Many fire companies are founded out of tragedy -- barns burning, children’s lives in peril, disaster looming. In a panic, the citizens rally to protect their community. Some fire companies arise from the ashes. Not ours.
In 1946, the Belle Mead Fire Company, then the only Montgomery Township fire company, decided to buy a new fire truck. The mayor of Montgomery at that time was Everett May, Sr., who was also a member of the Belle Mead Fire Company. As it happened, he lived and worked in Blawenburg. He was also familiar with insurance, and knew that if Blawenburg had their own fire company, the residents’ insurance rates would go down. Mr May, along with Walter Terhune and Albert Van Zandt, convinced the residents of the area of the advantages of this, and when Belle Mead Fire Company agreed to sell them their old fire truck at a great bargain -- $1 -- Blawenburg had their own fire company.
The Montgomery Township Volunteer Fire Company #2 applied for incorporation on September 18, 1946. The five trustees listed on the application for incorporation were J. Percy Van Zandt, Everett F. May, Kenneth Whitenight, Albert Van Zandt, and Arthur Kirk. The first business meeting held on October 10, 1946. Twelve members were present. There was a report from President Everett F. May and a discussion about charter membership. It was decided that Charter Membership would stay open until the first regular meeting after the fire truck was received, which was not until July of 1947.
Treasurer Albert Van Zandt gave the first Treasurer’s Report that showed a total of $227 available, of which $150 was to be received from the Township. It was immediately decided that a card party should be held to raise funds for the building and firefighting equipment. These card parties proved to be a profitable fundraiser. By December 1947, the Company had $649 in the bank. Ten years later, in October 1956, the Company had over $1800. Of course, this did not include outstanding debts. At their second meeting the Company bought $1579.70 worth of firefighting equipment from New Jersey Fire Equipment on credit. The minutes do not specifically state what was in this first purchase from Mr. Ernie Day, but it included nozzles and field fire fighting gear. It took quite some time to pay off this debt. In fact, in October 1947, Mr. Day was at the Company meeting to inform the Fire Company that they owed him $1200, that he would be charging interest of 5% (retroactive) and then, since he was there, he demonstrated some air packs he had for sale ($165 each).
Walter and Maisie Terhune agreed to lease land to the Fire Company for a firehouse. On the site of the present Blawenburg Post Office, the Fire Company expanded a small garage and poured a concrete slab over the hard packed dirt floor. This small single-bay building became the first firehouse. Company members did much of the work. Construction progressed slowly, and there was much concern that the heat would not be installed and running before the fire truck arrived. This turned out to be the case. In June 1947 a siren was installed at the firehouse. Beginning in 1948, the siren was blown at noon every Saturday, a tradition which continues today. In May 1949 a connection was installed to allow the State Village switchboard to activate our siren. Although it is now called NPDC, this also continues today.
Another tradition which began in these first years was our Installation dinner-dance. The first was held in January 1947, at the Wooden Wheel Inn (now Dakota’s). Initially, the Company held the annual meeting during the dinner. However, since no one was much interested in conducting business at these affairs, it was eventually changed, first to a regular monthly meeting, then a separate event. Early on, the meeting/dance was moved to the Far Hills Inn, where it stayed for many years.
On July 16, 1949, the Company held a Clambake at the Old Camp Meeting Grounds in Skillman. Clambakes were very popular at that time, so the fire company hired a catering company from Metuchen to run the event, hoping to attract local residents to buy tickets. This event was necessary to raise funds for the tank truck purchased that year. In those years, the Company tried many types of fundraisers with varied success, including card parties, barn dances, raffles, salvage drives, donkey baseball, roast beef dinners, coin cards and door to door appeals. The Clambake was one of the more successful.
The fire company used the catering company for the first three years. But at the third clambake the chef from the catering company got drunk, and then they ran out of food. The caterers packed up and left in the middle of the event. This is when the fire company decided they could run the clambakes themselves, as they had astutely observed the process over the last three years. It took a considerable amount of work: tickets had to be sold in advance; tasks were assigned well before the event. However, it was worth the effort, and the clambakes turned into an annual event that lasted until 1985. In 1953 the Company looked into buying the Old Camp Meeting Grounds to have a permanent home for the Clambake, but canceled the plan when a financial crunch hit the Company in 1954. The Clambake was moved to Johnson Moore’s grove on Spring Hill Road soon after, and continued there for many years.
The Company also began holding an annual picnic for the members each summer. It was a nice family event. However, after firecrackers were set off and alarm bombs were attached to cars at the 1955 picnic, members were cautioned against “further horseplay”. This no doubt was adhered to from then on...
In 1952 the Company bought a used 1939 GMC 500 gallon pumper from J.B. Hunt Inc. for $1,500.00 to replace the original truck. At this point a new firehouse was needed. They bought the old MCM garage (That Foreign Car Place located at the Blawenburg Intersection), but a lot of work was needed to convert it into a firehouse. Work sessions were held every Monday, but the Company was not able to move in until 1953. Work went slowly. The roof started leaking in 1953, and caused continual problems; a hose rack was built; the Ladies Auxiliary asked that a sink be installed so cleaning would be easier. In March 1954 an addition was proposed, but the committee was dissolved in late 1954.
Money was tight during those years. Each member had to buy their own key. The Chief had to get approval of the entire Company for any purchase, even $6 boots. In fact, in 1953 it took Chief Saums three tries to get permission to buy two pairs of boots, and well over a year before the portable pump he requested was purchased (and even longer to have it installed on the tank truck). In late 1953, the bylaws were changed to allow the Chief to buy up to $25 of equipment without the pre-approval of the membership.
However, there was always enough money to send gifts to ailing members, not to exceed $3. Favorite gifts were candy, ice cream, cigars and cartons of cigarettes.
The fires in those early days were not very frequent, but there weren’t many false alarms. The fires were mostly field fires and a few barn fires. Large fires mentioned in the early years were Collard Cottage, Tropat’s house, the Patton farm house, and the State Village Barn. In 1950 we missed two calls because the old engine burned out its bearings on Hobler Hill near the firehouse. (We weren’t the only ones. In 1955 we covered for Rocky Hill for a month when their engine died.) It was not unusual to have no calls for a month or two.
We helped with other disasters, too. The Company was active with the Civilian Defense, drilling often. In 1950 there was a large storm with extensive damage, and Company members turned out to help. On August 21, 1955, there was a big flood. The Company helped Trenton bail out, then returned to pump four basements.
Other activities in those days included Firemen’s bowling and softball leagues; drills with Hopewell, Rocky Hill, Belle Mead and the State Village; a Memorial Day parade at the State Village; and fire school. The Fire Police were very active in those days. Each fire policeman was assigned a specific corner for calls. They also parked cars for the Community Players at Smalley Hall at NPDC.
1955 - 1965
The Company continued to suffer growing pains, with money always a concern. In 1955 the Company finances were shaky, with only $53.82 on hand, not including the “emergency” building fund. The Ladies Auxiliary helped by donating $400, with the condition that paper cups and plates be bought with some of the money. With this windfall, the Company rented their first mailbox and bought their first file cabinet. They also paid their sky-high oil bill of $73 (for two months), but reminded members to turn the thermostat down to 40 when no one was in the building.
Membership rules were changed during this period. Life membership was first suggested in 1955 and added to the bylaws in 1957. Joining the Firemen’s Exempt Association was discussed often, but never acted on. However, the Company adopted many of their membership requirements, including designating Active members (the Exempt Association suggested that they be only those ages 18-33). Dues were instated at $1 for Active members, $2 for Associate. There were 100 names on the membership rolls, but most of these members were not active firefighters. A six-month probationary period was instituted. And Junior firefighters were allowed to join, although insurance prohibited them from riding on the trucks.
The building was still a problem. In 1956, the Ladies Auxiliary asked that an addition be built or the building be renovated. It was decided that neither be done at that time. However, after a new roof was put on in 1958, the Trustees began looking into an addition, and also decided to look for land, as it was ”...becoming scarce in the Township”. They began to look for three acres near Blawenburg, contacting the Olivers, Hoblers and Bensons.
With the building in Blawenburg finished, Monday work sessions became drills. Members attended fire school regularly, usually for a 10 week session. Training presentations were made at the monthly meetings. Wives were invited to attend the sessions when topics of general interest, such as home fire protection, were discussed. The Chief also inspected the fire extinguishers at the schools and held fire drills for the local school children.
The Fire Company’s financial situation had improved by 1958. In fact, in December of that year the Finance Committee reported that they “...felt there is no need for money at present. We should wait until we have a goal to work towards.” That goal appeared quickly, when in 1959 the Company decided to buy a new $15,000 engine to replace the tank truck. A loan was taken out, but $8,600 needed to be raised. In 1964 another apparatus was purchased: a brush truck for $800. The truck was not actually a fire truck, but was converted by our Company into a fire apparatus for another $2400.
In 1962, the idea of a fire taxation district was first proposed. However, at that time a single district for the entire Township was thought to be the only possibility. Not wanting to lose our autonomy by being in a combined district with Belle Mead, the idea was rejected.
Fires were still infrequent, with 35 calls in 1965. The first fire the “new” 1960 American LaFrance (46-101) responded to was in March 1961, at Don Thiel’s house. (He thanked the Company by donating a case of beer.) In 1963, the Company bought its first two Scott air packs. That year we also worked out a mutual aid agreement with Princeton for the Heather and Ridgeview Road areas.
The Company ran a weekly bingo game at Belle Mead’s firehouse as a fundraiser. This continued for years, to growing discontent. Large crews were needed on a weekly basis, and it created a strain on personnel. A new fund raiser was tried by the Ladies Auxiliary on June 12, 1960, when they held a Strawberry Festival on the Parsells’ front lawn. This fundraiser eventually was turned over to the Boy Scouts.
In 1965, due to dwindling membership, the Ladies Auxiliary disbanded for a time. However, it would be another ten years before a woman joined as an Active firefighter.
The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a time of great change for Montgomery. It began to transform from a largely rural area to a more suburban community. The Township population increased substantially, which led to school expansion, including Montgomery building its own high school in 1969. Montgomery was also attractive to business and industry. The township zoning plan forced most of these new commercial buildings to be placed in the southern end of town, especially the southeast corner.
Since the southern part of the Township had been our fire company’s traditional area of responsibility (district lines were not formally established until 1976), the company had to alter their approach to firefighting. Although there were still brush, barn and car fires, which up to then had constituted the majority of calls, there were now many new challenges: truss buildings, light industry with chemical storage, high pressure gas tanks, and alarm activations.
Because of these new demands, the fire company also saw a lot of changes during this time. In 1966, a 1955 Seagraves was purchased for $8,750. Due to the length of the truck, the firehouse had to be altered to accommodate it. That same year Hess Oil donated a tanker truck but no tractor. The tractor was purchased from Van Zandt’s for $200. This truck would not fit in the fire house at all, but was drained and taken out of service each November, then refilled again in April.
After fruitlessly pursuing acquisition of the old Blawenburg school, the company began looking in earnest for a new site for the fire house in late 1968. In August 1969 a lot on Route 518 was purchased from Fred Loeser for $8,000. (This is the current site of the fire house.) This purchase was considered a sound investment however there was concern about the property being on a curve. It was pointed out at the meeting that the County was planning to realign Route 518 soon (!) and straighten the road in front of the site. It was also mentioned that getting a traffic light at the driveway was possible. The fire house plans were presented in February 1970. Construction began later that year with building chairman Enos Parsell and his assistant Bob Saums supervising the project. The company moved into its new home early in 1971. The roof started leaking shortly after that.
Money, as always, was still a concern. Although we received $12,000 for the sale of our building, the company estimated we needed a total of $65,000 to complete the new building project. The Township was approached for money, but they insisted on a condition that if the company were to go bankrupt all its assets would go to the Township. The company agreed they could not accept money with those strings attached. Instead, fundraising kicked into high gear. We continued the annual clambakes to great success, and also began regularly catering smaller clambakes. We also held dinners, a garage sale, bake sales (by the reactivated Ladies Auxiliary), collected aluminum cans, manned the recycling center, went door to door asking for donations and rented the building. We also received donations from businesses; for example, Nassau Oil donated not only a 2000 gallon oil tank but a full year’s worth of fuel oil. Another source of income was the rent we received from the newly formed First Aid Squad for housing one of their ambulances. Although the first year was rent free, we did receive $50 per month from them for the following two years.
Despite the increasing fire protection responsibility, fundraising and the work on the new building, there was still time for fun. The year still began with the Installation dinner-dance. Each summer there was the annual picnic. In the fall there was a family potluck dinner. In 1972, Chief Don Perkins met with the chief of the Princeton Fire Department to find a way to work more closely together. Along with a joint drill with Rocky Hill, they decided the best way to accomplish a good working relationship would be to challenge each other to a softball game (it was not noted who won). We were also regular attendees at the Belle Mead Firemen’s Carnival.
During the Company’s 25th Anniversary year, 1971, a building dedication was held. The minutes note that Senator Bateman and Assemblywoman Millicent Fenwick planned to attend.
As this period came to a close, the Fire Company continued to adapt to the changes around them. Chief Perkins upgraded the radio system, and in 1973 the company agreed to purchase a Great Eastern pumper (46-103) for $36,542. The Chief also began requiring regular SCBA training, although at the time the company only had six air packs. However, he was concerned about the Princeton Chemical Research facility, and emphasized numerous times at meetings that the building should not be entered without full gear and air packs. Beginning in 1973, firefighters were required to respond to the firehouse rather than the fire scene. Also in 1973, disappointed by the poor turnout at scheduled drills, Chief Perkins announced that “surprise” drills would be held instead -- and anyone caught leaving when they realized it was a drill, not a call, would be fined.
In December 1973 the Montgomery Sentinel printed an article about the Fire Company. At the end they added that the company was looking for members, and women could help as radio operators or dispatchers. An inquiry was received from a woman soon after, but the company delayed accepting her until they checked into the “legal and insurance situation”. After being informed that only members could be covered by insurance, the company approved Ethel Brunck as an associate probationary member in May 1974.
Through the Fire Company’s fourth decade a new maturity seemed to emerge. New firefighting technologies and techniques evolved, and the emphasis on training in the previous ten years became even more intensified.
The Company began 1976 with the formation of a truck committee to purchase a mini- attack pumper, to be partially financed by the sale of the Seagraves pumper. By March the truck was ordered, and arrived in May, in time for the Bicentennial parade. After selling the Seagraves for $2000 in 1977, the company began looking for a used ladder truck in mid 1978. The Township agreed to pay for this piece of apparatus. After one false start, a used 1976 Pierce Snorkel (46-121, using the brand new county designation) was purchased from the Irvington Fire Department and arrived in June 1981. Around the same time, the old brush truck was sold.
In March 1976 fire district boundaries were established. At that time Company #1 was eager to go to fire taxation districts. Our company initially approved a motion to go to districts in 1977, 14-12; however, when it was discovered later that year that Belle Mead could establish a taxation district without obligating us to also do so, the motion was rescinded. It was not until after a $7,000 budget shortfall in 1979 that the Company revisited the issue in March 1980. This time the motion passed 25-3. After gathering the required petitions, the Township Committee approved our district 4-1. The Fire Company agreed to pay all bills for the fire district until the Commissioners passed their first budget in February 1981.
Having the Fire District to pay for equipment and apparatus was critical to the Fire Company’s ability to survive and flourish. The company worked hard at fundraising, as always. With the expertise of Sandy Rose, profits from our clambakes and catering increased through the 1970's. However, the annual clambake depended on ticket sales, and being a one-day event, bad weather could and did spell disaster. The company found another source of revenue in 1977 when Jo Johnson asked if we would be interested in “catering several small clambakes the first weekend of June at the Princeton University reunions”. However, costs for firefighting equipment, and especially vehicles, skyrocketed. The used aerial apparatus cost $100,000. There was no way volunteers, even as ambitious and industrious as ours, could pay these types of prices. The Fire District relieved the company from having to come up with the money to finance these large purchases and freed them to concentrate their funds on the building and grounds.
In the summer of 1980 our last connection to the old fire house in Blawenburg came crashing down. The siren had been left on its post next to the old building all these years. But that summer it fell off its platform and onto a car parked at That Foreign Car Place. Meanwhile, improvements on the new building continued. Along with the pretty-much- annual roof repair, the company did a major renovation to the kitchen in 1983. In 1985 an architect was consulted about a major building expansion, including meeting rooms, a radio room, chief’s office, store room, walk-in freezer and garage area with work shop and room for our new cook trailers. In late 1985 the company approved an addition requested by the Chief for a storage area.
At this point the company had accumulated quite a bit of cooking equipment, tables and chairs. After Thanksgiving 1982, when seemingly everyone wanted to borrow the tables and chairs, a sign up sheet was established. In 1985 the Trustees put John Leyzorek in charge of equipment rentals, giving him 10% of all rental fees.
On the firefighting end of things, an era ended. After seeing the company through such major and memorable fires as Princeton Chemical Research, Polycell, Renaissance Restaurant, Kaufman’s barn and Pennington Prep, among others, Chief Don Perkins stepped down in 1977 after six years as Chief. Art Parsell served as chief from 1978-1980. Larry May was then elected Chief, but had to step down in August 1981 after being transferred to Texas by his employer. Len Hunt stepped in and served until turning the reins over to Gene Keller, Jr., who was elected Chief in 1983. Gene would end up staying on as Chief through 1992. This was a decade of dramatic change as firefighting gear, firematics and training intensified to meet the new challenges of a rapidly growing community. Personnel changed too. In 1978, Beth Perkins became the first woman to become an Active firefighter and complete fire school. The bylaws were changed in 1981 to allow Junior firefighters to ride on the trucks to calls.
Many procedures begun in that time continue today; the driver of the first truck out would be the “acting Chief” until an officer arrived; and turnout gear and air packs were required at all calls. The establishment of the Emergency Services Committee fostered good mutual aid relationships. The First Aid Squad began responding with us to our calls in 1976. Some policies, however, have not endured, such as the requirement that active members must make 65% of all fire calls, and that they must call the firehouse if they couldn’t make a call between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.. It was also noted in the minutes that in January 1983 we rescued a cat from a tree, a practice which does not continue today.
In November 1983, the District’s Board of Commissioners purchased their first truck for the fire company, a Sutphen pumper (46-102). It would not be the last.
As 1985 came to a close, the Fire Company contemplated whether to continue holding the summer clambake or simply rely on the income from catering the Princeton Reunions. It was not simply a matter of economics, though -- it was becoming difficult to find a site for the clambake, now that land truly was becoming scarce in Montgomery.
This period has seen the final evolution of the company into the entity we know today. Although some things haven’t changed in 50 years, there have been some major changes in the last ten years.
In the summer of 1986, one long time tradition came to an end. After a few years of diminishing returns, the company voted 11-9 not to hold the Annual Clambake. It would never be held again. The catering tradition lives on, though, with the clambakes we serve to the Princeton Reunion classes, not to mention the smaller events, such as the rodeo, fireworks and other occasional parties.
Another tradition finally came to an end in 1990. Throughout the Company’s history, one of the constants seems to have been a leaking roof. Another has been a lack of space. In 1987, an addition was built to store all the cooking equipment we had accumulated over the years.
But this was not a complete solution. The company had long desired more space for training, gathering, cooking and record keeping. With the mortgage payed off in 1986, it seemed feasible to add on. After the storage addition was completed in 1987, the building committee was retained and asked to come up with a workable plan for the addition. This would not be an easy task. Not only did they need a layout, but financing had to be obtained. Although the company had around $100,000 in the bank, they knew more money than that would be needed to have the finished product they desired.
After some changes in personnel on the committee, the final crew of Gene Keller, Sr. (chair and general contractor), Herb Ruehle, Bob Saums, Herb Seeburger, Jr., Ken Dorey and Denis Cummings (finance), were able to make things happen. Initially, a construction loan was obtained from Montgomery National Bank. At the same time, Denis went through the arduous process of getting a mortgage at a low interest rate from the FHA. It turned out to be a good plan, since unforeseen problems at the bank caused us to lose access to that money. In fact, in February 1991 the company’s coffers had run so low that payment had to be deferred on some bills in order to keep money in the bank. Thankfully, this was a short-lived crisis, and our financial picture improved rapidly.
The construction itself was not without its difficulties. On November 14, 1990, a major disaster struck when the newly set roof trusses collapsed like falling dominoes, injuring one worker. This mishap not only was costly, it set back our schedule by months. Getting the momentum back was difficult; our members were disheartened, and they were doing much of the work. But our company has never been one to quit in the face of adversity, and work eventually did restart. We were able to host the Township Fire Prevention night in October 1991. In December of that year, we received our final Certificate of Occupancy. Best of all, with the new peaked roof, we no longer had rain inside.
Back in 1968, when the company bought the current property, it was thought that obtaining a traffic light in front of the firehouse would be simple. At the time, someone cautioned that it had taken another fire company ten years to get a light. Well, we beat that record. In 1993, after numerous requests to the County, a traffic light was finally installed.
The traffic light was certainly needed. Calls were increasing steadily, from 100 in 1986 to 152 in 1994 to our all-time-high of 245 in 1996. Montgomery was still growing. The calls haven’t changed very much in the last ten years, but our tools to deal with them have. In 1989 the Commissioners bought a mid-sized E-One pumper (46-106). In 1993 they purchased another E-One, a full-sized attack pumper (46-107). Knowing these trucks would be fighting fires well into the next century, they incorporated many advanced features into these vehicles, such as Class A foam systems, electronic gauges, a Loran system and a hydraulic generator. The equipment was just as progressive. They added heat scanners with digital readouts, carbon monoxide detectors, and SCBA for every firefighter with built-in intercoms.
Although the company prides itself on keeping up with the latest technologies, some changes have been driven by new regulations. The state began dictating requirements to the fire service, with new demands seemingly every year. In 1986, beards were banned for firefighters wearing SCBA. In 1987, turnout gear specifications were upgraded, and the District was forced to purchase new gear for all the firefighters. Training regulations were also promulgated, adding hazardous material and blood-borne pathogen classes to the basic schooling.
The company instigated some regulations ourselves. It was during this time that the hydrant ordinance was passed, thanks to a lot of public relations work on our part, including a petition drive. We also helped add or change regulations regarding false alarms, Knox lock boxes and fire lanes.
Communications changes happened rapidly during this time. The Township allocated $325,000 for a new dispatching system. In 1992, 9-1-1 became a reality at long last. And almost all firefighters now carry voice pagers with recording capabilities to alert them to calls.
In 1992, the Company made history by electing Shelley Elwood as Chief. She was not only the Company's first female Chief, she was the first female Chief in the State of New Jersey. She would go on to serve for six years.
Our communications with other organizations were also very good. Beginning in 1989 we combined our Installation dinner-dance with Company #1 and the First Aid Squad (now Montgomery Emergency Medical Services) for several years. We also came to the aid of the Squad when they needed our help. In September 1992 they had a serious fire at their building. Not only did we assist in the extinguishment, we once again housed an ambulance in our building for a time.
... and in the end
Many of the firemen of 1946 might not recognize the fire company of today (except those amazing few who are still responding all these years later). In 50 years, we have grown from a company with one $1 engine in a garage with a dirt floor to a multipurpose five truck company with a sprawling building with a floor that’s anything but dirt. Could they have imagined apparatus worth more than a million dollars combined? Or the grand building housing them? One doubts they would have envisioned a Chief who is a woman. But it is because of the foundation they gave us that we have become the progressive, professional company we all take pride in. Let us all hope we can leave as fine a legacy to the firefighters of the next fifty years.
MONTGOMERY Volunteer Fire Co No 2
529 County Route 518 Skillman, NJ 08558 609-466-3926