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Life in the Firehouse

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr
Fires were especially numerous and destructive back in the days when homes, barns and buildings were made of wood and the source of heat and light was an open flame. Firefighters were busier than Donald Trump's lawyers.

Fredericksburg had no organized fire-fighting unit until the local Turn Verein formed a hook and ladder company in 1883. The Turn Verein was a gymnastics club, but members saw a need to help fight fires in the growing community.

The first fire-fighting equipment was a few leather buckets, pike poles and axes. The Turn Verein hauled their tools to the scene of a fire in a two-wheel hand cart.

Then in 1902 the Turn Verein got out of the fire-fighting business. Soon after that Otto Evers, Emil Patton, Albert Schmidt and a former San Antonio fire chief named Joe Wilde sat down on some rocks along Main Street and agreed to form the Fredericksburg Volunteer Fire Department.

In the beginning the department's only equipment was the cart and tools inherited from the Turn Verein. Then citizens of Fredericksburg donated enough money for a 6-man pumper. The San Antonio Fire Department donated 10 leather hats.

The local department purchased a bell in 1907 to summon firefighters to the firehouse. If the bell rang slowly it was no emergency but a meeting of the firefighters. If it ran furiously, it was a fire call.

At the sound of the fire bell, Ebbie Rueger rode his saddle pony into the station, wrapped the rope attached to the pumper around the saddle horn and took off down the street like a buttered bullet. If Rueger's horse wasn't available, the department enlisted the beer wagon to haul the pumper to the scene of the fire.

The rest of the firemen got there as best they could - on horseback, in automobiles and on foot.

Fredericksburg TX - Fireman with  1911 American-LaFrance steam pumper
A Fredericksburg firefighter using the 1911 American LaFrance steam pumper.
Courtesy of the Gillespie County Historical Society

In 1911 the department bought its first piece of sophisticated fire-fighting equipment: an American-LaFrance steam pumper. It looked like a whiskey still on wheels. It arrived in town on a freighter's wagon after it sat for 3 weeks at the depot in Comfort. The purchase price of $1,350 included 600 feet of hose and a hose reel.

The old steam pumper was itself a fire hazard. When a call came in, the first firefighter to arrive at the station built a fire under the boiler. When the pumper pulled out of the station, it left a trail of smoldering cinders behind it. The firefighters wore leather helmets to keep their hair from catching fire, but the clinkers burned holes in their clothes.

A fire department costs money, and in the beginning there wasn't any. Every volunteer firefighter paid 10 cents a month for the privilege of volunteering. To help out, citizens of Fredericksburg organized benefit plays, concerts and dances, with all proceeds going to the fire department. Private donations supported the department until the city and the county agreed to share the cost.

In 1915 the fire department began paying $2.50 a month for a man to sleep at the firehouse. That same year the department purchased a used Stoddard-Dayton Roadster with a chemical tank mounted in back. Four years later a Model T Ford with two chemical tanks replaced the Stoddard.

In 1924 the department bought its first motorized fire engine - a 350 gallon per minute American LaFrance pumper. When the department upgraded a few years later, the pumper went to Johnson City.

Fredericksburg installed fire hydrants after the city built a municipal water system in the 1930s. Before that the firefighters filled the pumper from several sources including Otto Kolmeier's water tank and Richard Henke's well.

In 1945 citizens voted a $50,000 bond to build a new fire station. Scarcity of materials and rising labor costs delayed construction. The new firehouse opened in 1949.

Life in the firehouse hasn't changed much over the years. The atmosphere is sometimes routine and relaxed, but not for long. When the alarm sounds, a controlled fury takes over. The firefighters I know have 2 gears - nice and easy or fast and furious.

Firefighting isn't a job. It's a calling. Every child dreams of being a firefighter. The lucky ones get to do it.
"FVFD Traces Roots to 1883," Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post, April 24, 1996.
"Fire Department Organized Here in 1883," Fredericksburg Standard, March 23, 1949.

Michael Barr
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