Skip Izon helps rescue 100-year-old ambulance

Story and photos by Casey Lessard

Master boat-builder Skip Izon has been working on a non-aquatic project for the last little while: restoring what’s believed to be the oldest horse-drawn ambulance in Canada. The ambulance, built in Petrolia in 1908, spent the last 25 years at the Lambton Heritage Museum after it spent ten years at a private museum.
“It was originally built by JR Fennell of Petrolia Wagon Works, who signed the work February 4, 1908,” says Tom Moore, a Lambton County paramedic raising funds to restore the wooden vehicle. “It was kept in Petrolia and used at the town hall, which was also the fire hall. It was used up to about 1919. What’s special about this one is it’s the last horse-drawn ambulance in Ontario, and probably the oldest in Canada.”
While it is relatively well preserved, the two side-boards and some other parts were damaged because the vehicle was kept outside under a lean-to for the 10 years before LHM curator Bob Tremain acquired it.
“It was exposed to the elements so the original basswood was cupped and split on the back and one side worse than the other,” Moore says. “We went and got the exact kind of wood and Skip milled it all down to the 3/8” that it was. He’s put it on in the exact way it was, using the same screw pattern and techniques with a few more modern materials.”
For Izon, it’s a relatively simple, yet delicate, operation.
“Compared to what I do on the boats, this is pretty straight ahead. For me the challenge is to do it exactly the same as they did it.
“There’s a connection (to the original builder),” Izon adds. “I’m using most of the same tools they use. Hand tools, chisels and hammers. They used metal screws with wooden plugs, and mine are the same.”
Not much has changed
Both men, Moore a paramedic and Izon a firefighter, see similarities between how emergency vehicles were used then and now.
“I’ve been a firefighter for 18 years,” Izon says “and Tom’s been a paramedic for 25 years. I will often go in the back of the ambulance to perform CPR, so this looks very familiar to both of us.”
“It’s kind of the same configuration as we have today,” Moore notes. “We have room for the bed, a medicine cabinet, a seat for the attendant, who likely would have been the doctor in 1908 in Petrolia.”
When it comes to history, the ambulance has a great deal of significance for paramedics and firefighters across Canada.
“It’s an important part of our heritage. A lot of firefighting apparatuses have survived, but not a lot of ambulances. There’s not a lot of heritage pieces for paramedics across Canada, so I think once word gets out that this has been restored, there will be quite a bit of interest.
“For the public, we can say there’s been an ambulance service here in Lambton County for over 100 years.”
And for Moore, it’s a special piece because unlike other ambulances, this one served only in its designed role.
“This ambulance was built and only used ever as an ambulance,” Moore says. “A lot of ambulances were also used as hearses and some for delivering milk on the weekends. This was only ever used as an ambulance. The oil and petroleum industry around Petrolia was very dangerous at the time, so a lot of people were getting hurt, and badly. I believe the town of Petrolia commissioned this to get the people from the oil fields who were hurt and bring them back to town.
“We actually know the last patient” who rode in the ambulance, Moore notes. “The guy who restored the bell told us it was his mother’s first husband, who was transported to Petrolia hospital in 1919 after being electrocuted. He died at quite a young age and his name was Howlett.”
Once Izon’s work restoring the siding is done, the foot-operated bell will be returned to its place, as will the lettering and logo on the side.
“I’ll paint it black again,” Izon says, “and we’ll find an artist to paint the red and gold cross like it was. It’s going to be quite striking.”
Moore has raised $10,000 through corporate sponsorship, personal donations, and the Association of Municipal Emergency Medical Services of Ontario. A memorial fund for Paul Patterson, a Kerwood-born paramedic who died in the line of duty two years ago, also contributed $2,100 to the project; Moore says the restoration will be dedicated in Patterson’s memory in September.
Moore would like to see the project finished by early that month so the ambulance can take part in the Petrolia Fair parade. There’s one catch. “We’ve yet to find a skilled horseman to pull it,” he says, noting Izon hasn’t volunteered.
“It’s almost a kind of time machine,” Izon says. “It goes from this time back to 1908. It’s a common bond between those two times. We haven’t changed much in what we’re doing or who we are.”
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