Donnie Speer owns and operates The Big Hole Pizza Company in Wise River, Montana. What started as a creative dream a couple years ago led him to purchasing a retired fire truck with roots in Daviess County — nearly 1,800 miles away.
The fire truck, which still reads “Thruston-Philpot Fire Department,” dates back to 1978.
“Originally, a man bought it from someone at that station (in Daviess County), put a new set of tires on it and drove it out here,” Speer said. “He was going to start a volunteer fire department in his town, but he passed away and the truck just sat in a yard for 15 years rotting out.”
When Speer had the idea of starting a business a couple years ago, he began to look for the perfect opportunity to offer customers a unique place to gather.
“I had built a pizza oven the winter before and was trying to think where to put it,” Speer said.
He initially called a local fire captain about one of their trucks because he thought it could be an easy conversion, but he found out through conversations with friends about a much better deal on the Thruston-Philpot truck that had sat dormant all those years.
“Everybody is friends around here. Everyone tries to help each other out,” Speer said. “They know I’m on an extreme budget, so someone told me about the (Thruston-Philpot) fire truck for sale for only $500. What can a guy usually get for $500? I started walking around it and fell in love with it.”
Speer made a few changes to the truck but kept it mostly in its original form, especially from the outside.
“The back where the water tank was is now my kitchen. I took the water tank out and the outside is where the fire oven is,” Speer said. “I have tables and chairs I put out, but for the most part people take it to go and sit out by the river.”
In his second season, Speer is thankful for increased success and customers who come from all over to enjoy a pizza by the river.
“We are rural Montana — as rural as Montana gets,” Speer said. “The first year was tough with the pandemic and new restrictions. It was a learning curve year. It worked out fine and worked out beautifully. This year has gone great.”
Customers from surrounding towns have driven as far as two hours to come hang out and get a pizza on the river.
“We have at least 20 customers who come down once a week from a town over to have pizza,” Speer said. “Some travel from even farther.”
Speer’s favorite aspect of serving pizza from the fire truck is the creativity he gets to use everyday.
“The best part of this business is the uniqueness of each pizza I make,” he said. “No two are the same, and I enjoy learning how to be more efficient or creative. I was a landscape artist for years and this is a different and great artistic outlet for me.”
During the recent wildfires, Big Hole Pizza company was able to provide pizzas for several of the firefighters. Speer calls his experience with transforming the fire truck into this business “a real miracle story.”
“That’s what fuels my passion and what I enjoy about the job,” he said. “It’s also fun to get to know my community better, and to provide good food to people.”