Fire company celebrates 60 years of service

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:16

    West Milford-There's an old saying: "necessity is the mother of invention." That truism also led to the formation of West Milford Volunteer Fire Company Number One some 60 years ago. According to the fire company's historic records, the catalytic event was a Dec. 12, 1944, conflagration at the Davenport Building at Union Valley and Macopin Roads. Sparks from the raging blaze jumped the road and ignited Van Dein's Motel. Despite efforts of other fire companies in the town, specifically Macopin and Greenwood Forest, the motel and Davenport Building were destroyed in less than an hour. The destruction also ignited a drive to start another fire company in the town. In little time, some 50 West Milford Village men became charter members. On Sept. 25 at 7 p.m., the fire company will celebrate its 60th anniversary with more than 100 persons in attendance for a private gala at Pinecliff Lake Clubhouse, Union Valley Road. The company has prospered in the intervening years and now has five pieces of equipment including two engines, a mini pumper, a 105 foot tower truck and a squad vehicle., a modern facility on Ridge Road and some 35 volunteer firefighters, according to Deputy Chief Rich Bathmann. The original fire company officers were: President, Lou Wallisch (who held the post for 18 years) of Wallisch Farms, Vice President Walter Terhune; Financial Secretary Frank Decker Jr., fire Chief Don Sly and Second Chief Jim Finn. Other than members, there are two vital necessities for every fire department. The first is a fire house to protect equipment and in which to train, and the second category is fire trucks. Members of the new fire company raised $1,800 and bought Mechanics Hall on Union Valley Road for its headquarters. It's now the site of a bicycle shop. The days of bucket brigades were long past. While they had the manpower, even then fire trucks were expensive. With typical mountain community ingenuity, a group of the aspiring firefighters, led by Jim Finn, built their first fire truck themselves from an old mill truck donated by Charles Cahill. Another member, Lou Wallisch provided the pump for the new fire engine. Eventually, a second truck, purchased in Lansing, Mich., was added. It's listed in records as a John Beam International. Two members, Don Sly and Sig Aakvik drove it from Michigan to West Milford. A third truck was added in 1954, followed shortly after by a fourth unit. Besides engines to pump water, fire companies needed hose. Lots and lots of hose. But, it was expensive at 44 cents a foot. Especially when the company needed to purchase nearly a mile of hose. Thus, another need was met by women of the community who banded together to become fundraisers for the firefighters. Many turkey dinners, pancake suppers and craft sales were held to fund the community protection effort. By definition, volunteer firefighters aren't manning the firehouse and telephones on a daily basis awaiting an alarm call. However, the Finns operated the "Cracker Barrel," an eatery, adjacent to the firehouse. If an emergency call came in, Edna Finn would run to the firehouse and hit the fire siren button to call out volunteers to fight fires. One of those who remembers the early days is Adrian Birdsall, 66, who's been with Company One since June, 1961. He's not only a former fire company chief, having held the post from 1968 through 1970, he is, and has been the fire company's president for a total of 21 years. His firefighting experience is even lengthier as he transferred to the West Milford company from the Newfoundland Fire company, when he married a local woman and moved into the ‘center' of town. His recollections include some of the more notable incidents in the company's history, and one which he missed. "I wasn't here for the second time Davenport burned in 1995. I was at the firefighters convention in Wildwood." The ShopRite Supermarket opened in 1970, and some 10 years later Birdsall and his fellow members of Company One helped knock down a blaze that shut the store for a week. "A fire started in a refrigeration motor behind the sneaker aisle," generating lots of smoke from the burning rubber. It took a week for store employees to clean up and replace all the food that was damaged by the heat and smoke. Back then, smoke was a serious problem for the volunteers. With little money and no funding from the township, they frequently ‘made do' with used equipment adapted for firefighting. Birdsall recalls the military surplus cannister-type gas masks they used for heavy smoke conditions. He recalls getting smoke poisoning at one fire because the mask was unable to filter out fumes from burning plastic. "we've come a long way now that the town gives us money for equipment. That money also funded regular air-packs for firefighters to breath when entering a burning building. The air packs provide bottled air in tanks, in much the same way as divers use SCUBA or self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. He also remembers the 637 Club fire in the early 1960s. The 637 Club was a bar on Cottage Cove Road adjacent to Greenwood Lake. A firefighter was trapped inside the blazing structure and died before he could be rescued. Then there was the Harness Horse Lodge on Nosenzo Pond Road, near the high school, and a restaurant where the Bubbling Springs Recreation Area's parking lot is now. Firefighters first fought the blaze, then were pulled back when they learned a telephone tip had been received that a bomb was inside. Eventually they were sent back in to control the fire, but the bomb was never located. "Then two years later the bomber apparently saw kids playing in the site and notified Passaic County Sheriff's office the bomb still was in the rubble." The telephone caller instructed officers where to look. The bomb was found, taken to Upper Greenwood Lake and detonated there, he recalls.