Hilliard Northwest News

Guest column

'Public-spirited citizens' founded fire department

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Editor's Note: Over the next several months, the ThisWeek Hilliard Northwest News will run historic Norwich Township photos and guest columns in honor of the township's bicentennial celebration.

Until the 1940s, fighting fires was an unorganized volunteer project.

No equipment was used, except the "bucket brigade."

When a fire broke out, the church bell would be rung. All able-bodied persons would go to the fire scene with ladders, buckets and anything else they thought they might need. They would attempt to bring the fire under control, but not always very successfully.

Members of the bucket brigade did not have the benefit of training or personal protection equipment, other than a handkerchief over the mouth When the O'Hara Pool Room burned, bucket brigaders narrowly escaped with their lives as the building collapsed.

On Feb. 3, 1928, a public meeting was held at the Merchants and Farmers Bank, now Chase Bank, for the purpose of hearing plans to form a firefighting company for Hilliard and the surrounding community. However, nothing definite came from this meeting.

About 1940, in another attempt to start a fire department, there were several meetings were held in the council chambers in the basement of the Methodist Church on the corner of Norwich and Main streets. Nothing came from these meetings, either, even though population of the village was 510 at the time.

In 1941, under the leadership of Chester High and many other public-spirited citizens, another movement was launched to organize a volunteer fire department. This time plans would coalesce, but not without some controversy. Some said a fire department would not work in Hilliard. Some did not want change. Even with this opposition, a charter was drawn and adopted on April 1, 1942.

The Hilliards Volunteer Fire Department met at no cost in the Latham Building on Main Street, now occupied by a gun store.

The rest of 1942 and 1943 was needed for organizing, drilling and purchasing equipment so that the department could be termed operational.

High started out with about 12 men and as interest was created, it expanded to 25 men. High was elected chief and John Russell assistant chief.

A chief of engines, a chief of hose and a chief of ladders also were selected. Each chief had three or four men serving under him.

At this time, the only equipment the department had were some buckets, an ax and a length of 21/2-inch fire hose. Training consisted of Civil Defense firefighting. By taking this training, the department was able to acquire a trailer mount engine and pumps, hoses, shovels, axes, bars, ladders and buckets.

The fire department bought a 1937 Chevrolet truck from Alder Chevrolet for $1. A front-end mounted pump was obtained from Civil Defense. It was the first front-mounted pump in the area.

The assembling of this truck was done by Ed Fox in Alder's Garage on the west side of Main Street between Norwich and Center streets.

A used fire truck body was purchased from Newark and mounted on the 1937 Chevrolet chassis and it began to look like a real fire truck.

Gus Finner, the blacksmith, had a shop on the corner of Norwich Street and the alley, where the lawnmower store loading door now is located. He made all the irons to fasten the body to the fire truck.

The Norwich Township trustees in 1943 purchased land on the south side of Norwich Street between Main and Wayne Streets.

A small two-bay building was built by Norwich Township. It had room for the truck and trailer plus a toilet and shower.

The cost of the building was $999.99. The trustees paid for the hinged barn-type doors from their own pockets.

On Nov. 29, 1943, an ordinance was approved to create, establish and regulate a volunteer fire department for the village of Hilliard in conjunction with Norwich and Brown townships.

When the fire department was originally instituted the village of Hilliard and Norwich and Brown townships signed an agreement dividing the expenses among them: Brown Township covered 25 percent of the cost, Hilliard 25 percent and Norwich Township 50 percent.

During this period between 1942 and 1943, the men were paid $1 per year, which they returned to the trustees.

Finally, early in 1944, the department became operational.

The first official meeting of the 28 members of the Hilliards Volunteer Fire Department was Feb. 2, 1944.

At this meeting, High was selected chief by a vote of the members with the approval of the village council and the township trustees.

The volunteers made their first fire run on Feb. 10, 1944, to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gaymon Wright on Leap Road, on the west side between Cemetery and Davidson roads south of the railroad tracks.

In March, 1944, the first firehouse was completed.

The fire alarm was still the old church bell.

Paul Ritzenthaler retired as a Norwich Township Fire Department captain in June 2004, after 29 years of service to the community. He has spent many years documenting the fire department's history. He lives in Hilliard with his wife, Mary Jo.

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