VERNON - Things have come a long way at the Vernon Fire Department since it got its start 125 years ago with a horse drawn fire engine.
The department, which began in 1891, is actually older than the City of Vernon itself, which was incorporated the year after.
It’s a landmark birthday the fire department is celebrating with bells on — literally. Members of the fire hall, with help from the community, are restoring a large, 850 pound bell from the original fire hall, which stood roughly where the Marten Brewpub is now on Main Street.
Vernon Fire Chief Keith Green says the bell, which has a diameter of 42 inches, was purchased in 1894 for $176.
“The old pull boxes, in effect until the 70s, would send a signal to the fire hall and interrupt the circuit to the bell, and it would ring,” Green says, adding the old bell hasn’t rung in probably 50 years.
The bell’s gudgeons, leg stands and clapper (the device that rings the bell) are all long gone, and those involved in what Green has dubbed ‘The Bell Restoration Project’ have worked diligently to recreate the missing pieces. The new parts will even be dipped in acid to create a weathered look to match the bell. The department plans to unveil the restored bell at an open house in May, which the whole community is going to be invited to.
Reflecting on the fire hall’s 125 years of service to the community, Green says a lot has changed. Old photos from the Vernon Museum and Archives prove as much.
“You can see the guys are in dress shoes, ties and suspenders,” Green says of the department’s first firefighters. Now, firefighters wear a full suit of armour complete with a breathing apparatus.
Transportation has also changed dramatically. The first fire engine was a horse-drawn wagon, Green says. As rumour has it, the horses were kept in a field across from the station, and when they heard the bell ring, they would run over and assume their positions in front of the wagons. When the department got its first fire engine in 1913, the horses retired.
“As the story goes they were sold to the milkman and he had to get rid of them because every time the bell rang they ran down to the fire station with the milk cart. They were so well trained he couldn’t stop them,” Green says.
In 1934, the fire hall got a shiny new truck from Watkin Motors in Vernon. The antique was fully restored by members of the fire department in 2002 and is brought out for parades and special events.
As the community grew, so did the fire department, Green says. From an original crew of just a handful of firemen, the department now staffs three chief officers, four captains, 24 firefighters, four dispatchers, one emergency coordinator, one captain of fire prevention, and a mechanic — plus 35 to 40 paid on call firefighters.
While helping the public remains its mission, the fire department does more than just fight fires these days. It responds to numerous medical emergencies, traffic accidents, HAZMAT calls and rescues. A big focus is on prevention, with the department running smoke alarm and car seat programs, in addition to other safety initiatives and fundraisers.
The 125 anniversary open house is set for Saturday, May 7, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Station 1, located at 3401 30 St. There will be burgers and hot dogs, as well as antique fire engines and equipment on display.
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