Circa 1890-1968

(this information was copied from a document written in 1968)

The Fire Department had its beginning around 1890 but the turn of the century brought to Madison its first organized fire department. Under the leadership of Willis Sunderland as chief, a group of volunteers was organized with equipment consisting of a hand pump mounted on a wagon. This was hauled to fires without benefit of horses for a few years as the men, when called, hitched them-selves in some fashion to long ropes and pulled the apparatus to the fire. There, with a few experts to handle the hose, it was necessary to employ a group of huskies to man the hand pump, and in case of serious fire, it was often necessary to organize reserves during breathing spells. Onlookers were frequently drafted to help so that fires were not entirely a form of entertainment. This was particularly true when the Austin and Morley Co. burned on Lake St., just north of the New York Central Railroad. Heavy mud impeded progress to the fire, and it was necessary to pump water from the Wheel Shop pond so the boys tired rapidly, even though they had the benefit, and inspiration, offered by Dr. Good on horseback until the nozzle men cooled his ardor by means of a direct hit with the stream.

The now famous department was composed, in part, of the following men; Sherm Corlett, Merle Wook, Fred M. Leyde, Charles Bartlett, Perry Sparr, Lewis Peabody, Bill Vrooman, Ed Griswold and Ray Kibbe.

The first seven named were at the time an enthusiastic and husky group of young fellows living at Jud Snell’s Park Hotel. A general alarm was improvised in the hotel and quick responses were a result.

This hotel was located at the corner of Main and River Streets and it and an adjacent house were destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1927. The department, after a couple of years, developed a wagon drawn outfit to make their tasks somewhat easier. Horses were furnished by Chas Bates and W.C. Behm and driven by Mr. Behm for nearly a score of years. One of the horses, Nancy, seemed to revel in her position as a fire horse and was always half way out of her stall after an alarm sounded. The hand pump was retained, however.

At about this period, the department drilled regularly and sponsored the building of two large cisterns, one in the park for the protection of the business district and one near Martin Ernsts’, now Warners, fed by spring piped down from Cemetery Hill, for the protection of River St. The outer parts of town were protected by streams and in some instances provisions were made by the department for damming these up in case of need.

Some time in the second decade of the century, the hand pump was supplemented by a two-cylinder gasoline engine developing 24 horse power. This relived the men of considerable work, but often the hand pump had to be resorted to. It is said that it was not uncommon for the engine to kick when being started, and Ray Kibbe claimed to be the only member of the department who did not have some teeth knocked loose by being pulled down on the shaft of the motor starting it. The engine also gave trouble in that each time it was used, the clutch would burn out and this was eliminated by the genius of Willis Sunderland, who conceived the idea of surfacing the plate with cork. This was done by cutting up a couple dozen corks and the clutch gave no more trouble. In fact, the engine was used until the fire at the Congregational Church parsonage which was located on West Main St. in the house now owned by Mrs. Raymond Givens. The engine was completely ruined and discarded for new equipment.