Wellsburg man loves those old fire trucks
Don Baker owns second largest collection of fire trucks in W.Va.
WELLSBURG — Some little boys grow up wanting a toy fire truck.
Don Baker’s wish, even back then, was for a real one.
Little did he know then, several decades later, after a near 50-year career as a firefighter serving his community, he would go on to be the owner of the second-largest collection of fire trucks from past eras in the state of West Virginia.
“I always wanted my own fire truck, even when I was a kid,” Baker said. “I don’t mean a model, I mean a real one.”
He accomplished that feat a few years ago when his collection of trucks grew to 18, many of which he proudly showed off numerous times a year in shows, parades and events in the Ohio Valley and away from home.
Now, his collection has shrunk a bit to seven trucks, though he’s still proud of each and every one of them. Many of the events in the past year were canceled due to the pandemic.
One of his recent projects is a 1976 Dodge Power Wagon converted into a rescue truck by 4 Guys Fire Trucks. He has spent the past five years in the process of outfitting with period-correct equipment and hopes to show it off again this year.
“The guys at the fire house joke I have more stuff on this truck than they do on theirs,” Baker said with a chuckle. “When you go to a show, it has to be presentable. When you go out (on a call), there are a lot of different situations that have different tools. You have to kind of represent all of that.
“A lot of guys don’t have these because 4 Guys built a lot of bigger trucks and tankers. I always wanted a smaller truck.”
The truck, which even features a period-correct two-cycle Hurst tool from the 1970s, saw its days in service in North Braddock, Pa., before it found its way into private hands, and eventually in Baker’s garages on Scenery Hill.
Also in his collection are local trucks from Bethany, a 1984, and Wheeling, a 1982, a ladder truck from Prince George County, Md., a 1986, and a 1936 LaFrance that is in the process of being restored.
He started collecting the trucks back in 1990 with a 1948 LaFrance, which he sold to a member of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation who had used it in the past and tracked it down to Baker.
He belongs to three fire truck clubs, one in each state.
As for his service as a fireman, one could say the urge to don the turnout gear runs in the family and Baker gets it naturally, with 43 family members past and present having served as firefighters across Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Everyone from Baker and his wife’s grandfathers to, currently, his ambitious granddaughter have donned the uniform.
“If you added up everybody’s years in the fire service, it would probably be 1,000,” he said.
A couple of those family members have tragically lost their lives fighting fires. Hearing him tell their stories would be enough to bring anyone, including Baker, a big, strong man with as manly of a mustache as one will see, to tears.
He speaks fondly of the annual service the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial has for fallen firefighters in Emmitsburg, Md., which he attended with his wife when a fallen relative was honored and has since gone back to.
“It’s very humbling,” he said of the service.
His own career began a short drive down Washington Pike from his home, as he started at the Franklin Community Fire Department as a volunteer in 1972, eight years after the department’s founding and shortly after it was chartered.
“The department needed us,” Baker said, noting some of his friends also joined. “We went and joined up and have been there ever since.
“I really didn’t (think he would stay 50 years), but here we are. I moved away a couple times for the winter and said I was never coming back, but I was back within six months.”
He also has been a member of the Bethany Fire Department for 10 years, and served as Franklin’s chief for six years.
The greater Wellsburg area, though, has always been a home he could not stay away from for too long.
In addition to his career as a fireman, Baker is a retired coal miner.
“I was born in Weirton, but we only lived there until I was five,” he said. “This has been my home for almost 60 years.”
He said, while detailing the old equipment on the Power Wagon, that he has seen a lot of changes in the industry in the last five decades.
Restoring and preserving the trucks of the past are his way of keeping a connection to the past, of the industry in general, his own personal career and the family legacy.