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.

An old firetruck in Centerville, Indiana

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.

Nathan Rentfrow with his wife Lucinda (Bennett) Rentfrow

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.

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8 Responses to Fire!

  1. Julia says:

    wow, $6.50! They must have invited a bunch of non-dancers like us. 🙂

    I love this post. Love the opening paragraph — “the nice man who was changing the oil in my car” and your sad 9-year-old who wanted to know where the firefighters were going. I think it’s cool that Centerville still uses volunteer firefighters. But I’m glad that Hilliard has a paid full-time staff. 🙂

  2. pokedpotato says:

    I was thinking…gee…$6.50 doesn’t sound like a lot to me even with inflation?? I thought some of their titles were funny…”Chief of Hose” and “Captain of the Hook and Ladder”. If there was a Captain of the Hook and Ladder, then that seems to imply there was maybe a Chief of the Hook and Ladder? Hmmm.

    • I’m assuming “Chief of Hose” essentially means fire chief. “Captain of the Hook and Ladder” must be the guy in charge of the Hook and Ladder department. But I found it interesting that “stoker” was an elected position. It seems like that’d be the job you’d give to the lowest guy on the totem pole, not something you’d want to be elected to.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Linda Paul says:

    Kevin, I’ve come to your blog through Charles’ recommendation. I’m really seeing the exponential value of the Stylish Blogger Award, although it is increasing my blog reading time more than exponentially!

    I love how you dovetailed your daily life, replete with chores and kids, into a lovely tribute to your family and the place they settled. I’ve been delving into the history of my family as well. I have a lot of photos and a few letters, but as a kid I never paid attention, therefore I’m lacking the personal stories that are so important to creating a compelling family story.

    BTW: I hope you don’t plan to move__ever. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to move a library? Trust me. I moved about 6 years ago. I only have a tiny library….I thought, till I moved.

    I have much more reading to do. I’m looking forward to delving into Arbor Familiae…I had only 3 years of Latin and remember almost none of it, but thank my lucky stars for having the background.

    • Linda,

      Thanks for the very kind comment. It is nice to learn of other blogs through the “Stylish Blogger Award.” There’s a lot of good stuff out there.

      I encourage you to keep working on the family history. Sometimes you can find someone (a long lost cousin) who has access to all the family stories. Or even better, you can find someone with the family artifacts and heirlooms. It’s amazing what you can find.

      I am afraid of moving. On the other hand, I wonder if it would be better to move soon before my collection of books gets even bigger. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. bronxboy55 says:

    One of the things that repeatedly surprises me about your blog is the number of old photographs, the clarity of the pictures (except for some of the handwriting), and the information in the captions. I’m also struck by how active your ancestors were in their communities. How shocked they would have been to know that a century and a half later, complete strangers would be reading their stories with great interest.

    • My family does have a lot of old photographs. But the only reason they look as good as they do on the blog is that my wonderful wife works her magic on them. She scans them for me, adjusts levels when needed and even digitally repairs torn or damaged parts of the photo from time to time. She’s extremely talented–and not just with words!

      Like you, I have been struck by how involved the various members of my family have been in their community. There are certainly members of the family who weren’t (but they’re not as fun, nor as easy, to write about). But many of my direct-line ancestors engaged in community and business in very meaningful ways. I sometimes wonder how ordinary–or extraordinary–my family is.

      Thanks for reading their stories!

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