July 28, 2008
Freeville Fire Company turns 100
Firefighters display century of history, memorabilia at celebration
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Freeville Fire Company historian Richard Blackman talks about an original uniform hat dating back 100 years at the Freeville Fire Company’s 100-year celebration Saturday in Freeville.
FREEVILLE — On Aug. 17, 1909, alarm bells sounded at about 4 p.m. in the village’s newly constructed fire station.
“An alarm of fire was sounded, the company responded promptly and the fire was located in the dwelling house of George A. Fenver, about half a mile west of Freeville,” the captain on duty at the time wrote in his minute log from the day.
The attic of Fenver’s house had caught fire, the unnamed captain wrote, and Freeville’s firefighters climbed ladders taken from the new company’s horse-drawn hook and ladder truck to reach the flames. They formed a line up to the roof’s ridge, and handed buckets of water up to douse the fire.
“In about 10 minutes, the fire was under control and practically extinguished,” the captain wrote. “The timely arrival of the fire company, beyond question, saved the building.”
Almost a century later, members of Freeville’s W.B. Strong Fire Company joined fire departments from Dryden, Varna, McLean, Groton, Lansing, Cayuga Heights, McGraw, Virgil and Cortlandville in a parade through the village, marking the Freeville fire company’s 100-year anniversary.
Among the hulking modern equipment that rolled down Main Street was an obvious antique — a human-pulled chemical tank, once used to spray soda water and chemicals on fires.
“Everyone’s always thought that was the first piece of equipment the company had,” said Richard Blackman, a former chief of the W.B. Strong Fire Company, who now serves as the company’s historian.
As it turned out, the chemical cart that had long been recognized as the company’s first piece of equipment had actually been purchased 15 years later, which Blackman discovered when he examined an old bill of lading from 1923, which contained the details of a single-tank chemical cart with the same serial number as the one carried in the parade.
The original chemical cart, he said, had two tanks, and now resides in a firefighters’ museum in California, making the single-tank chemical cart that appeared in the parade the company’s second chemical tank.
Blackman worked for six months to create a detailed historical display on the company, painstakingly reading through reams of log books kept by Freeville firefighters over the last 100 years — many of whom, including several founding members, were Blackman’s ancestors.
“Both my grandfathers and four of my uncles were charter members,” he said. His great-grandfather was also a founding member, and his father, Ed Blackman, was a past chief.
Richard Blackman spent 50 years in the company before he retired.
The fire company is named for William B. Strong, who had pushed for the creation of the fire company and donated $500 to its construction.
Blackman said the core role of the W.B. Strong Fire Company has always been to keep Freeville residents safe from fires, but the company’s social role in the village has changed over the years.
“They knew how important it was to have social events,” Blackman said.
The company would host dances, dinners and games at least once a month, and the firehouse became a social center for Freeville, which it remained for many years.
Blackman recalled how during his time as a firefighter, village residents would routinely stop in the station on their way home from work and relax with on-duty firefighters.
Today, it can be harder to recruit new volunteers, and since more people work outside the village, not many wander in on their way home from work.
Mike Parker, the current president of the company, said the strong sense of community that characterized the earlier decades of the fire company has more or less disappeared.
“People have lost the realization of what the volunteers are all about,” he said. “We’re not as concerned about our neighbor anymore.”
In 1908, the company had 46 founding members, and today, W.B. Strong has 10 active firefighters and 40 volunteers.
Parker said his family has been involved for five generations, and that his son will join as soon as he’s eligible — in about two years.
Even if few Freeville residents make a habit of stopping by the station on a daily basis anymore, at least 200 showed up for the company’s Saturday celebration. Following the parade, attendees enjoyed a chicken barbecue in the station’s open bays, while musicians played under a pavilion outside.
Later, a local garage band took the stage, and the night was capped off with a large fireworks display.
Parker said he is glad to be able to trace his lineage back to the company’s inception.
“We’ve been here since the very beginning,” Parker said. “It’s a pride thing. It’s an honor to be part of an organization that’s been around for 100 years.”
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