A History of the Seymour Fire Department (Part 2)
A History of the Seymour Fire Department (Part2)
In June of 2010, the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department will celebrate 100 years of service to the community. To help celebrate the centennial, the Seymour Community Historical Society is working with fire department Chief Steve Krabbe to present facts from the early years to the present. This is the second of a series of articles that will summarize the history of the department. Utilizing the resources of the Seymour Museum and the official minutes of monthly meetings of Seymour Strife Company #1, Marge Coonen and Bill Collar will present the history of fire fighting in the city of Seymour. The purpose of this article is to explain the origins of the fire department and follow its development up to 1935.
Shortly after the devastating fire of 1880, when flames consumed much of the east side of Main Street, Seymour citizens organized a loosely structured fire department. Known as Fire Company Seymour Strife No. 1, it originally used a hand pump operated by four to six men. Eventually a one-cylinder gasoline engine replaced the hand-operated one. The first company served the city until the present municipal fire department was established in July of 1910. A big improvement took place when a four-cylinder gasoline engine replaced the one-cylinder one then in use. Service reservoirs located throughout the city supplied water. These cisterns captured rainwater, but the weather determined their effectiveness. During dry weather, sufficient water to fight a fire was a rare commodity.
Charles Wagner was the first fire chief of Seymour Fire Department No. 1. Henry Wolk served as assistant chief, with F. E. Dopkins as Secretary and Arthur Falck was the treasurer. Constructed in 1900, city hall, located on the east side of north Main St. housed the fire department until the completion of the municipal building in 1968. In addition to accommodating two fire trucks, first floor of old city hall served as a jail, police office, voting place and other city functions. The upstairs of the-two story brick building featured the fire department office, a meeting room and the city library. A bell tower dominated the skyline with the bell being sounded to alert the volunteer firemen. As the city grew, the bell was not loud enough and in the early 1920’s it was replaced with a siren.
The original By-Laws state the number of firemen must not exceed 25 members. The officers are listed as a chief, assistant chief, hose captain, assistant hose captain, captain of hook and ladder truck, secretary and treasurer. The duties of the chief are listed including presiding at all meetings, taking command of the engine and Department upon all occasions when brought out for exercise, for parade or actual service...
Seymour Fire Department No. 1 has had twelve chiefs during the past century. These include Charles Wagner 1910-1916, Henry Wolk 1917-1918, Roy Van Vuren 1918-1920, Anton Lotter 1920-1921, Arthur Wolk 1921-1931, Clyde Van Vuren 1931-1939, Walter Melchert 1939-1952, Ervin Schroeder 1952-1956, Earl Eick, 1956-1973, Robert Mory 1973-1990, Tom Seidl 1990-2001, and Steve Krabbe 2001 – Present.
From its inception in 1910, the municipal fire department had required monthly meetings and special meetings as determined by the chief. Early minutes of the department indicate that improved fire protection was a constant goal, but the members also enjoyed opportunities for social interaction among the close-knit group of men. During the first several months, it was determined to hire an orchestra from Green Bay and sponsor a dance. They sold 140 tickets at 50 cents each. The 10- piece band was paid $22.00 plus $8.00 railroad fare, $6.00 lodging and $2.50 for supper. The dance netted a profit of $25.10. (Converted to the purchasing power of the dollar today, the ticket price was roughly $11.00 and the profit $575.00). The dance proved to be a great source of funds and the “Firemen’s Ball” became an annual event with most of the proceeds going toward purchasing fire-fighting equipment.
Firemen were required to attend the dance wearing their badge, or face a $1.00 fine. Most years the social event attracted around 150 people and made a handsome profit for the department. At first, it was held in Columbia Hall, (upstairs of the present hardware store) then later in the auditorium at the corner of North Main and Robbins St. When the depression of the 1930’s hit, attendance dwindled to as few as 75 and expenses exceeded income. Realizing the dance was losing its appeal, the enterprising firefighters decided to join with the American Legion in their poultry raffle. Additional sources of income were in demand and in 1935, the firemen voted to join the Legion in operating a beer stand at the fair.
During the early years, the department had few expenses. Disbursements in 1912 included $5.00 for the salary of the secretary and treasurer, but nothing for the chief. Debate took place over the annual expense for cigars of $6.60. The members voted to have the department discontinue purchasing cigars for the meetings. Cigar smoking at meetings remained popular. During the 1920’s, numerous references are made in the minutes to people donating cigars to the department in appreciation for their work. The meeting minutes indicate in August of 1927, Wenzel Zepnick donated $5.00 “in appreciation for the department protecting his property from fire.” The members voted to “spend $4.50 on cigars and place the remainder of the money in the general fund.”
Similar to today, the firemen were concerned with what they could do to help in the community. They participated in parades, sponsored an ice skating rink, provided flowers for the sick and during the early 1930’s donated $25.00 (the equivalent of about $415.00 in today’s purchasing power) to the Good Will Club, a community group organized to assist those in need.
High standards of behavior were expected of members of the department. In March of 1917, the city council informed Chief Wolk that it was his duty to suspend any members of the fire company found intoxicated in the city of Seymour at any time and for any insubordinate act. A couple years earlier Chief Wagner reminded the members that the only reasons to miss a department meeting were sickness or death. Anyone who missed a meeting without a valid excuse was fined ten cents.
No detailed records describing early fires remain, but it seems the department had about 10 to 12 calls a year during the 1920’s. January of 1922 was busy with a fire at the F. H. Dean residence, Mrs. Fuerst’s house, and G. B. Hill’s restaurant. The Farmer’s Equity burned in 1922, as did Mrs. Muehl’s store and the Dr. A. P. Holz residence. All these fires were in the winter, with chimney fires being most common.
In 1940 former chief, Walter Melchert, (on the department since 1930) recalled the most serious fire he could remember was at the Hotel Falck in 1923. Most of the building was gutted and assistance was sent from Appleton to douse the flames. The Appleton Post-Crescent reported the fire in the September 10, 1923 edition.
FALCK HOTEL FIRE
BAFFLES SEYMOUR MEN
An elaborate fire damaging the Falck Hotel of Seymour to the extent of $7,000 or $8,000 ($85,000 to $95,000 today) baffled the Seymour and Appleton fire departments for several hours Sunday morning. A part of the loss was covered by insurance.
The No. 1 triple combination truck of the Appleton department was summoned to help extinguish the fire and prevent it from spreading. Which on several occasions it threatened to do.
George Falck, the proprietor, and his wife, were asleep at the time of the fire and had to be carried out on the ladder by the Seymour firemen. Several transients were also awakened from their sleep by the fire company.
The fire started some time after 5 o’clock Sunday morning. It received a good start, for five minutes before the alarm was sounded. Residence could see no evidence whatever of a fire. No blaze was visible for hours. In fact, the source of smoke was hard to trace to the source. A pile of rubbish, boards and bags in the basement was probably the starting place of the fire, which was fed constantly by a draft proceeding through a clothes chute. Smoke and gas forging out in great quantities held back the firemen.
After the Seymour firemen fought smoke and gas for considerable time, a call was sent in at 8:55 for apparatus of the Appleton department. The Appleton truck arrived in 38 minutes.
Before the blaze was extinguished near 11 o’clock, the rear part of the hotel was totally wrecked. A hole of about 20 by 25 feet was burned in the roof and the basement joists were charred. Because the building was of brick, the fire was contained.
For a time the Seymour Post Office was endangered and all the fixtures and supplies were moved out of the building, but it incurred no damage. Household furniture of William Burgoyne at the rear of a millinery store also was moved.
The building consists of two stories and basement and had been built about 25 years ago. Spectators had been attracted to the fire from miles around, even from Black Creek, Hortonville, and Appleton, as it was rumored that the entire city of Seymour was ablaze.
Mayor Writes Letter
L. H. Waite, Mayor of Seymour wrote an open letter of gratitude to the officials of the city of Appleton thanking them for the assistance from their fire department. The letter, published in the Post-Crescent on September 13, 1923, mentioned, “It was a bad fire and we felt with our equipment we could not control it.” He pointed out that it took less than 40 minutes for the help to arrive and said, “This invaluable service from your department just brings the city of Appleton and out little city closer together in every way... Don’t fail to call on us at any time day or night for anything you want from us, for we will be glad to come.
The hotel fire, and the inadequate equipment, pointed out the need to add to the 600-gallon water pumper that was purchased in March of 1923. In August of 1925, fire protection in the city got a big boost when Chief Arthur Wolk traveled to Winona, Minnesota and drove home a new “Waterous Standard” truck. The city council appropriated $2,546.50 (about $30,000 today) for the “top of the line” engine. It featured an automatic chemical reel hose, high-powered pump, and the latest in fire engine design. (Now restored, the truck is featured in parades and is on display at the fire station.) However, the truck had an open cab and veteran firemen recall in freezing weather, several members would follow the truck in a car and every five miles or so, they would relieve the driver to keep him from freezing.
The most serious fire of the early 1930’s took place when flames consumed Seymour Woodenware on December 29, 1932. According to Roy Talbot, the manager, the plant had been closed for the holidays to take inventory. The Seymour fire department received the alarm about 3 o’clock in the morning and remained on duty until around 6:30 AM. The Post-Crescent reported, “By the time the fire was discovered the flames gained such headway that all the fire department could do was to keep them from spreading to adjacent building. The firemen directed streams of water on the canning factory located nearby to prevent the roof being ignited by falling sparks.
The woodenware building, a two-story frame structure, was built about a dozen years ago to replace a previous structure destroyed by fire. The loss is estimated at about $25,000.00, which is partly covered by insurance. Talbot, who also lost his automobile in the fire, indicated plans are uncertain about rebuilding. As a result of the fire, 23 men employed there this winter will be out of work.”
Held in High Regard
Residents of the community held the firefighters in high regard. Dr A. P. Holz provided physical exams for the men and donated $1.00 back for every $2.00 examination. Since retirement was mandatory at age 50, there was constant turnover in the department, but never a shortage of applicants. With the exception of the difficult economic times in the early 1930’s, the community enthusiastically supported the annual fireman’s ball. When a retired fireman passed away, the entire department attended the funeral as a group wearing their badges. The closeness of the members of the department is further illustrated by the end of the year banquet that some years even featured an orchestra.
The next installment celebrating the 100th anniversary of Seymour Volunteer Fire Department will focus on the years from 1935 to 1965.