"You don't know where you are going, if you don't know where you came from, and how you got to where you are!" JB 3:16, 9/99

Frank Raflo Fire Co. Stories


This segment begins on Page 249 of Frank Raflo's Book Within The Iron Gates

The Volunteer Firemen; Independent Organization

The sense of community, indeed the basic strength of small com­munities, is best exemplified by its volunteer firemen. As a general rule throughout the county, no one group did more, without being asked, and on their own motivation, than local firemen.

Theirs was always a great pride and feeling of achievement in get­ting the job done, be that job raising money for the company or pol­ishing the truck. Belonging to a fire company was no extracurricular activity. It was, for most, a second job, which included the husband, wife and often the children. The fire call was a call to be answered first, regardless of time, place or length of service. The competition between various local companies was one of a fighting for the privilege of offer­ing greatest dedication and accomplishment.

While a somewhat complex figure, with motivation coming from a variety of sources, the local Loudoun fireman has always been "a breed unto himself." While most references to firefighters are to the male "HE," the amount of work and dedication given by the "SHE" quite of­ten was equal.

Any reporting of volunteers fighting fires in the Leesburg area can begin with the "News of Fifty Years Ago" column in the November 19, 1925, issue of the Times-Mirror.

It is not clear when Leesburg had its first fire protection, but that issue of 1875 lamented the inefficient fire work that was done at the fire which occurred at Belgrove, the home of Col. John W. Fairfax. According to the news report, "Some silverware, and a small quantity of furniture, was all that could be saved." The editorial comment on the performance of the volunteers at that fire was less than flattering.

"The fire company of Leesburg was on hand with their appa­ratus as speedily as they could but too late under the most favor­able circumstances to have done much good, as it has been the case on similar occasions recently. The machine would not work. We think the town council owes it to the community and to the fire company itself to see that the engine is kept in constant working order and if this can't be done, to procure a new one. We had as well, perhaps better, have no engine than one that fails to do its duty in a moment of supreme danger." There was no description of the machine.

The issue one week later, (November 19, 1875) reported that then was the matter of five fires in one week. It was at that point that the town council decided to do something. The council issued a statement which read: "Fires are becoming too numerous and we are hereby offering a reward of $100 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person or persons who may have been implicated fey maliciously firing any of these buildings or any persons who may become involved in any such criminal action in the future."

In the year 1925, it was the burning down of the recently constructed Leesburg High School which reinvigorated the volunteers that town. The fire had resulted in almost total destruction.

The newspaper reported that on February 10, 1925, the Leesburg Department held a special meeting, and the first order of business was to elect new members to bring the company membership up to the authorized level of 20. Those approved for .membership were George Hughes, Maurice Lowenbach, Nels Neilsen, Joe Oliver, and Louis well.

After a full discussion it was voted to attempt to raise $750 by popular subscription from the people of the town and the surrounding area, to purchase a truck with an extended chassis "which is to carry the present hose and some extension ladders. This is needed in addition to the $10,000 fire apparatus that is to be purchased by the Town Council."

Furthermore, the report continued, the Leesburg Fire Company would be practically reorganized in the near future so that all members would know what their duties were when the bell rang the first time. "Those who want to give, can see any member of the fire company and leave the donation with him."

The bell ringing referred to the bell that was in the belfry of what was the old Town Hall (the Opera House on the corner of King and Loudoun Streets in Leesburg.) The bell had a large rope tied to a peg at the edge of the street. When the first call of "Fire" came in, the first fireman to get there ran to the rope and pulled it. Three pulls, ringing the bell for three times, was the signal that the fire was "in town." If the bell kept ringing - more than three - that was the signal that the fire was out of town. The company with equipment closest to Leesburg at that time was Purcellville's, and the paper did not report any central alarm system for determining who would answer what call, if indeed such a system had been worked out.

A subsequent issue of the paper, two weeks later, noted that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors had donated $200 toward town fire equipment.

The April 23, 1925, issue carried a big story that the new "Seagraves fire truck could be expected in town by May 15. The engine is to cost $6,500." It was also noted that, "The Dodge truck arrived and is being equipped with ladders and chemicals. When all of this arrives, Leesburg will have some of the best fire fighting equipment to be found anywhere in Virginia."

Progress at the local level continued. The September 17th issue that the town council had granted permission to the fire company for the installation of a siren signal "which will be so arranged that alarms can be given from several sections of the town."

That equipment finally arrived, and the issue of April 22, 1926, announced that the signal would henceforth be turned on from the central office of the C&P Telephone Company. A further notation dealt with the "filling within the past few days of several cisterns located in the corporate limits for emergency uses. It is planned to use these cis­terns for water supplies in the case of a water shortage. From time to lime, others will be filled, and it is estimated that more than 10,000 gallons will be available at all times from these sources." Older residents of the town may recall that the cisterns were built many years ago in convenient places about the town for fighting fires when the old land pumps were used.

July 26, 1926: "The Leesburg Fire Company has installed chemical equipment especially designed for successful fire fighting originating around garages and other places where grease and gasoline are prevalent.?

In the period of the twenties and thirties particularly, when the fire bell rang, or when the new siren blasted out, most people in town wanted to know, at that moment, "Where is the fire?" Once located, the fire would draw generally a good crowd to stand and watch.

There were two ways to find out, "Where is the fire?" If one lived on either of the downtown streets, he or she could run to the front street and keep asking of the men hurrying by, "Where is it?" until the an­swer came out. The other way to find out was to ring the operator at the C&P office and ask, "Where is the fire?"

For many years, the night operator for C&P operated out of an of­fice on the third floor of the Loudoun (Sovran) bank building on King Street. Everything came through the switchboard; there was no dial­ing.

May 30, 1929: Support for the local fire company continued. The town council voted to purchase a new $6,500 Seagraves pumper for the fire company, with half of the cost to be borne by the fire company. "The Leesburg company now has a 500-gallon Seagraves, a 350-gallon Seagraves, and a Dodge ladder and chemical truck, giving the town the most modern and up to date fighting equipment of any town of its size in the state." The paper noted that there was much competition be­tween the Seagraves and the LaFrance companies for the town's fire-fighting equipment business.

The December 5, 1929, issue raised a question which was never to go away entirely. The issue was how much financial support of the vol­unteer system should come from the government. The specific in 1929 was the policy of the town council giving a turkey to each fireman at Christmas time. The turkey gift had one condition however. "Only those firemen who had paid all of their town taxes in full were to be given turkeys." At the December meeting the council changed the pol­icy. They appropriated $500 in cash money which was to be paid to the firemen as an annual fee for their volunteer service.

A Bit of Fire History

Over the years, readers of the paper would send in "their bit of his­tory; thought you might like to publish it." Most of the time it was used. Such an item came to the paper on August 8, 1934, and was written by Fanny E. Mason. It was about fire history.

"The first fire company was founded here in 1827. On the register you will see the names of the grand and great grandfathers of some of the present fire boys, who served the town with poor equipment.

"It bore the name the 'Leesburg Star Fire Company.' At that time, the bucket brigade was the town's only fire protection. I have a pamphlet used by the company which listed the names of the approximately, 50 members. John Monroe was Captain. The buckets were entirely of heavy hide with handles the same, and shaped somewhat like the old fashioned stovepipe hats. Every member had two buckets each, one for each hand, and the buckets held two gallons of water.

"The only bucket left is scheduled to be on display at Littlejohn's Drug Store. It has the original owner's initials, W. C. Cline, plainly visible on one side, encircled by a spray of flowers.

"At the meetings of the fire company, any member refusing to comply with the rules of not using disorderly expression" (it is not clear whether or not that meant not using damn or hell) "was fined fifty cents. Every violation of the constitution or by-laws was punishable by a fine of one dollar.

"The printed pamphlet was dated 1827. William Cline's name was not listed among the founders as he had joined the company later."

In 1939, the Leesburg company reported that they had answered 28 alarms during the year. Of these, 15 of them were out of the town limits and 13 were within the limits. There were only four "real losses," and these were for fires out of town.

The "Where is the fire? Let's go" approach to local fires by 1940 had moved from the level of citizen curiosity to one of spectators getting in the way. The issue of February 15, 1940, reported that L. T. Frye of the Leesburg Company came before the town council and asked that body to give some thought to the problem of the interference of bystanders particularly the crowds who block doorways, with the activities of the firemen when they were actually fighting fires.

The council listened to Mr. Frye and then the mayor, looking around the council table for silent assurance, told Frye, "We are going to give some thought to this problem; I am going to refer it to a commit­tee and I know they will come up with some solution." Nothing was ever done.

Rescue Work Begins

The adjunct of rescue service to answering fire calls surfaced about 1940. Rescue squad work had always been done by Slack's ambulance. Lloyd Slack was a furniture dealer and undertaker and he provided this ambulance service as an extra community service. Lawrence Muse, along with some of the other Slack employees from the combination furniture and funeral home business, drove the ambulance on call as demanded.

The matter of a community rescue squad first came up at a ban­quet held at the Goose Creek Tavern (issue of February 22, 1940) when Captain Strobel, head of Rescue Number One at Alexandria, was the speaker and raised the issue. Strobel was a volunteer high in the ranks of the Red Cross rescue work.

The idea was to train the firemen, ostensibly through the effort of the Red Cross, in rescue work. It was reported in the issue of the following week that Red Cross first-aid classes were being offered in the public schools of the county, and a group of 25 had enrolled for the first courses.

The issue of January 9, 1941, reported that the Leesburg Companion had answered 40 calls in 1940.

An action of countywide significance appeared in the issue of November 6, 1941. It read: "Elected representatives from the four organized fire companies had formed the Loudoun County Volunteer Firemen's Association ... to do all those things properly within the scope of such an organization for the welfare of the members and of the community."

The Leesburg Company had consistently expanded its community service beyond just going to answer calls. In the late 1940's they made an effort to get into "aiding the sports programs in the county for the youth."

The Athletic Field

Dr. H. C. Littlejohn sold the Leesburg Company a large tract of land on Loudoun Street, in almost the middle of town, for the establishment of an athletic field. The local company set out to raise money to complete the field. The January 9, 1950, issue headlined: "Dinner at $10 a plate to provide money for Leesburg firemen. Hope to sell more than 100 tickets." The story went on to explain that the firemen "hope to sell a ticket to everyone who resides within ten miles of Leesburg."

For the event, special guests were to include "Bucky" Harris, man­ager of the Washington baseball Senators and J. Tereshenski of the Washington Redskins. The final tally spelled success in that 280 peo­ple showed up at the dinner.

Again, always projecting the efforts of the town as "Number One," the editor of the paper reported, "Leesburg firemen's new $4,000 athletic field, unmatched in Virginia, will be dedicated on May 3."

The growth of the population, the number of homes and the new businesses in the county continued to build pressures on the volunteer to be able to have the manpower, the equipment and the time to meet all emergencies. The issue of whether paid firemen would be needed to assist or supplant the volunteers continued to hover over all operations, but was not generally talked about in the open.

By 1973, a countywide fire marshal, Oliver Dube', had been hired. Dube' made a continuing effort to evaluate the county's needs against the work done by the volunteers. In the November 23, 1973, issue, he was quoted as follows: "There is a need for daytime paid staffing at Sterling Park." He brought the item to the attention of the county board, where his suggestions were heard and "tabled indefinitely." The issue did not go away that easily, however.

Chairman of the county board, William Crossman, said, "The Board is taking over in this fire thing; I am appointing a special study committee."

Dube' reported that he had met with the firemen's association and "the volunteers have no position on the matter." As one who had "grown up with the volunteer system" and as a member of the county board, I came on critical of Dube', sensing that really he seemed to be pushing for supplanting the volunteers with a paid system.

In a public session, I asked Dube', "Is it true or is it not true that when you met with the association, you told them that this is your ball-game and when you need help from them you will tell them?"

Dube' replied, "I never made such a statement."

Chairman Crossman repeated the question in a different form. "Wasn't it the attitude at the meeting that this was your ball and you were going to roll it?"

Dube' once again, "I never had that attitude."

Crossman still was not satisfied with the answer. "That may not have been your attitude, but that is the impression you left."

Supervisor Brownell added: "The volunteers in the west are scared of the implications of paid firemen anywhere in the county."

The volunteers looked into the problem themselves, and an asso­ciation report to the board listed a number of suggestions but ignored (almost) the request of paid firemen for the Sterling Park area. Their major suggestion was that new volunteer companies be set up to solve the problem.

The April 7, 1975, issue mentioned that a proposal had been put before the board of supervisors to hire a paid man at Sterling and have I the county "pick up the tab." The supervisors listened to it briefly, and by a vote of 5 to 2, laid the suggestion on the table.

The manpower issue continued to cause discussion and proposals during 1975. Once when there was a call from Sugarland Run and the Sterling company did not have the manpower to respond, that opened up the paid-man issue again.

Bob Zoldos of the Leesburg Company commented, "Gentlemen, one man ain't going to do anybody any good at any time."

"J. B." Anderson of the Leesburg Company saw all kinds of problems lurking in the wings. "It is one foot in the door; let one in and more will come."

Bill Allen, president of the Sterling Park Company said, "We will hire a man and pay for him out of our own funds. We have got a prob­lem, and we are going to solve it: pay for the man ourselves. We will have a man at work within two weeks."

There obviously had been much progress from the bucket brigades of 1825, but the overall analysis seemed to indicate that for every prob­lem solved at least two new ones arose and of a greater magnitude.


[Reprinted with Permission to this site by the author - Frank Raflo]

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