Today as I sat in the local Jiffy Lube, the entire complement of fire trucks from Station 81 went roaring through the center of our town. I looked up to see the SUV carrying the fire chief, followed by several other vehicles I missed (because I was talking with the nice man who was changing the oil in my car). And then came the heavy rescue truck and the enormous tower-ladder truck.
I’m not sure where they were headed (although this was a question of great concern to my nine-year-old when I told him the story later). I just know there were a lot of them, they were loud, and they were moving fast.
As often happens, I thought of my ancestors.
My grandfather’s grandparents lived in a small town called Centerville in Wayne County, Indiana. Centerville’s population in 2000 was only 2,427. It had grown quickly following its founding in 1814, because it lay along a popular road for pioneers who were flooding into the western portion of the Northwest Territory. From the 1820s on, the road narrowed from 100 feet to 65 to 40 as businesses built up to meet the needs of the travellers. For a while Centerville was the county seat, but after the courthouse left and the Interstate system bypassed the old National Road, Centerville became just another small town.
The beginnings of the fire service in Centerville are a bit sketchy. In the early days, the bell of the Methodist Church would sound to summon a group of volunteers (if not all able-bodied, available men in town) to help in the case of fire or any other emergency. It also served to make everyone aware that something was going on.
One such emergency was the threat of Morgan’s Raiders in July of 1863. Confederate General John Morgan’s cavalry were threatening eastern Indiana, so at ten o’clock on the night of Thursday, July 9, 1863, the fire bell rang and the citizens assembled. (To read more about Morgan’s Raiders, see my earlier post Shared Memories.)
Emergencies and fires were always a part of life, but as Centerville grew the need for fire service surely increased. The 1840s and 1850s brought many changes in the town as the westward journeying gold rushers travelled along the National Road that went right through the center of town. Businesses continued to develop and buildings were built cheek to jowl along the busy route. By a special act of Congress, a stretch of road going through Centerville became the first part of the National Road in Indiana to be paved with cobblestones in 1850.
With changes in the town and in technology came a need for more structure in the fire service. In March of 1860, a group of citizens got together and organized an engine company, complete with a constitution and by-laws. Among the rules was one that fined any member of the group that didn’t show up for a fire. Another section of the by-laws provided that anyone who disobeyed orders during a fire emergency would be fined, suspended or expelled.
Organizations need leaders, and the fire department was no different. When officers were elected in 1878, my four-times-great uncle Henry Diltz was among them. The officers held sixteen-month terms and met the first Friday of every month to manage the needs of the firefighters and to be sure they were ready to face any emergencies that might arise.
In 1894, the firefighters met with the town council and requested two or three rubber coats. Their request was granted, as long as suitable, reasonable coats could be found. That year, W.A. Bertsch was elected as stoker, George Sanders as Chief of Hose and my great-great grandfather Nathan Rentfrow as Captain of the Hook and Ladder.
Money was always necessary to upgrade technology and support the firefighters. Presumably over the years they raised money by donations and fundraisers. In 1900, for instance, the firefighters sponsored a dance and profited $6.50. Eventually tax dollars would help, but without extra money there’s no way small fire departments like Centerville’s could keep up.
In the mid-twentieth century a new siren was installed that could indicate the location of the fire by the sound of the siren blasts. Today, Centerville still uses volunteer firefighters. Men and women still give of their time and risk their lives to protect others. Technology has certainly improved over the years and made the work of volunteers more efficient and effective, but in towns like Centerville volunteers play as important a part in the protection of the people as they did two hundred years ago.