MADISON COUNTY —
Looking back I have a lot of exciting memories of the Richmond Fire Department in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
In the1920s and ’30s, there was a big fire bell that would shatter your dreams to summon the volunteer firemen, as they were called in those days, to a fire in town. In the 1940s that fire bell was sold to a town in Texas and replaced by a siren.
The siren was much more effective and would wake a dead man.
To find out the location of the fire, volunteers would call the fire department or, if they had no phone, drive by the fire department. Most of the time the telephone operators would tell volunteers the location.
When I was a kid, I was in awe of those firemen with their hustle and bustle, kicking in doors and breaking windows so they could direct the water on the blaze. I also remember the fire chief shouting orders to the firemen, and Red Ashcraft throwing a ladder up on the side of a house and chopping a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. Memories! Memories!
At the end of World War II, there were several veterans including myself, who joined the fire department as volunteers.
The veterans I remember were Stafford Nelson, Bobby Jennings, Billy Joe Phelps and Harry Ballard. Other, older volunteers that I can remember were George West, Russell Turpin, Roy Roberts, Doc Nelson, Dude Carmen, Billy Jones, Red Turpin and Harry Ballard’s father.
Harvey Brock, who was the assistant fire chief when I was there, was also a longtime volunteer. He was manager of Kentucky Utilities’ Richmond operations, and several KU employees were also fire department volunteers.
Training for the 12 to 15 volunteers took place a once a week. Each session included a free meal, so most of us were there.
Our equipment was two fire trucks, one of which was an oldie goldie that had solid rubber tires. One or both of them were made by La France. I remember us wearing rain coats for protection, if we had time to put them on, when we fought a fire.
During my stint on the fire department, I remember only three full-time employees. They were Chief Roy Montgomery and drivers Mose Nelson and Bill Singer.
There may have been some back-up drivers who were paid when they worked. Our pay was based on what we did at the fire. If it was a false alarm we received $1. When we used the booster hose at a fire, we received $2, and if we used the big hose we received $3.
Edwin West and I lived upstairs over the fire station formerly located on Irvine Street, one door down from First Street. We got free rent in exchange for being on call at night. We were both in school at EKU, and most of the time we stayed there.
It was an exciting experience to have that ear-splitting siren go off over your head and startle you out of your dreams.
We dressed quickly, took the stairs two at a time, jumped on the back of the fire truck and headed for that glare in the sky with the siren screaming “Get out of my way!”
When we got close to the fire, the driver would stop at the nearest hydrant, and Edwin or I would jump off the truck and wrap the end of the big hose around the hydrant.
The driver would then head for the fire, unreeling the hose behind as we went. If Edwin and I were both on the truck, one of us would stay at the hydrant and hook up the hose and stay there to turn the water on if needed.
When we arrived at the fire, we would grab the booster hose and get as close to the fire as we could, maybe breaking a window or door to do it. If it was out of control, we would signal to turn the big hose on. It took two of us to control the big hose.
If there was no glare from the fire, the driver would drive directly to the location and we would use the booster hose to extinguish the blaze if there was one. A lot of fires were in the kitchen.
In the fires we attended when I was a volunteer, only one victim who lost their life in a fire. That was at the corner of Main and Second Street in a bedroom upstairs over Stanifer’s Clothing Store (later Jett & Hall) that took the life of Ora Rucker. He died of smoke inhalation and heat. Ora worked at Marcum’s Pool Room and was a friend to all of us.
The only fatality I can remember on the Richmond Fire Department was Harry Ballard’s father, who was 78 at the time. He succumbed to a heart attack after exerting himself fighting a fire in the loft of the courthouse. He was a warrior.
Since my days on the fire department, it is amazing how it has grown and improved. They have much better equipment than we had. They certainly have well-trained manpower. This makes firefighting much safer and effective than it used to be.
I was a volunteer fireman for eight years and cherish the memories of that time in my life. The $20 to $30 I received, mostly in the winter, surely helped my budget.
As Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the memories.”
Special thanks to Judge Jimmy Chenault and Stafford Nelson for their help with this column.
MADISON COUNTY —
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