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Wauneta fire company struggled to make do without a fire truck well into the 1930s PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 28 October 2010 18:28

By Tina Kitt

The Wauneta Breeze



Throughout the 1920s motorized vehicles became more common in the area, repla

cing horse-drawn transportation and equipment. In larger towns, firefighting crews welcomed the addition of fire trucks, replacing the hose carts of the past.

Not in Wauneta, however.

Even as an increasing number of cars, pickups and trucks travelled the local streets, the Wauneta Fire Company continued to respond to fire calls with the town’s hose cart as their main firefighting weapon.

Lloyd Sinner of Wauneta, a member of the department from 1956 to 2004 and a longtime fire chief, recalls listening to former Fire Chief Nelson Burham talk about his frustration in not being able to convince the Village Board that a fire rig was badly needed in place of the old hose cart.

“They ran that old cart until it literally fell apart on them,” said Sinner.


Antique equipment

By the 1930s fire trucks were becoming common in larger towns, but not in rural southwest Nebraska.

Wauneta suffered a series of significant fires in the 1930s with the local fire company doing their best to battle them with limited means during the cash-strapped era of the Great Depression.

In the wee hours of the morning on the day after Christmas on Dec. 26, 1932, a large portion of the school building in Wauneta was consumed by fire.

According to the Dec. 28, 1932, issue of The Breeze, “fire causing an estimated loss of $40,000 completely destroyed the Wauneta grade school building but was brought under control before fire could reach the east wing which housed the high school.”

The fire was discovered by Marshal Wiley while “making his night rounds at 3:30 Monday morning and the alarm turned in.

“The fire equipment was hurried to the scene but several minutes delay in getting the water through the hose gave the fire the necessary start to destroy the main building.

“A call to Palisade brought their fire equipment and enlarged the already steady stream of water being played on the wing, and with the untiring efforts of volunteer firemen the new wing of the building still stands, however badly damaged by smoke and water.”

A devastating fire hit the town again in January 1937 when the popular Crystal Theatre, which stood on the west side of Tecumseh Avenue, was gutted in the early morning hours. Firefighters sought to save the theatre but again were hampered by lack of the proper equipment and frigid temperatures.

An article about the fire in the Jan. 13, 1937, issue of the Breeze reports: “After delays due to faulty equipment among other things, the volunteer fire department did their best in the fight and were further hampered by 15 below zero weather, ice and snow. Restaurants and lunch rooms were opened for the fire boys to go in and warm up after shifts.”

The Crystal Theatre had been recently remodeled by the Dr. Frank Rider family, owners and operators of the theatre. Only the shell front and sides of the brick building, which itself belonged to C.E. and V.B. Johnston, remained standing. The Riders immediately made plans to rebuild the movie theatre, locating across the street to the east where they built The Chateau Theatre in replacement of the Crystal.


The wheels come off

Fire company members tried in vain to get funding for new equipment, in particular a truck. Unsuccessful in those efforts, they continued to respond to fire calls with their 1909 hose cart, pulling it behind a department member’s personal vehicle instead of moving it on foot.

But the old cart had seen its better days. In January 1937, a week after getting put to the test at the Crystal Theatre fire, the cart made its last run.

It was pulled to a fire at the H.E. Stinnette grocery and cream station without incident. But a few days later, when the crew responded to a fire at the Leland Peterson home in the east part of town, the wheels literally fell off the cart when firefighters took a corner too fast.

“The hose cart made the trip, but this time with not so fortunate an ending as previously. In rounding a corner the aged wheels gave way and the hose was loaded onto a truck and continued on its way. Then again, alas, when it was unloaded at the fire scene it was further reduced to splinters; wrenches were lost and parts of the antique strewn hither and yon.

“Grave doubts have been expressed if the cart can be repaired. So without a hose cart all future fires have been called off and other entertainment will have to be indulged in,” concludes a Jan. 20, 1937, Breeze account — tongue firmly planted in cheek.

By the end of the year the town had its fire truck.

“The town board purchased a Ford Model A truck and had a body built on it to use as a fire truck,” states a 1961 published summary of the department’s history. “It was the town’s first fire wagon and took the place of the hose cart, which had served its day.”

Subsequently, the reinvigorated volunteers began holding twice monthly fire drills starting in November 1937.


Rural fires hard to fight

Up to that time, rural residents were left to their own means when fire struck.

When fires hit farm buildings or homes they were often lost in the blaze as there was not a fire truck or tanker in the area to assist. By the 1930s hand-held fire extinguishers were available locally and when word reached town of a rural fire, community members would load up their vehicles with these extinguishers in an attempt to help.

The Alex Von Stade family lost their home 4 miles east of Wauneta in 1936 when fire spread from an overheated stove. The family didn’t have a telephone so one of their daughters ran to a neighboring farm to call for help. According to an account published in the July 15, 1936, issue of the Breeze, “as soon as word reached town fire extinguishers were gathered from main street and rushed to the blaze but it was too late to be of use.” The Von Stades’ two-story frame house burned to the ground with only a few items saved.

In 1931 it was the sheer determination of farmers living outside of Wauneta working alongside firefighters that saved the town from a raging prairie fire. The Ivo Pennington home on the south edge of town was at risk of being overtaken as the lightning-sparked prairie fire swept toward Wauneta from the South Divide.

“In less time than it takes to tell there were 25 to 30 carloads of people on the scene, most of them men equipped with spads and shovels,” reads an account of the prairie fire in the May 26, 1931, issue of the Breeze.

People from the Divides, Hamlet and Enders spotted the fire long before anyone in town was aware of what was happening and moved in to assist.

“Through the united efforts of a company of men with shovels and wet sacks they succeeded in stopping the spread to the north, and at midnight the danger was apparently over.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 October 2010 18:38