Firefighters mark 125 years

WINNEBAGO – About a year ago, Fire Chief Jesse Haugh noticed the Winnebago Fire Department was coming up on a big milestone.

“I said, our 125th is coming up. What are we going to do?” he said.

What they decided was to bring back the firemen’s dance and make it a part of the Craft Brew Fest today. The dance will run from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. with a beer garden. There’s no charge and live entertainment will be Side FX.

The fire department formerly had annual dances and other fundraisers, said Millicent Hanson of the Winnebago Area Museum, but those were discontinued in the late 1990s, Haugh noted

That’s not the only change the department has undergone in more than a century.

The fire department was organized in 1885 and incorporated in 1888. The reason was simple, according to Hanson: for protection. The buildings back then were made of wood, and often had shared walls. There were a lot of fires due to the fact the buildings were heated with wood, and lit with candles and kerosene lamps.

“When the [newspaper] talked about fires, it was so blase, because it seemed to happen quite often in small towns,” said Lola Baxter, president of the Winnebago Area Museum.

“Every town has a history of fires,” Hanson said. “Winnebago was very fortunate to have this group of men to fight those disastrous fires.”

One of the earliest was June 12, 1897, when R.W. Cole’s livery barn on Holley Street caught fire. “(A) few moments after it was discovered, the entire building, 40 x 100, was in a sheet of flame,” according to records at the museum. Twenty-five horses were burned, and only five saved. The livery was a total loss.

Hanson remembers when the older folks talked about the fire that broke out at the Methodist Church on Feb. 23, 1923, during the morning service.

The Rev. N.H. Kneehans told the crowd to put on their coats and leave, but he had the choir, under the direction of Mrs. J. H. Sherin at the pipe organ, continue to sing. By the time they left, “flames had burst through the floor and the row of pews in front of the choir was burning,” according to museum records.

Firefighters arrived quickly, but the fire was in the walls, where water couldn’t reach. Nothing was saved. The loss was estimated at $30,000 with $15,000 of insurance, according to museum records.

“Older people talked about how sad it was when the beautiful Hotel Florence burned,” Hanson said.

The hotel was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve 1926.

The Sharp Block went up in flames Jan. 12, 1929. It included the building that now houses the Winnebago Area Museum. Back then, it had several businesses housed there, including the Zimmerman and Dahl Department Store, Thorson’s Jewelry, the offices of several doctors, the Masonic Lodge, and the Blue Earth Valley Telephone Company.

When fire broke out, the telephone office was notified. The operator, Esther Wright, refused to leave her post and had to be rescued on a ladder by Dave Crawford, manager of the Telephone Company.

“She wanted to make sure all the firemen were notified,” Hanson said.

“It was 10 degrees below zero. Men also worked hard during the night on the roofs of buildings to save the east side of Main Street from destruction. Their efforts succeeded,” according to the museum records.

When a group of former Winnebago fire chiefs were asked what fire they most remember, top of the list was the Delavan Farmers Elevator fire on Aug. 19, 1976.

“Everybody showed up at first,” said Herb Pederson, with departments from Delavan and surrounding fire departments responding. “You’d be on eight hours, then another team would come in.”

Carty Eastvold remembered they ran out of water. Pederson said the water was trucked in on tanker trucks and cement trucks.

“Went three days, I think,” Pederson said.

Two men died, a third was severely injured and the loss of building and grain amounted to $1.5 million, according to the “Delavan Heritage Days 1877-1977” booklet.

Eastvold, Pederson, LeRoy Hahn, Jerome Behnke, Darold Nienhaus, Larry Stauffer, Dave Hurn and Haugh talked about the Frost elevator fire, helping when two Blue Earth buildings went up, how the fire in Bass Lake took out more than 1,400 acres, and fighting three fires at the same time. They also talked about how being a fireman has changed over the past 50 years.

Fighting fires was different years ago, Pederson said. He figured their turnout gear didn’t cost $100.

“Now, you’re looking at $2,200 to get outfitted,” Haugh said.

“We had rubber raincoat-type things, with a little felt on the inside,” Pederson said. “Definitely no fire retardant. Boots were just pull-ons. Didn’t have good breathing apparatus. Helmets wouldn’t have saved you from anything.”

The turnout gear was improved due to OSHA regulations.

“Best thing to happen,” Pederson said. “Better air packs so you could enter a house, where if you did before, you were stupid.”

“Air packs are $6,500 a piece,” Haugh said. “We have 17 of them.”

The equipment they rode on has changed too.

A 1980 pumper truck cost $39,000. The truck the department bought in 1996 cost $124,000, said Haugh. The tanker they purchased in 2011 cost $224,000 and they are looking at a truck priced at $325,000, he added.

Safety wasn’t a huge consideration when riding to fires.

“Used to hang on the back of the trucks,” Nienhaus said.

Pederson recalled counting how many firemen were swinging on the back of the truck, supported only by one bar, and wondering how big a screw was holding the bar in place.

By the end of the 1970s, the firemen were riding inside on their way to fires, Pederson said.

What they could do has changed with the times too.

“We’d go to the accident, secure the scene [by controlling traffic],” Pederson said.

The best equipment they used to have for extricating trapped victims was a crowbar, Hahn said.

“The extrication equipment has been added since I’ve been on,” Haugh said.

Having the Jaws of Life means saving lives.

“Yes, by far,” Haugh said. “Cutting people out of those cars is our job. I don’t want to be without hydraulic tools.”

They discussed how much training is now required as opposed to years ago, when “my training was from other firemen on how to run the equipment,” Hahn said, and what sessions they could pick up from the state or vo-tech schools.

The former chiefs wanted to know how much medical training the current firefighters need.

“Only [medical] training we get is CPR,” Haugh said. “We’re one of the few who are not first responders. We’re lucky to have the ambulance.

“We’re fortunate the city has good mutual aid agreements,” he added. “Real good working relationship with our neighbors.”

One thing hasn’t changed: Winnebago has never had a female firefighter.

“Not that we wouldn’t welcome them,” Haugh said.

“Had a couple apply,” Pederson said, adding the women did well on the written test, “but they couldn’t quite handle the hose.”

There’s one thing the men hope never changes.

“As far as I know, nobody got hurt,” Eastvold said, except for one man who stepped on a nail.

“We were very fortunate,” Hahn added.

When you have an all-volunteer fire department, you usually leave something behind when the bell sounds.

“Something I’m always grateful for is my employer always lets me go to fire calls,” Hurn said.

The fire department has always done more than fight fires, the chiefs said. Other duties include controlling an area, such as after a tornado; dealing with hazardous material; doing river rescues during floods; offering demonstrations to the public; and storm watching.