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Young fire department moves into modern era PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 18 November 2010 19:21

By Tina Kitt

The Wauneta Breeze


New energy was injected into the Wauneta Fire Department in the late 1930s when the volunteer crew at last had a fire truck to help them battle fires.

Up until January 1937, an antiquated, manually operated piece of equipment called a hose cart, commonly used at the turn of the century, was the local fire brigade’s primary weapon in their firefighting arsenal.

Once the old rig gave out the “Village Dads” finally broke down and purchased a used truck and outfitted it with fire hoses, ladders and other gear.

In November of 1937 the Wauneta Volunteer Fire Department reorganized, with Nelson Burham helping whip the crew into shape as Fire Chief.

Twice monthly drills began in December 1937, with the following assignments designated:

Nozzle — H.R. Bradley, Otis Knotwell, Floyd Wade, D.C. Harvey.

Hosemen — Willis Ryan, Glen Richards, Wayne Anderson and Ted Thompson.

Hydrant — Del Thompson and L.H. Peterson.

Laddermen — Fred R. Grimm and A.R. d’Allemand.

Chemicalmen — George Hancock, V.B. Johnston, Dale Theobald, R.E. Olmsted, Jack Ryan, Omar Kitt and H.E. Athey.

That December a town-wide fire drill was held, with local motorists traveling down Wauneta’s oil and gravel Main Street chastised in the following week’s issue of the Breeze for failing to make way for the fire truck — still referred to as a hose cart.


“The results were most discouraging as citizens had not obeyed the request made in the Breeze to pull to the curb as soon as the siren sounded to make way for the firemen and hose cart,” notes the Breeze article. “Traffic was badly congested for a time. The department can not do good work without your cooperation.”

The scene repeated itself during subsequent fire drills leading local officials to issue a set of Motor Vehicle Driving Rules in early 1938, which were published on the front page of the Breeze.

“The local fire department is making every effort to make Wauneta fire conscious and on Monday evening, during the fire drill, several patrons were either ignorant or careless when it comes to the observance of state laws, for the benefit of everyone we are printing the following law:

“Police or fire department vehicles have the absolute right of way at all places. Upon the approach of any such vehicle the operators of other vehicles must pull up parallel to the right curb and remain stopped until the vehicles having the right of way have passed.

“It is also unlawful to follow any fire apparatus closer than 500 feet or to drive into or park within the block where fire apparatus is working.”


Safety gear purchased

By February of 1938 rain coats and firemen hats were purchased from the Wauneta Clothing Company for the local fire squad and training drills continued.

In 1938 it was also reported that members of the W.V.F.D. “are sporting handsome new pins, which distinguishes this courageous band of smoke-eaters from the common herd.” The pins bore each member’s number along with the words “Wauneta Fire Department.”

Fire Chief Burham attended the State Fireman School at Grand Island in 1938, bringing back with him information on safety and training tips.

Later that year the fire department and Commercial Club partnered in launching a fire prevention program as part of National Fire Prevention Week. Businesses and home owners were urged to have trash hauled away from the property in order to eliminate fire hazards.

Funds to cover the costs of equipment, training and fire prevention efforts were provided in part through money raised through the department’s annual “Firemens Ball.”

In 1939 Mel Pester’s 11-piece dance band played for a packed house at the American Legion Hall.

Local residents were urged to attend the March 1939 event in the pages of the Breeze: “Do your bit in swelling the exchequer of Wauneta’s intrepid smoke-eaters by buying a ticket to the annual ball.”


Machine shop fires

Despite the local fire department’s best efforts at training and procuring the proper equipment, two local businesses suffered major fire damage in 1938.

That summer the Pennington Garage and the Dudek Machine Shop were badly damaged by fires which occurred within hours of each other.

The Pennington Garage fire was caused when metal sparks hit gasoline being drained from the gas tank of car.

Low water pressure and a fire hydrant “that would not work” hobbled the fire department’s efforts in battling the blaze which spread to all parts of the building.

“Alcohol, dynamite caps and oil in the building exploded rapidly making progress slow. All equipment, tools, accounts, etc., were destroyed along with hundreds of small panes of glass. All that is left is the brick walls and they are badly cracked,” reads an account of the fire in the July 27, 1938, issue of the Breeze.

At midnight the fire siren sounded again with the Joe Dudek Machine Shop in flames this time.

“The origin of this fire is unknown except that it was thought to have started in a shed filled with rubbish at the back. The roof was burned badly and some tools ruined. A shower earlier in the evening and plenty of water force enabled the firemen to get the fire under control within a few minutes.”

In 1939 the Sam Stinnette barn on the southeast edge of town was lost to flames as was the Jay Benge home in 1940.

One of Wauneta’s oldest frame structures on Main Street was lost in an October fire in 1940 when the Dimick Building was gutted in the early morning hours.

The building was home to a pair of downtown businesses — Bill’s Lunch Room and the Wade barber shop — as well as housing the apartments of Stella Gregory and Bert Dimick.

Earlier that year it was rising waters rather than flames that put the department to the test. What was described as “the worst flood in 50 years” hit in early June 1940, with members of the department helping area residents as needed and providing safety patrols.

In all, 30 blocks and about 100 homes along with the business district were badly damaged when rising flood waters filled basements and collapsed foundation walls.


Rural fires often deadly

While the fire crew in the town of Wauneta had made tremendous strides in fire prevention and firefighting by the early 1940s, there was not yet a rural fire department, leaving that work covered by the “bucket brigades” of neighboring farm families.

Many rural homes still relied heavily on gas, oil and kerosene for heating, lighting and appliances in their homes which often led to tragic results.

Articles about burns and property damage sustained due to kerosene and gas explosions occur regularly in the pages of the Breeze in the 1930s, including accounts of the 1939 deaths of two area residents.

In March 1939, Perley Butler of Palisade was killed when he tried starting a fire with kerosene at the John Gage home 1 mile west of Palisade.


The kerosene exploded, covering the teenager with flaming liquid.

Later that year, in August 1939, a North Divide woman was killed and the family’s two story home 16 miles north of Wauneta destroyed.

Esther O’Neil, the 36-year-old wife of Dan O’Neil, was severely burned when she was filling the tank on a gasoline stove. Some of the gas spilled on the floor, where it was ignited by an oil-burning refrigerator, trapping her in the pantry.

Once a rural structure was engulfed in flames, neighbors had little hope of extinguishing the blaze, but often tried using buckets of water and blankets to beat back the fire.