A HISTORY OF THE SEYMOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT (Part 4)
The picture shows the Nichols Co-op fire in 1969
The previous article (Part 3) included a summary of the large fire at Seymour Lumber in June of 1964. Since the article appeared, a conversation with fireman Lee Schmit, (1959-1983), verified the intensity of the blaze and the challenge faced by the firemen. “I was working at the body shop when Babe (Seidl) yelled, ‘the lumber yard is on fire,’ Jim Sutliff and I were the first to arrive and we hooked the pumper up to the hydrant behind Don’s. The fire was so hot we had to move north a block to the hydrant at Kuehne’s. The truck was scorched and part of the signal light melted. I still remember the workers at the county garage hosing down the doors to keep them from burning.”
Damage was estimated at $225,000. The blaze was the largest in the city since 1958 when flames destroyed the Seymour Woodenware Co. Despite losing 140,000 board feet of prime stock lumber, owners Elmer and Harold Krahn were open for business the next day. A quick response by the fire department prevented the fire from spreading to the main office and its supply of paint.
In 1966 Lyndon Baines Johnson was president, over 400,000 American military personnel were in Viet Nam, Mission Impossible was a big hit on television, and the Green Bay Packers, led by Coach Vince Lombardi won their third straight NFL title. Seymour’s population was approaching 2,500, the Roger Miller show performed at the Outagamie County Fair, and the city council was planning for a new municipal building. The old city hall, located in the heart of downtown, served as the home of the fire department since its inception in 1910. The new municipal building, located on North Main Street, provided much needed larger facilities for the fire department, police department and city services.
Seymour Press Fire
On April 4, 1966, the Seymour-Black Creek Community Press was hit with a devastating fire that caused over $50,000.00 in damage. This was the second fire within a year at the firm. Heavy damage was inflicted on machinery in the production section of the building. Patrolman Will Mamerow said he noticed smoke coming from the building when he was making his rounds at 5:30 AM. He turned in the alarm at city hall but the siren switch malfunctioned. He then contacted police Chief Bill Hietpas who sounded the alarm at his home.
Problems existed with the alarm system for some time and the Press fire emphasized the need for a new setup. Minutes of the March 10, 1966 city council meeting indicate the new fire phone system was plagued by numerous false alarms. The city council was encouraged to take corrective action. Apparently proper action was not taken in time as indicated by the system malfunction for the Press fire one month later.
Fund Raising and Celebrations
During the mid 1960s the firemen shifted the focus of their social and fund raising activities. They continued to operate the refreshment stand at the fair, but decided to discontinue the once popular fireman’s dance. It had been held annually since 1910 and was at one time considered to be the major social event in the city. The Seymour Jaycees invited the department to assist in organizing a 4th of July celebration including a horse-pulling contest. By 1967 emphasis was placed on participation in the Seymour Centennial Celebration. Bob Eick and Jim Sutliff volunteered to be the department representatives on the Centennial Committee. The firemen drove the old 1925 Waterous Standard fire truck in the Seymour Centennial parade and assisted in making the event a huge success.
In fact, to promote the centennial, the firemen and their families participated in neighboring parades and celebrations. While the men proudly displayed the old truck, their wives and children sold centennial buttons to the crowd. Janice Braun, wife of fireman Jim Braun, sold the most buttons and was named centennial queen.
Fire broke out at 7:00 on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1967 at the Coachlite Supper club in downtown Seymour. The popular dining establishment received extensive fire, water and smoke damage. At the time of the fire, the Seymour Lion’s Club was meeting and steaks were being prepared in the kitchen. The blaze started in the ventilation system far above the charcoal grill. Fast action by the fire department contained the blaze to the attic and roof. Thirty-five people were in the building at the time of the fire. It was quickly evacuated and no one was injured.
The Coachlite, owned by Roger and Janice Eick, was closed for about a month before it reopened. When recently asked about the fire Janice Eick replied, “Your facts are correct and about the only other thing I remember is Wally Beilfuss was there and he said, ‘Grab the cash register and let’s get everyone out of here’.”
Nichols Co-op Fire
Serious fires continued to test the resources of the department. On Sunday afternoon, November 30, 1969, Willis Scheller, a Nichols fireman who lived near the Co-op, noticed smoke and he reported the fire. By the time assistance arrived, the blaze was burning out of control. Men from six area fire departments fought the blaze. These included Nichols, Bonduel, Seymour, Navarino, Shiocton, and Black Creek. Trucks from Murphy Concrete hauled water to the fire scene. The fire, which caused over $100,000 damage, burned out an 80 by 60 foot middle section of the 260-foot long brick structure. The section of the building that was burned housed the hardware and appliance departments and the main offices. The contents of those departments including a large stock of merchandise were destroyed. Firewalls were credited with saving both ends of the building. Plans were made to rebuild the burned section. At the time, the co-op employed 17 people.
Mobil Station Fire
Ten days after the Nichols Co-op fire, Jerry’s Mobil Station on South Main Street in Seymour was engulfed by a fire that started in the furnace room. Jerry Hintz and John Schmidt were inside the garage when the explosion and fire took place. Both fled to safety before flames swept the building. Estimated damage was at least $35,000. The interior of the building was gutted and the inventory destroyed. The Seymour Fire Department limited the blaze to the station.
On August 28, 1973, an article in the Post-Crescent referred to the rural area being “petrified by eight fires of undetermined origin.” Fire Chief Robert Mory mentioned that the state fire marshal has been called in to investigate, as several of the fires appear to be of suspicious origin. Eventually, possibly because of the investigation, the suspicious fires ceased and rural residents slept better at night.
Treml Food Center Fire
The most severe fire of the 60s and 70s took place when the Treml Food Center and Commercial Complex went up in smoke on December 15, 1976. Located in the central business district, the newly remodeled and expanded business was about to celebrate a grand reopening. The fire broke out about 11:00 PM in a pile of rubbish on the north side of the building next to the driveway. A fan from a refrigeration unit about four feet off the ground sucked the flames into the building. The fire then spread to the meat processing plant, pharmacy, carpet shop, food store, and bakery.
Firefighters remained at the scene until 4:00 AM. They returned at 8:00 AM when portions of the burned structure began smoldering. Fire Chief Robert Mory said the fire fighting operation was hampered by thick smoke. He stated that the amount of smoke was unbelievable and added that the entire building and its contents were a total loss. The firemen managed to save the nearby office of Dr. Brusky and the Coachlight Supper Club, limiting them to smoke damage.
Ron Seidl (1970-2004) remembered the difficulty in fighting the fire. “I spent most of the time on the roof attempting to vent smoke from the building. Because of all the burning beef and grocery items, smoke was so thick inside it was difficult to see.” Bob Coonen (1965-1994), mentioned that the false ceiling in the building made it difficult to get at the fire. Frank Treml, the owner of the complex, estimated the damage at $500,000.
Shortly after the Treml fire, the department received a complimentary letter from Dr. Brusky expressing his gratitude for, “The efficient manner in which you handled the Treml fire, which was adjacent to my building. The efficient effort and kindness shown to me by the Seymour Fire Department and their co-operation, was highly commendable. Seymour certainly is proud of their fire department.”
In May of 1977, Harold Dopkins, proprietor of a barbershop on Main St. praised the department for speed in, “getting to the fire of my awning at the Barber Shop in time. It shows how important the department is to the community. Again I thank you.”
A couple months later, Harold Krahn of Seymour Lumber, sent a similar letter to Chief Mory. “We wish to thank the Seymour Fire Department for the prompt and efficient way they handled the (1977) fire at Seymour Lumber. These people are well trained and do an excellent job.”
Krahn added a P.S. “Enclosed find $25.00 for a few beers.” Francis Gerl, secretary for the Fire Department replied, “I am writing on behalf of the Fire Department to thank you for the wonderful letter and the P.S you sent the department.” He then added a P.S. “The guys wanted to get some soda, but were willing to go along with your orders.”
Even though the department received numerous compliments, Chief Mory realized the fire protection offered by the department was only as good as the firefighters and the system they utilized. Shortly after the Treml fire, he addressed the city council, encouraged a total review of the placement of fire hydrants, and recommended an upgrade for the entire structure. He drew special attention to the new areas of the city and the school complex. Lowell Veitch, council president, presiding in the absence of the mayor, recommended a complete study of the hydrant system by the fire chief and public works director.
The Rescue Truck
Ron Seidl recalled the early years when his father Elmer, (Babe) Seidl, encouraged the purchase of a rescue vehicle. “He felt there was a need for more medical assistance and the department purchased an old panel truck.” Department records indicate a 1948 GMC panel truck was purchased from the Brillion Fire Department in 1958. Jerry Eick (1959-86) remembered that it said “Rescue Squad” on the side, but only had oxygen, a resuscitator, and a few first aid supplies. Eventually, with the help of the American Legion and VFW a new 1963 Buick Skylark station wagon was purchased. That was replaced with a 1971 Cadillac hearse type vehicle.
During the 1970s greater emphasis was placed on first aid training with classes being held at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay. In June of 1973 fireman Bob Coonen addressed the department regarding the emergency rescue classes that would be offered requiring 75 hours of training. This was the beginning of the EMT program. Bob Coonen and Chub Garsow were the first to complete the requirements necessary for certification. The minutes of the October 9, 1975 meeting indicate committees were established for the fire department budget and the rescue squad budget. By 1978-79 they were completely separate entities.
During the 1970’s the firemen continued to be active in community affairs. They supported the lake project, contributed to building Good Shepherd Nursing Home, donated money to the New Hope Nursery, established a scholarship for high school graduates, promoted the Bi-centennial Celebration, contributed toward a pitching machine for legion baseball, and sponsored a “Red Ball”campaign to identify the windows of bedrooms of children and the elderly in their homes.
When speaking with retired firemen Jerry Eick, Bob Coonen, Lee Schmit, Ron Seidl, and Chub Garsow, they all mentioned similar reasons for serving on the fire department. The most common comment was that they felt an obligation to help the community. The firefighters pointed out that there was a need and they could help fill it. Several had fathers who were firemen and they were encouraged by them to join the department.
Lee Schmit (1959-83) said he calculated that he was at 1,014 meetings and fires in 25 years as a fireman. He figured that he missed only 108. Working at Seidl Body shop, he, Ron and Babe, and Lee’s brother Bud, who worked at Melchert’s, were often the first to answer the siren. “The first five to arrive grabbed a copper tag and usually took two trucks to fires out of town.” Jerry Eick commented, “My dad was the fire chief and I grew up with the fire department being a very important part of my life.” Chub Garsow remembers all the firemen who lived on Pearl and Robbins Street. “The siren would sound and Coonen, Schmit, Jim Braun, Tom Seidl, Rich Moeller, and I would all head for the station. It got to be a contest!