BORN OUT OF THE ASHES…
The Ridgefield Fire Department was born out of the ashes of the Great Main Street Fire, a conflagration that destroyed most of the town’s business district shortly after 9 p.m. on Sunday, December 8, 1885.
On that chilly winter evening, a fire ignited somewhere in the Gage Building (which would later become Bedient’s Hardware) on the northeast corner of Bailey Avenue and Main Street quickly spreading in three directions. Within minutes, flames had engulfed two adjacent buildings on Main Street to the north and another building to the east on Bailey Avenue. Then the fire jumped Bailey Avenue and worked south toward Governor Street. Town Hall erupted in flames.
Witnesses tolled church bells to alert townspeople to the crisis. A call for help also was sent to Danbury’s organized fire department where firefighters loaded a thousand feet of hose and a steam driven pump on to a special train for the 10 mile journey. Meanwhile, hundreds of Ridgefield residents responded to the church-bell alarm, but they could do little to extinguish the blaze. Their efforts were severely hampered by a lack of fire-fighting apparatus and trained personnel. Bucket brigades were tried but quickly deemed useless. Dynamite was used on the Masonic Hall to create a fire break, but the building was already ablaze and the fire simply moved on. Finally, residents working ahead of the fire tore down a portion of the Scott building thus creating another fire break. This time the strategy worked. With nothing left to feed on, the conflagration was finally checked but not before it reduced to ashes and rubble 10 buildings which housed 13 businesses creating losses over $100,000. The Danbury Fire Department’s special train arrived at 2:30 a.m., well after the flames died down to glowing embers.
This economic tragedy brought Ridgefielders to the realization that they needed to address fire protection locally. The hazard was great because of residents’ dependence on fire – fireplaces, candles, oil lamps and wood stoves – to meet basic household needs. Clearly, a rebuilt Ridgefield business center would need a local, trained, adequately equipped firefighting organization to provide dependable protection.
Today’s Ridgefield Fire Department is a highly trained, well equipped emergency response force comprising both career and volunteer members. An interlocking command structure and continuous training enable volunteers and career personnel to work side-by-side in any emergency situation. But in the early years, all small-town fire fighting was a strictly volunteer effort. Therefore, the early history of the Ridgefield Fire Department is actually the story of volunteers working to help their neighbors protect their families and property from the constant threat of fire.
THE BIRTH OF THE DEPARTMENT
The first step toward creation of the Ridgefield Fire Department was taken in April, 1896, with the establishment of a Fire District in the central village area. Several residents volunteered to be on call in the event of a fire. Phineas C. Lounsbury, a former state governor, donated a chemical engine truck and a hook-and-ladder truck to the effort at a personal cost of over $1,000. Both trucks were custom built for town by the Gleason & Bailey Manufacturing Company of New York. The chemical unit had two tanks, each of which could hold 35 gallons of extinguishing agent. The tank assembly was mounted on two large-diameter carriage wheels. The hook-and-ladder truck was outfitted with a pump attachment, hose and other apparatus. Either truck could be drawn by hand or horses.
On January 23, 1897, a special town meeting authorized the Selectmen to fix rooms in the basement of the new Town Hall to accommodate the new equipment, thus establishing the town’s first fire station. The outline of the original arched equipment bays can still be seen in the lower level of town hall along Bailey Avenue. At the same time, a new alarm procedure was instituted to replace the tolling of church bells – a metal, wheel-shaped gong was hung at the rear of Town Hall where it could be struck with a sledge hammer to summon the volunteer firefighters. The gong was removed at some point and put in storage. In conjunction with the Volunteer Fire Department’s 100th anniversary in 1997, the original gong was returned to the property at town hall, along Bailey Avenue where it still stands today.
The Ridgefield Fire Department became an official entity on February 10, 1897, when the volunteers organized themselves and elected Charles S. Nash Chief of the department. The new Department immediately divided itself into two “companies.” The Phineas C. Lounsbury Engine Company with 36 charter members, was headed by James W. Fogarty, foreman. The Caudatowa Hook and Ladder Company with 39 charter members was headed by George Abbott, foreman. The new Department joined the State Firemen’s Association on May 6, 1897, and H.V.W. Morgan was elected the delegate to the state convention that year. Dr. Russell Lowe was named special physician to the Department.
EARLY FIRE CALLS
Ridgefielders had their first opportunity to review their fire department formally that year as its members marched in the September 6 Labor Day Parade. Later, on September 24, townspeople joined firefighters at the first Firemen’s Ball. The committee for that first celebration included George Abbott, James Fogarty, Frederick Platt, H.V.W. Morgan and William Barhite.
The first fire call recorded in the logs of the new department occurred on March 15, 1898, at noon. A hay stack located on East Ridge near the railroad tracks was burning, probably ignited by sparks from a passing locomotive. The Department’s records report sadly that the hay stack, valued at $30, was a total loss. It seems the firefighters were at first misdirected to High Ridge. By the time they arrived at the East Ridge location, only ashes remained.
The volunteers did a lot better just 13 days later when, at 10 a.m. on March 28, they were summoned to the burning home of Hudson Reynolds. Response time was just nine minutes. Within 30 minutes of the alarm, the blaze was under control and damage was limited to $185.
Six fires were recorded in 1899, the most serious of which destroyed the home of Dr. H.B. Savage on Nod Road. That fire led to a controversy which was not resolved until the following year. In responding to the alarm, the Department hired horses to transport the men and equipment. There was some question of who would pay the bill for the teams. Department members believed the town should pay. Finally, a town meeting on October 1, 1900, voted to pay $10 for the rental of the horses and to authorize the Fire Chief to hire teams to carry firemen to and from fires when the fire was more than one mile from Town Hall. For shorter distances, the equipment had to be hand-drawn.
Although the Department was now organized and equipped, the town lacked adequate water supplies for firefighting (and other) purposes. The establishment of a water company in the village in 1900 and its expansion in 1902 provided the start of the hydrant service that exists today in the center of town. The availability of water for the fire-fighting purposes led to the creation of the Ridgefield Hose Company #1 on June 15, 1901. H.V.W. Morgan was elected foreman of the 18 member unit. The annual town meeting that year appropriated $200 to help pay the cost for a hose and hose cart. Today’s department uses tanker trucks to supply water in areas without hydrant service.
Fire police officers, who direct traffic and keep unauthorized personnel away from the immediate scene of a fire, were first appointed in 1904. The records of the Phineas C. Lounsbury Company state that on February 4, Herman Martin and Daniel Robinson were appointed as fire policemen at the request of Chief G.H. Becker. In 1905, the fire police manpower was increased to six members with two men from each Company. The group was not further expanded until 1941 when nine officers were authorized.
BUILDING A FIRE HOUSE
The growth of the Department in terms of manpower and equipment soon created a need for more spacious quarters than could be provided in Town Hall, so the Department established a building fund seeded with $500 from its own treasury on August 20, 1903. A building committee was elected to work with the Selectmen in securing plans and specifications. The committee members, named on October 6, 1904, were George Abbott, F.S. Hurlbutt and George Knapp. In 1905, S.C. O’Connor was named to replace George Abbott, and in 1906, Willis Gilbert replaced F.S. Hurlbutt. Michael McGlynn and Charles S. Nash were added to the committee when it was expanded to five members.
Department members sponsored fairs and other events to raise money, and by January 3, 1907, the volunteers had increased the building fund to $2,953.22. More contributions by civic minded residents swelled the account to $4,617.98 by January 1908. Meanwhile, on April 15, 1907, the town appropriated $3,500 to assist in the construction of the Fire House. In August 1907, Mrs. Anna Biglow donated a lot on Catoonah Street for fire purposes and the construction of the Fire House began. The two-bay structure was substantially complete by 1908 and the Department met in its new home for the first time on January 7, 1909.
The advent of telephone service – some 400 Ridgefield homes had telephones by 1909 – increased the effectiveness of firefighting efforts by making quick notification possible. Night time protection also improved under a unique fire reporting system. A resident, upon discovering a fire, would call the telephone operator who would then press a button that illuminated a red light in front of Town Hall. Frank Taylor, the night watchman, would see the fire signal and check with the operator to get the location; he would then telephone the fire chief and sound the alarm.
The financial history of the Department from its inception to the present day is studded with contributions and donations from friends and benefactors. Among the earliest major contributors was Katherine A. DePeyster. Upon her death in 1912, Mrs. DePeyster left a $5,629 bequest to assist in the care and maintenance of the Department. This led to the incorporation of the Department under the General Incorporation Acts of the State of Connecticut in April, 1914. Members of the first Board of Directors were Joseph Elsishaus, Lester Russell, Charles Walker, W.C. Barhite, Roy W. Davis, George Sebastian and J.E. Anderson. The first Board of Trustees to administer the DePeyster fund comprised W.S. Gilbert, Cyrus Cowen and Frank Taylor. The Department continues to benefit from this gift and others. Today, three trustees look after donated funds.
During the World War I years, the Department conducted fund-raising activities for all branches of the armed forces. Contributions were also made to the Home Guard, the Navy League, and similar organizations. The Department also purchased two $1,000 Liberty Bonds.
In 1918, the Department obtained its first motor driven vehicle, a Packard hose truck which had an open cab, solid tires, and a hand-crank siren. The committee members who selected the truck were Fran Taylor, Louis Coffee, J.E. Anderson, W.S. Gilbert and Roy Davis.
The Department had a well established tradition of responding to the needs of the town by 1925, and in August, the volunteers voted to continue that tradition by permitting two rooms at the Fire House to be used for school purposes. To assist in parades and other ceremonial functions, the Department formed a Drill Team and Color Guard in April, 1933. Appointed to form the team were Roy Bates, Arthur Dingee and John Sullivan.
The volunteer department also provided ambulance services in the early years. On January 7, 1937, a committee was appointed to obtain the town’s first ambulance. Chief Ellsworth Brown chaired the committee whose members included Ralph Kasper and Joseph Donnelly of the Hose Company; Donald Cummings and Arthur Dingee of the Caudatowa Company; and William Sturges and Richard Young of the Lounsbury Company. The committee recommended a Ford vehicle. By October, 1937, the ambulance fund had reached $1,564.50 of its $2,000 goal. The first ambulance call was logged on January 4, 1938, at 9:15 a.m. and by the end of the year a total of 54 calls had been recorded. In keeping with their expanded duties, seven men from each of the companies took a 10 week First Aid Training Course that year.
In 1968, Jack Ward, a local philanthropist, donated a white Cadillac Meteor Ambulance. Six years later, Mr. Ward and Olaf Olsen, another Ridgefield philanthropist, contributed most of the funds necessary to purchase a second ambulance. An appreciative Department named Mr. Ward honorary Fire Chief and Mr. Olsen honorary president. Again in 1988 Chief Ward and president Olsen gifted the Department with still another ambulance/rescue vehicle. Today, career members of the department take the lead in responding to ambulance calls, but many volunteers are trained emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) and respond with the career personnel. The first volunteer’s to be granted EMT certification were Jim Belote and Loren Caddell. Both would later rise to the rank of volunteer chief.
The fourth company of the Ridgefield Fire Department – the Junior Fire Company – was created when the members approved an Emergency Service Plan on August 7, 1941. There were 28 charter members headed by Si Bellagamba, Chief. During the years of World War II, the Junior Fire Department augmented the depleted ranks of the regular department. Composed mainly of high school students, the junior firefighters confined their activities to grass fires and were not permitted to enter burning buildings. Disbanded in January, 1946, the junior Fire Department was a training ground for many members of the Department who served in the decades that followed. During World War II, the Department purchased Defense Bonds and formed a Home Guard Unit. Also during World War II, local women participated in the ambulance service. Although the exact number of members of the Department who served in the armed forces during this period is not known, the Department’s minutes indicate members sent Christmas gifts in 1944 to 37 of their fellows in the services.
GROWTH OF THE DEPARTMENT
In the 1930’s, the town was large enough to pay one fireman, William Sturges, to maintain the fire house and prepare the equipment for the rest of the volunteer response. The requirements of the community continued to grow forcing the town in 1947 to institute around-the-clock fire protection. A town meeting in October appropriated funds to pay for three full-time firemen. The number of career department members by the mid-1970’s had reached 16 men headed by Chief Richard McGlynn. By 1997, the roster of the career unit had grown to include 10 firefighter/EMT’s, four line officers, a fire marshal and two chief officers. Meanwhile, the volunteer department had stabilized at 53 firefighters including six line officers. The Catoonah Street Fire House was expanded in 1947 by two bays at the rear of the structure to accommodate an ambulance and a generator truck.
The four separate fire companies – Lounsbury, Caudatowa, Hose and Junior – voted to consolidate in 1954 into a single operational unit identified simply as the Ridgefield Fire Department. Ralph Crouchley was elected the first president of the Department and Francis Moylan was re-elected Chief. In 1959, the Department formed a marching band, “The Flamesmen,” with 26 members including 20 instrumentalists and a six man color guard. The band accompanied the Department on parade until it officially disbanded in February 1964.
As the town experienced rapid growth during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the need for more fire apparatus increased so the Catoonah Street house was expanded for a second time. Construction of the two-story, three bay western addition along with structural work on the existing building was completed in 1965. The Building Committee, headed by Roger Carpenter, consisted of Gino Polverari, Perr Lorenzini, Richard E. Venus, William Mannion, and Richard McGlynn. The Catoonah Street Fire House now accommodates 10 pieces of equipment including two engines, one aerial truck, two tankers, two ambulances, a rescue truck, a staff vehicle and an all terrain vehicle.
Although the northern section of town had for many years relied for fire protection on responders from the Catoonah Street Fire House and from Danbury’s Miry Brook Station, the growth of the Ridgebury area generated a need for a second fire station. Property at the corner of Old Stagecoach and Regan Roads was acquired and funds were appropriated to build the new substation. The Board of Selectmen composed of Leo F. Carroll, Paul J. Morganti and Louis J. Fossi served as the Building Committee. Named Station 2 and officially opened May 30, 1968, the three bay structure was manned during the day by a single paid firefighter. At night, the station was covered by volunteers who lived in the area. Today, the Ridgebury Station is manned 24-hours by two career firefighters. Today’s volunteers respond with equipment from the Catoonah Street Fire House. Station 2 currently houses one engine and a back up ambulance.
Throughout the century, Department members have been interested in preventing fires as well as suppressing them. For example, the Department was responsible for several changes in the town’s Building Code including one in 1977 that required 3/8 inch sheet rock be installed underneath wood paneling in new construction. During the 1980’s and continuing through the 1990’s, volunteer members worked tirelessly with the Fire Marshal’s office on public safety education. These efforts included a major participation in the annual October Fire Education Day open houses. The early success of Fire Education Day was due mainly to the organizational efforts of career Fire Marshal Louis Yarrish and the imagination of volunteer Fire Police Captain Wilfred “Woofie” Weaver who converted a camper trailer into a mobile fire prevention display.
COMMAND STRUCTURE EMERGES
During the last four decades of the 20th Century, the career and volunteer members of the department experimented with several command and administrative structures to accommodate the changing nature of the community’s demands for emergency services. By 1997, the Department’s line officers included a career Chief, a career Assistant Chief, a volunteer Deputy Chief, and four career Lieutenants. The career department later recognized the position of Captain, and added 4 to the ranks. Any of these officers can command the activities of both career and volunteer firefighters at an emergency scene under the incident command system. The volunteers also have their own line officers responsible only for volunteer operations. These include a Chief, Assistant Chief, two Captains, and two Lieutenants.
The career firefighters administrative interests (including collective bargaining) are looked after by the Ridgefield Firefighters Association, Local 1739, International Association of Firefighters. The administrative interests of the volunteers are minded by a five-member fire commission and a cadre of executive officers including a President, Vice-President, Treasurer and two Secretaries. The departments protective officers are the Fire Police composed of 12 men including a captain and two lieutenants.
Throughout the hundred and ten year history of the Department, volunteers have been responsible for the design, specification and acquisition of most of the community’s fire apparatus. Often the volunteers built fire trucks themselves by converting previously owned civilian and military vehicles into fire apparatus. Fuel trucks became water tankers; a bread delivery truck was converted into a Hazardous Materials Response Unit; a run down fire engine was remade into an emergency lighting and power generation unit; a pickup truck became a Fire Police Command Unit; a gift military utility vehicle was remade into a brush fire truck. And, in the years before the highway department shops grew to their current capability, volunteers did much of the routine maintenance on fire department vehicles.
Most recently the department has embarked on what could arguably be considered it’s most ambitious project – protecting the history and legacy of the organization by building a working museum to house it’s antique apparatus.
Today the department has 60 members, including trained firefighters, fire police, support personnel as well as probationary members.