase "Oren Fire Apparatus Photo Archive
by Thomas Herman
through Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Oren-Fire-Apparatus-Photo-Archive/dp/1583882553/