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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.


Charter member recalls

62 years of Middletown

Fire Department history


R-B staff writer (c. approximately 1992)


MIDDLETOWN — 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.


Through a gentlemen's agreement the local landowners agreed to pay an annual 12 cent tax" to support the fire department, reminisced Orval Brennen, 89.


The 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.


The 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.


The county also provided a 50-gallon four-wheel soda and acid trailer. The soda and acid would boil, creating pressure and releasing water.


The bell of the Presbyterian Church, now a United Methodist Church, served as Middletown's fire alarm.


However, there was no organized fire department.


When a fire broke out, Herrick and his two employees at the garage he operated would pull out the equipment and go fight the fire.


The 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.


This was not very effective.


No 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.


The 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.


Unfortunately, by that time the fire was beyond their control and Brennen went back to town again.


He 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.


By 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.


The townspeople did put out the fire, but not until after it destroyed seven houses and a church.


The 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.


Within a few days after the fire, the Middletown Fire Department was organized.


Bill 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.


Five fire commissioners were appointed: Sim Chapman, Newton Booth, Charles Kepner, Anton Hartman and Charles McKinley.


According 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.


The annual 12 cent tax was levied — "and no more" — Orval Brennen emphasizes, to finance the department.


The following year the first "Firemen's Frolic" (see pictures) fund-raiser was held in Central Park, now site of the Senior Citizen's Center.


The first new piece of equipment was a siren that was mounted on top of Wilkinson's Garage where Brennen worked.


A 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 pump.


The truck was parked at Highway 29 and 175. "And within a year or so all four tires were stolen," Brennen said, shaking his head.

A 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.


The 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.


A 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 support staff.


Local 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.


The 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.


"Businesses 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 volunteers.


In 1936, a Chevy truck chassis was purchased and used to build a new fire truck.


Similarly, 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.


Old 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.

When 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.


When Brennen resigned as chief in 1946 the department presented him with a new rifle. He retired in 1956 after over 25 years of volunteer service.


"We had some fun in those days," Brennen said.


Bill 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 7, 1930.


Read another true story about the MVFD












Some of the photographs on this site are vintage postcards.  Many old photographs of Lake County were taken by O. E. Meddaugh, who was a resident of Lakeport.  We thank him and his family for helping to preserve history.


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