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NOTE: This Article
was published in the Record-bee about 1992.
This same information was video taped in
an interview with Orval about 1988 done by Martha
Webster and Bill Wink both of Middletown.
62 years of
By DONALD GOERTZEN
R-B staff writer (c. approximately
— A grass fire on July 7, 1930, entered the town and destroyed seven houses
and a church before it was extinguished. The blaze prompted the
organization of Middletown's first volunteer fire department.
a gentlemen's agreement the local landowners agreed to pay an annual 12
cent tax" to support the fire department, reminisced
Orval Brennen, 89.
first firehouse, a small wooden structure located behind the metal-walled
fire station still in use, was built a few years later with the labor
provided by the depression-era Works Progress Administration and local
volunteers. Brennen said the materials used for
the building cost $84.
Brennen was a member
of Middletown's first fire department, and he is probably the only one of
the original 15 charter members. He
was chief of the fire department from 1941 through 1946, and became
inactive when his son Robert Brennen joined the
department in 1956.
Brennen moved from
Willow Harbor, Wash. with his late wife to Middletown in 1928, and went to
work for auto mechanic Pinky Wilkinson.
county had provided then-supervisor Ed Herrick with a Packard truck with
hard rubber tires, an 800-
gallon water tank, a
Star four-cylinder engine and a Viking one-and-a-half-inch high-pressure
pump. A hose was inserted into the tank and the Star engine fired the pump.
county also provided a 50-gallon four-wheel soda and acid trailer. The soda
and acid would boil, creating pressure and releasing water.
bell of the Presbyterian Church, now a United Methodist Church, served as
Middletown's fire alarm.
there was no organized fire department.
a fire broke out, Herrick and his two employees at the garage he operated would
pull out the equipment and go fight the fire.
1930 grass fire broke out near the home of Pinky Wilkinson's sister, near
Stewart and Lake streets. She ran to the shop for help and Brennen grabbed a bucket of water and a wet sack.
was not very effective.
one else was around, so Brennen ran back into
town and saw the fire engine just leaving toward the fire. He followed and
saw water splashing out of the top of the truck. One of Herrick's employees
had left the top off the tank.
Star motor was wet and failed to operate the pump. "But I'd read that
if you sprayed a distributor cap with the pyrene
from a hand extinguisher it would dry it out. I tried that and we got the
motor to running!" Brennen's eyes still
flash at the memory.
by that time the fire was beyond their control and Brennen
went back to town again.
found the Standard Oil distributor and took one of his empty gasoline
trucks, filled it with water, and then went around town filling the buckets
and sacks of people who were by then turning out to fight the fire.
this time the fire was spreading over the north end of town. Brennen feared they would lose the town, so he took his
wife and infant son Bill Brennen to his mother
and step-father's ranch in Long Valley.
townspeople did put out the fire, but not until after it destroyed seven
houses and a church.
concrete [cut stone] blocks from the walls of the church were sold for $75 and
used to build two new houses near Bush and Brennen
streets and also to surface the walls of the home Brennen
still lives in.
a few days after the fire, the Middletown Fire Department was organized.
Abercrombie was voted in as the first chief. The new chief donated a Dodge
touring car on which the soda and acid unit was mounted.
Brennen removed the
Star motor from the Packard truck and installed a power take-off unit to
power the pump.
fire commissioners were appointed: Sim Chapman,
Newton Booth, Charles Kepner, Anton Hartman and
to Brennen's son Bill, Booth was then the owner
of Harbin Hot Springs and Hartman owned the ranch on which the Hidden
Valley estates are built. McKinley and his brother operated the McKinley
Ranch and Flour Mill on Highway 175.
annual 12 cent tax was levied — "and no more" — Orval Brennen emphasizes, to
finance the department.
following year the first "Firemen's
Frolic" (see pictures) fund-raiser was held in Central Park, now
site of the Senior Citizen's Center.
first new piece of equipment was a siren that was mounted on top of
Wilkinson's Garage where Brennen worked.
1926 Chevrolet truck with pneumatic tires was purchased at around 1932, Brennen recalled. Three Standard Oil gasoline tanks
with a total capacity of 500 gallons were mounted on the truck along with a
truck was parked at Highway 29 and 175. "And within a year or so all
four tires were stolen," Brennen said,
shaking his head.
few years later the fire house was built by the WPA.
It is now used by Lake County as a garage for its maintenance yard.
large metal-walled structure in front that now serves as the fire station
was completed in 1961. According to retired volunteer Paul Montmarquet the foundation and concrete floor were set
by volunteer labor. Total cost came to about $28,000.
larger structure is now being completed just outside of town on Highway
175. Chief Don Sylvia said he hopes they can move in "before the end
of the month." The South Lake County Fire Protection District now
numbers 35 volunteers and 12 salaried personnel, including uniformed and
realtor Earle Wrieden, 82, was one of several
community volunteers, who, with the WPA, built
the first fire house in the 1930s. "It was a real community project,
everybody pitched in to help," he said.
Wrieden joined the
volunteer fire department a few years after it was founded, although he
said that when the siren went off, lots of people show up at the station,
whether they were officially members or not. "It's surprising how well
it worked," he said.
early volunteers met monthly, and there were no specific duty assignments.
"It was first-come, first-serve," Brennen
said. The first to arrive after the siren took out the equipment.
were left open when the volunteers heard the siren," Brennen said. If the fire lasted into the evening,
passersby would lock up the stores and businesses left open by the
1936, a Chevy truck chassis was purchased and used to build a new fire
in 1941, a Ford truck chassis was purchased. The county provided the material,
and Brennen, now running his own business, built
a new fire truck and installed the equipment at no cost.
timers report that Brennen, the builder of the
truck and chief, got priority in driving it. He was always accompanied by
his mostly-bull-terrier dog, First Mugs, and later Mike.
Mike heard the siren he would run several blocks to the fire station. On
one occasion, former supervisor Herrick's three fox terriers took off after
Mike. The fire dog didn't have time for the terriers. He shook each one in
turn in his powerful jaws and then continued on to the fire house.
Brennen resigned as chief in 1946 the department
presented him with a new rifle. He retired in 1956 after over 25 years of
had some fun in those days," Brennen said.
Brennen, Orval's son,
proudly states that since the founding of the volunteer fire department,
Middletown has never again experienced a fire as severe as the one on July
another true story about the MVFD