History: Mason County’s fire departments.
MC History Spotlight is a weekly history column brought to you by Ludington Woods Living and Memory Care. Each week this column features a story from our county’s past.
By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.
Tuesday’s fire at McCormick Sawmill in Sherman Township was a reminder of how far the fire service in Mason County has changed over the years. I would like to begin this article with some disclosure and apology to my firefighter friends. I have always had the intention to compile a comprehensive history of the fire departments in Mason County — however, this article is certainly nowhere complete.
The City of Ludington has the oldest fire department in Mason County. Its origins date back to the 1840s when sawmills were built on the shores of Pere Marquette Lake. The sawmill owned by Merewether Cobb was destroyed by fire, prompting Cobb to organize the first local fire department.
The City of Ludington was incorporated in 1873. As the city grew, its fire department grew in membership but failed to improve its equipment. A story appears on the Ludington Fire Department’s website that recounts the “Big Fire of 1881”, which proved that better fire service was needed:
It was Saturday June 11, 1881, a warm and windy morning. It was 11:30 a.m., as a circus parade was making its way through town. Most of the town’s citizens as well as many of its firefighters had turned to watch the parade. A small wisp of flames appeared on West Loomis Street. The fire spread quickly to a saloon, a meat market, then a shoe store. Due to a crack in the cities’ fire warning bell, the sound did not carry very far and firefighters were slow to answer the call.
Mills, factories, and shops closed with their workers rushing to help fight the fire that was now growing into a major conflagration. Even the circus performers joined in to help try to save the city, but it was all to no avail. By the end of the day, 67 buildings including the fire station had burned to the ground. This accounted for an almost total destruction of Ludington’s downtown area.
Following the fire, the fire department was re-organized and improved greatly. The city began construction of a water plant and a system of wooden mains to carry water throughout the town. The department was reduced to 27 active members from its previous 75. The men were given small stipends to help compensate them for burned clothing and also their attendance. Marshall G. Smith was appointed as the city’s first fire chief.
A few years later, in 1898, Ludington’s eastern neighbor, the City of Scottville, organized a fire department. The first fire chief was Talcott R. Reader. Other members included, Assistant Chief Bert A. Schulte; Captain Vincent L. Pullman; First Pipeman Robert J. Smith; Second Pipeman Will Henke; Third Pipeman Henry Gass; Fourth Pipeman J.A. Baltzer; first hydrantman Fred Adams; second hydrant man Arthur Bush; first coupler Ernie Blake; second coupler George L. Colyer; third coupler Frank Costello; fourth coupler Fred Garlock. Linemen included William Baltzer, John Henke, David Betka, Emmett Pullman, Eugene Shriener, Arthur Siegel, and Louis Darke.
Before the formal organization of the Scottville Fire Department fires were fought by anyone who was available. A post with a dinner bell was set up on the southwest corner of what is now State and Main streets. When a fire was discovered, someone would start ringing the bell.
Until 1900, the fire department used a hose cart, which the firefighters typically pulled by hand. In 1900 the first horse-drawn fire wagon was purchased.
For several years, Ludington and Scottville fire departments were the only departments to serve Mason County. Rural fires were often fought by farmers who furnished their own equipment. By the mid-20th century, the townships began to organize fire departments.
According to a newspaper article, Custer Township was the first township in Mason County to sponsor a rural fire protection program.
At the annual township meeting in April, 1946, a group of South Custer Farm Bureau members brought the question before the voters and, at that meeting, a motion was made to give the township board authority to purchase a fire truck, if its members saw fit.
In 1947, at the annual meeting a motion was made to retain the township board as a fire protection committee.
Early in 1947 a special meeting of the township board was called by supervisor William Bacon and the decision was made to purchase a fire truck, fully equipped. Two fire protection suits were also purchased and in the fall of that same year a lot was purchased from Stanley Laiskonis on which the firehouse was built.
When rural fire protection became countywide, Custer Township joined with other townships of the county.
In 1948, the Mason County Board of Supervisors (now known as the board of commissioners) decided the county should begin providing fire protection. In February of that year, a meeting was held at Scottville City Hall to discuss the creation of a Mason County fire department. Scottville Fire Chief Oliver Reeds was elected county fire chief with Ludington Fire Chief Arthur Lange as assistant county chief. The county purchased two trucks. One was housed at the Ludington fire station and the other at the Scottville fire station. The newly purchased Custer Township fire truck would also be used by the county’s fire department.
“Sherman Township and Fountain, which recently bought a truck, have not decided whether to join the county fire department,” a newspaper article reported.
In the 1950s departments were formed in Free Soil/Meade townships and Hamlin Township. Logan Township followed suit with the Carr Area Fire Department and Branch Township Fire Department. In the 1970s, Riverton Township, Grant Township, and, in the late 70s, Pere Marquette Township Fire Department.
In the early 1980s, fire departments started responding to medical calls to assist the ambulance service. The county’s fire departments also placed higher emphasis on training. A radio paging system was also introduced in the early 1980s. Prior to that, rural departments were dispatched by telephone and Ludington and Scottville fire departments responded after hearing the siren.
The county fire department was disbanded in 1994. At that time, the county assisted local municipalities to fund the departments’ personnel and equipment. Following that, two entities were formed: The Western Mason County Fire District and the Mason County Rural Fire Authority.
The WMCFD was created by City of Ludington, Hamlin Township and Pere Marquette Charter Township. Taxpayers in those municipalities fund the departments’ equipment but each department remains autonomous.
The MCRFA was created by City of Scottville, and the townships of Amber, Branch, Custer, Eden, Free Soil, Grant, Meade, Riverton, Summit, and Victory and includes Scottville Fire Department, Riverton Fire Department, Custer Fire Department, Grant Fire Department, Fountain Area Fire Department, Free Soil/Meade Fire Department, and Branch Fire Department. As an authority, municipalities appoint representatives to serve on a board that oversees the purchase of equipment and all operations, which are funded by a millage.
Carr Area Fire Department remained independent and serves Logan Township and some areas of western Lake County.
Again, this is a very brief overview of the history of Mason County’s fire departments. Each department has a rich history which I would enjoy sharing in the future. Today, in 2019, we often take for granted that only 50 years ago there were less departments with far less equipment than what we have today. While all the departments in Mason County continue to be part-time/paid-per-call/volunteer, response times and professionalism is comparable to many full-time departments.
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