History Of The Walton Volunteer Fire Department
Walton was a small rural town. It was typical of nearly all small towns, it had board sidewalks, coal oil street lamps, hitching racks and all other ingredients necessary to every small town. Its businesses were many and varied. It had several general stores, a boarding house, a hotel, saloons, livery stables, several large tobacco warehouses, a lumber mill, two depots with their attendant cattle pens, a fire department and city council made up of the businessmen in the town. They met regularly to solve the town’s problems and deal with the necessary functions of the town. Fire equipment and what we term “a fire department” was unheard of in a small town in these years and the fire protection consisted of the famous “Bucket Brigade” which has been used since man built his first house.
Let us not laugh at this feeble attempt at fire fighting for in the 1880’s this group using nothing but buckets saved the Phoenix Hotel from catching fire when Tom Curley’s store burned down right next to it. They leaned out windows and threw water on the side of the hotel and to keep the roof from burning they laid blankets upon it and flung water upon them to keep them wet. Imagine if you can the heat and danger of flinging water on fire at close range. I think many beards were singed in the process. It was said at the time that the owner of the hotel begged them to come down before they were killed. Tom Curley rebuilt his store only to have it burn again in about 1937.
This bucket brigade gave way in the late 1800’s to a hand powered piston pump. This apparatus was intended to have been horse drawn but in Walton it was pulled to the fire by the men who then jumped upon the sides of it and pumped it up and down using the handrails provided for that purpose. Contrary to popular opinion this piece of equipment could throw a very good hose stream.
The pumper occurred later for fire fighting from convenient “fire cisterns” dug near the roadside. Some of these cisterns are still visible; there is one at Tommy Griffin’s Shoe Shop, one at the corner of High and Main Street, one out on Locust Street and another out on High Street. There were many more but when Walton put down their water mains, some were pierced, also when the Main Street was widened and black topped some were permanently covered. They had steel lids and were kept filled at all times. No one was allowed to use them for any reason other than fighting fires.
The hand powered rig perished in the fire that destroyed the Matson Tobacco Warehouse which was located where the Chevrolet Garage is now. It had been kept in this building for several years and was said to have been the first thing to catch afire. This fire occurred about 1905 and for many years Walton had no mechanical fire apparatus. During this period of our history this section of the country was very poor. There simply was no money available. This was due largely to difficulties with the organization of the “Tobacco Pool.” Barn burnings, cattle poisoning and the night riders played havoc with the economy of this small town. The “City Fathers” knew that some method of fire protection must be secured and at the least possible cost. In about 1909 they provided portable fire extinguishers which were hung on poles throughout the town. These extinguishers were about three feet long and two and one half inches in diameter. They hung in glassed in metal boxes and were imprinted with the instructions “break glass and apply to fire.” The contents of these tubes were a soda compound. This would now seem quite crude but according to my Father, “it put out what could have been Walton’s worst fire.” To further explain this incident, “some boys who were congregated across the street one night noticed a faint glow coming from the downstairs portion of the “Old Opera House” which then as now, was a grocery. They rushed over and saw it was a fire beneath one of the counters. They started yelling fire! fire! and Robert Whitcomb, a local tinner, pulled the extinguisher from its case, broke down the front door of the grocery and flung the water at the fire. It was out in a matter of seconds. It seems ironic that the very man who made the fire extinguisher case should be the hero of this incident, for it was Robert Whitcomb who made the case.
This somewhat crude and dangerous system prevailed until about 1913 when a man named Harry Mayfield built and operated the first electric generating plant in Walton. He hired as an assistant a young man named Warren Stephenson, the same man today lives next to the fire house, to help wire houses and operate the power plant. The power plant was located in the brick building directly opposite the doors of the present fire house. This building later burned and another brick building, now occupied by Sturgeon and Wood, was built to house the generator plant. In 1914
It was conceived by these two men that a practical fire pump could be devised to pump water electrically. They built and sold to the city what was perhaps the first and only electric “fire engine.” It was mounted on an old hearse chassis and consisted of ten horse power, two hundred twenty volt, direct current motor connected to a two piston water pump. A spool of wire two hundred feet long was used to attach the apparatus to convenient outlets provided throughout the town. (Read article in Oct. 17, 1914 Advertiser).
The testing of the apparatus was interesting. It seems that the Edwards Brothers, who ran a livery, had a very muddy buggy which they were desirous of cleaning. They volunteered this dirty buggy and ventured that, “if the fire pump could wash the mud off the buggy it certainly could put out a fire.” Without hesitation the inventors applied the hose stream. Almost immediately the buggy began to disintegrate. They tore the top, seats, and panels out of it before the Edwards boys could shut them down.
This piece of equipment was “traded in on the first factory made fire engine in the early 1920’s. Walton's first fire engine was a model T Ford fully equipped and obtained from the Howe Fire Apparatus Company. It had ladders, axes, hose and everything necessary for fighting fires.
This piece of equipment served the city until about 1936 when it was seen that after the city had its own water supply and was growing inadequate. Upon the urging of a group of townsmen, led mainly by Jim Bob Allen, the city purchased a new 1936 Ford from Howe. This truck was kept until just a few years ago when we sold it to Butler. This fire engine served the city well and was used quite severely making runs both in the city and in the rural area. From 1936 until about 1946 it was the only piece of equipment the city had, and permission to leave the city limits was dangerous if not unlawful.
In 1947 the problem of leaving the city limits was solved by the purchase of a new Mack fire truck. A group of boys and young men led by Jim Bob Allen, Ells Hopperton, Oscar Cook. Russell Groger, Guy Carlisle and others banded together and formed what we call today “The Walton Volunteer Fire Department.” In order to pay for this engine they held a picnic out at the old C.C.C. Camp and started selling fire protection to rural homes.
In 1947 we were brought to our knees by the death of Jimmy Isbel. In Jimmy we lost our first and we pray, our last man killed while on active duty. He was crushed beneath an overturned fire truck in front of what is now the Church of God. Ironically the fire was of no consequence and out when we arrived.
Such waste, but not in vain His qualities of optimism, generosity and devotion still inspire us today. Though young in years his is the kind of spirit that lives on long after the face has vanished. In the fire service as in other things the best ones go first.
We had hardly recovered when our deputy chief Ells Hopperton drowned in the Ohio River while duck hunting. He left a wife and two small daughters now grown.
In recent years we lost yet another man, young Ray Green in an automobile accident near Covington. He left a young wife and children also.
In 1953 we purchased another Mack Truck and still later two other pieces of equipment.
As this is primarily a history I will not pursue the facts less than ten years ago and will not attempt to bring this up to date. I wish to thank many people for helping me and especially Warren Stephenson and Wendell Rouse, my Father. I realize that this is not as accurate as it could be but due to the lack of records and files with absolute dates most of this history has been obtained by interviewing those people who have lived longest in Walton.
Mention of specific fires and their attendant dates have been deliberately omitted in order that they be summarized here at the end. This list is not complete nor absolutely accurate. A few of the major fires were:
Where the Drug Store now stands was destroyed by fire twice, first in 1901 and again in 1905.
Tom Curly’s Store, where Dr. Huey’s Office now stands, destroyed twice, first in the 1880’s and again in about 1937 when Krogers occupied the building.
George Nicholson house in about 1915.
Rouse’s Flour Mill was burned in July about 1916. The mill was situated near Mrs. Julia Rouse’s residence and drew water for the steam engine from the “Mill Pond”.
Old Taylor Crowe house where Mrs. DeMoisey now lives destroyed about about 1912. Morgan Arnold lived in it at the time.
Large building where the Walton Ashland Station is now was burned in about 1935.
House where Mrs. Albert Parker now lives burned about 1936.
Large barn at the end of Locust Street owned by John L. Vest burned about 1938.
Lusby’s Grocery destroyed by fire about 1941.
Old J. D. Mayhugh Lumber Mill converted into skating rink owned by Cliff Pruett in the mid 1940’s.
Phoenix Hotel and Restaurant saved by good fire fighting in 1950.
Walton Christian Church a very big fire on Thanksgiving in 1947.
In 1937 Jim Bob Allen took the Ford to Saint Elizabeth Hospital to pump the basement. Upon arrival he saw Covington had the water pressure under control and came back to Walton.
In about 1952 we went to Williamstown to help on Hess Mills and Lowes Grocery. This was a very big fire.
The Scotts at Verona on Christmas Eve in about 1955 totally destroyed.
John Messenschlager barn at Richwood destroyed.
Porter Fornash barn near Walton destroyed.
These are only a few of the fires.
We had a few years ago a fireman who was notorious with an axe. While the other firemen were busily engaged with setting up the engine, hose pulling and ladder work this one fellow was merrily chopping away at the windows, walls, doors or even a nearby building or tree. As I say he was an axeman.
There occurred a minor fire at Dan Bedinger’s house next to the Walton Locker Plant and sure enough, even before the engine had water, the “Axe” was moving in for the kill. After flailing away with might and main at the side door the owner of the house arrived and dodging the mighty swings did easily turn the knob and enter. He said “Mr. Blank what in the world are you doing, the door was unlocked.”
Another fireman now dead would arrive at the firehouse first for every fire. It mattered little whether you were in front of the firehouse when the alarm went off or whether it was in the middle of the night “Skinny Isbell” was there. One particular brisk winters night one of our chiefs was in his car near the middle of town when the alarm went off. Like a flash he sped to the firehouse and while alighting from his car saw Skinney opening the firehouse doors. The crew arrived and after putting out the fire returned to the house. There they pressed Sammy for his secret of speed to the firehouse. After much persuasion Skinney opened his coat and thereby revealed his secret. He had on nothing under his coat but his shorts.
At a large barn fire one night several years ago there appeared to an inquisitive fireman an illusion of a mighty, white eagle. The more this fellow looked the bigger and plainer this bird became. He shared this illusion with another fellow and the two of them layed plans to catch this illustrious bird. Between the two of them they hatched a plan, it seems that one was supposed to slip quietly into the darkness and sneak up and the other was to keep the bird’s attention diverted upon the scene. After a slight interval of time there appeared in the shadows a rushing form. It sped unerringly to its target and amid much rustling of coat tails and flapping of boots, two large arms encompassed this mighty bird. A shout of surprise and pain escaped the lips of the would be captor as he had captured a poured concrete eagle.
By and large we try to do a thorough clean up after a small fire, particularly if we have done a good job. One job in particular we had to put out a small fire in a house near Richwood. This house was not the finest you ever saw. As a matter of fact the ceiling in the spotless kitchen was made by nailing sheet rock board to 1 by 4 ceiling joists 2 feet on center. While cleaning up and just before going home a fireman decided to check just once more the area above the kitchen. So flashlite in hand he ascended thru the cubby hole to check for that last ember. While the owner was congratulating the other firemen on such a good job with a minimum of damage, what should appear through the kitchen ceiling but about the lower half of a fireman, he had missed a one by four and fallen through the ceiling.
This incident concerns one Nick Welch and is related here kinda second handed as it happened before my time. Crittenden was burning and Walton was summoned to put it out. Upon arrival a cistern was found and water turned on. Young Welch grabbed a hose and bravely entered the smoke filled building. He found himself alone and very much confused as he could not see beyond the end of his nose. As he extended his hand in front of him to serve as a guide he found a wall so he continued groping about and this led to a surprise, for the next second he was spun around and nearly knocked down. It seemed he had stuck his finger into one of those old type open electric sockets.
The fire phone rang and the elderly woman said “Chick have you all got a bucket.” Our fearless leader informed the woman that although he was fire chief, to please not call on the fire phone to order a bucket from Ryan Hardware and to call him back on the Ryan Hardware phone. About 5 minutes later the same voice phoned back on the fore phone saying she still had not got the bucket, Chick told her to call on Ryan’s number and hung up. Five minutes same thing, fire phone rang again, same woman, same predicament, all she wanted was a galvanized bucket from Chick. Our fearless leader finally gave up and took her order for a galvanized bucket.
Overheard on the radio at a fire near Fisksburg Church.
Base-“You at the fire?”
No. 3.-Yeah it’s below the Cemetery
No. 3.-That’s 10-4, we only got 3 men.
Base-That’s Chick and McElroy who’s the third
No. 3.-Some old man here, we’ll be working the fire. 20 minute pause then-
Base to No. 3, 5 minutes later
Base to No. 3 about 10 minutes later
Finally Base to fire Unit 3 What’s the matter?
No. 3.-She’s a dandy, pant, got away for a minute, pant.
Base- Where’s Chick?
No. 3-He’s laying in the grass, pant, with his teeth out, pant.
And yet another. This tale concerns 5 people, Chick, Guy, myself, Theonie and her Mother. Seems like Theonie came up to the Hardware Store and told Chick her Mother just had a heart attack. Chick phoned on the fire phone and me and Guy took off to relieve this poor womans distress. I stopped, at the house and got the respirator and met Guy in front of Theonie’s home and which was directly across the street from his house. We tore in the door followed by Theonie who had walked down from the Hardware, and all three went into the first room which was the bedroom at a run. We ran square into the foot of the bed, and looking toward the head we saw a pair of eyes and a mess of hair peering at us over an upraised sheet. The eyes said “Theonie who are these men.” Theonie says “Why Mommie they’re firemen.” Eyes says, “Well what are they going to do with that suitcase.” Theonie says “Why Mommie you had a heart attack.” Eyes says “Why Theonie I never had no such a thing. What’s the matter with you?” “Yes you did Mommie, you was done turning blue.” Eyes says “Theonie you crazy thing ain’t nuthin wrong with me, where did you get such a crazy idea. Theonie says “Why Mommie, what would I do if you kicked off. Mommie says “Ah, Theonie you crazy thing.”
Some of the men I will mention briefly are Hess Vest fire chief for many years, Herman Simmons, fire chief and town marshal. Roland Glenn, Evan Hance, Nick Welch, Skinney Isbell, Bud Young, Spiv Strouss, Ed Hankinson, Cecil Osborne, Oscar Cook, Paul Simpson, Kircher “Pete” Johnson, Bill Hankinson now a captain on the Lexington Fire Department, Sam Howard, Jack Johnson and many more. Practically every resident of Walton at one time or another has spent countless hours in the fire service.
There is one man which I wish to single out. That man is Jim Bob Allen who almost single handedly formed what we now have. It was he who was the chief, secretary, treasurer, procurement officer who attended the fire school and then new Northern Kentucky Firemen’s Association. He lead our thinking our training, and our attitude toward fire service. By his dynamic leadership he instilled in us the spirit of being the best.
He was unsurpassed at a fire. Always cheerful, persuasive, and vital. It is to this man we, and this town, owe a debt of gratitude. I thank you for this opportunity and if I may- to show that all occurrences are not dull but quite on the contrary are very humorous- I might make mention of a few of the hilarious happenings that I can recall.
Additions to History added in 1966. Upon further investigations at one time the Fire Engine was housed in a building still standing East of the Ice house on Depot Street. I have not been able to ascertain the exact dates.
Also it was kept in the Walton Garage more particularly in the space just recently vacated by Doc Webster. There was a large door there in place of the small entrance there now.
by Jack Rouse