Tradition of service: Fighting Aurora's fires
“The little town of Aurora has not had such a scare for many a year as it had last week Wednesday night ...”
It was the night of Oct. 22, 1924. The local Republican group had concluded its meeting in the Town Hall. The Masons had been meeting on the second floor was also winding down. Fireplaces were checked to make sure that it was safe to leave. Unknown to those leaving was that a spark from the chimney was smoldering on the roof.
Around 11 p.m. one of the local “towns-women” saw flames on the roof and notified the “Mason gents” who had not yet left the building. As reported in the Chagrin Falls Exponent the Masons quickly notified the entire town. It was feared that if the fire could not be brought under control that the Congregational Church adjacent to the Town Hall would also become consumed in the fire.
With an adequate water supply near by a bucket brigade soon had the fire out. The fire burned a 10-foot hole in the roof and there was considerable water damage to the building. It was reported that if Masons and community volunteers had not acted quickly “it would have been a loss to our little town which would have taken years, if ever, to recover from.”
Two years earlier on June 15, 1922, lightning struck a telephone pole outside the town’s exchange, setting it on fire. In August that year a ruptured oil pipe near the Aurora Station Depot caught fire, causing a “great conflagration, burning trees … and sparks flying over in people’s houses.”
From its very founding until into the early 20th Century, firefighting in Aurora was a voluntary community effort with the bucket being the primary piece of fire equipment. In addition the “bed key” and “salvage bag” were common tools. By the time the community could gather to put out a house fire the primary goal was rescue and salvage.
The “bed key” would be used to disassemble the rope bed since it was the most expensive item that the family owned. The “salvage bag” was used to gather up as many personal items before they were lost to the blaze.
The nation’s first professional fire department was established in Cincinnati, in 1853. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the increasing number of costly fires and life threatening situations prompted the demand for the formation of a fire department in Aurora.
The development of the Smythe housing development along with the construction of the Aurora Inn and Country Club added to the need.
According to an early member of the department, John McDonald, “almost every able-bodied man in town was involved in some way and considered himself a fireman.”
The first meeting of the department was on Oct. 1 1929. Prior to its organization the town had relied on firefighting from Kent.
Aurora’s first chief was Fred Maskey.
Guidelines for fighting a fire were established which called for limited use of water to prevent damage, the use of small lines with stiff nozzles, and having plenty of mittens on hand for volunteers. Membership in the department was voluntary and considered a civic duty. It was also a social activity.
With few organizations to belong to in Aurora, one could be part of the Church, Lodge, Grange and/or the fire department. The number of members was limited to 75 n 1934, and then to 25 on the active list in 1935 to better manage the department. The first two full-time members were hired in 1970. They maned the station from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., while volunteers responded in the off hours.
It wasn’t until 1975 that the first two women firefighters, Terese Hovan and Carol Gedeon, joined the department. They first saw action fighting a barn fire in which Chief Barnoff thought that they had “held up pretty good.”
The department was officially under the control of the Aurora Township with the Village assuming a large portion of the expenses. The first major purchase was the 1928 American La France fire truck bought at a cost of $4,850 which was stored in Tucker’s barn at the corner of Maple Lane and Rt. 306. The truck has been restored by the Aurora’s Firemen’s Association and is used in parades. Aurora’s current fire trucks are on a rotational schedule for replacement.
Today the purchase of a new pumper is from $450,000 to $600,000.
Aurora’s first fire station was located on the James property now the site of the The Church in Aurora’s addition along West Pioneer Trail. Built in 1935 at a cost of $7,000 it housed the 1928 La France fire truck and a backup pumper built by the fireman on a truck chassis for $250 in 1932. The village’s road grader and dump truck were stored in an annex. The old station was replaced by Station #1 in 1983 and is now located diagonally across West Pioneer Trail from the original site.
Station #2 located in Geauga Lake was built in 1949 by volunteers with donated labor and funds. It was replaced by a new station in 1997.
The stations housed the department’s equipment and trucks. Volunteers responded to calls from home while designated firefighters raced to the station to get the trucks. They were alerted by a siren placed on a tower on the front lawn of the town hall.
Different siren codes would indicate in what part of the town the fire was located. In the 1930s telephones were used to notify the volunteers. This system was only useful if the volunteer was at home and could hear the phone. During the day the department was shorthanded since many of the volunteers worked out of town.
In the 1950’s several teachers at the high school including George Hettinger and Jim Burns were volunteers. When the siren sounded they would solicit the assistance of a “number of their bigger, upper grade students,” race to the station, man the trucks and respond to the fire.
In November, 1976 an Aurora Advocate article entitled “Pagers Revolutionize Fire Department” stated that “Telephones just became obsolete for Aurora firefighters. Now there’s a better way for them to find out when an emergency occurs, what it is and where – the pager.”
Today the pager has been relegated to the museum’s collection. An app on the iPhone now alerts firefighters to the nature of the call and provides a map showing the location.
Today the department consist of 10 full-time firefighters scheduled on three 24 hour shifts. There are 32 part-timers who fill out the shifts and cover when full timers are on vacation. In its 91-year history the department has been led by six fire chiefs: Fred Maskey, Art Mowl, Ed Hackbart, Fred Barnoff, Gerry Gnabah and Dave Barnes.
When you hear the sirens of the city’s emergency vehicles don’t panic, grab your bucket, nor look for your “bed key” or “salvage bag.” The department has come a long way from its 1940 motto “Bring on the smoke, we’ll eat it” recorded in the Evening Record & Daily-Courier Tribune. Feel secure in knowing that 24/7 the community is protected by a highly trained professional staff of paramedic firefighters.
Aurora’s 1 st Fire Station built in 1935. The fire trucks left to right are a 1948
International, the 1928 LaFrance (1 st truck purchased in ’28), and a truck built on a Ford Model
Chassis by the volunteer fireman at a cost of $250.
1968 Aurora Fire Department: Members left to right are Don Domino, Ken Noble, Earl
Johnson, Fred Knop Sr, Chuck Calhoun, John McDonald, George Hettinger, Ray
Schilling, Charlie Becker (behind Ray), Alan Hackbart (behind Charlie), David
Hettinger, Bob Clark, Whitely Fulop, Fred Knop, Chief Ed Hackbart