Fuquay Springs, N.C.
In response to an inquiry via Facebook from Mike Legeros (local fire department historian and blogger) regarding some confusion about the beginning date of the Fuquay Fire Department, we are sharing our research from the display and history housed in the Fuquay-Varina Museums.
The town minutes give us our first idea of fire protection when they passed a Fire District Resolution on November 1, 1915. What, if anything, precipitated that action was not clear. However, our major fire in town the following June clearly showed the necessity of some action. Farmer’s and Banner warehouse fires had occurred previously according to the Raleigh Times, January 17, 1914.
Our 1916 fire was discovered about 3:00 am in the morning of June 13. The first building in flames was the sheet metal warehouse used by the hardware company. Between this warehouse and the brick store building was a wooden barn, which according to an N & O account of June 14, was skipped over by a strange wind circumstance. Legeros’s account states the “fire was intentionally set” according to the Evening Dispatch of Wilmington. At no point either in local oral or written accounts have we been able to validate that cause for the fire.
After the fire, the barn between Main and Spring Avenue was found to be unharmed; however, the fire consumed three stores and their contents along Main Street. The Raleigh fire department was called but when no water source for their equipment was available, the request was withdrawn. The town was left to fight the fire with a bucket brigade. Eleanor Howard remembers her mother, Mary, telling of being present as water was taken from local residential wells and passed along the lines of citizens to the fire.
The loss was approximately $45,000 with little of the losses covered by insurance. The owners of the two-story building, A. W. Thompson and E. A. Howard, valued the structures at $14,000. Housed within the building were the three businesses of Dietz & Isaacson general merchants, Fuquay Drug Company owned by A. G. Elliott, and Fuquay Hardware Company. Upstairs losses were those of Dr. C. E. Check (physician), Dr. J. R. Edwards (dentist), and A. J. Fletcher (lawyer). Local accounts say on-lookers watched as Dr. Edwards’ new dental chair fell through the floor from his upstairs office. In an interview local banker, Robert Prince, recalled he helped as a youth to clean the remaining outside of the brick building and the interior was rebuilt at the corner of Main and Depot.
On June 5, 1922, the town minutes record a discussion of securing a lot for a fire truck house. Exactly when the town purchased the fire truck is unclear; however, Mr. Tom Ferguson was appointed that date as manager of the fire truck. He was paid for one day of work per week and charged with appointing members for his company. According to this authors’s interview with Rex Bradley (fireman now deceased) he remembered this first truck. He dated it as a 1922-24 Model T. Truck. It used 10 lbs of soda and 50 gal of water. A crank was turned adding acid to the tank creating a “very messy soda wash” in Bradley’s words.
The following March 12, 1923, Jake Siegfried was paid $20 for servicing of the fire truck. That June under Mayor V. O. Tilley, the town budgeted $800 for the fire department out of a expected town revenue of $5,000. By October 5, 1925 the town clerk billed citizens for use of the fire truck to fight fires. Interestingly, the town budget was decreased to $300 on June 18, 1926.
The date listed on the Legeros web and recorded in the fire department history that the Town Fire Department was organized in 1925 under W. Lee Rowland may refer to a formal organization called the Fuquay Springs Rural Fire Department. Rowland was listed as working in a garage and as an electrician in Fuquay Springs in the Census of 1920 and 1930. Clearly Rowland was in the picture, as he was requested to drive the fire truck to the Bank of Varina and back the first of every month (minutes Jan. 6, 1930)
In 1928-29, the town paid $150 for service and repair for the fire truck. The search for a lot was unsuccessful but Ballentine’s Service Station kept the fire truck in 1931. (Bradley could not pinpoint the exact location of this station but it is believed to have been on Main Street). The service station was paid $10 per month to keep the truck in running order and $5 for each fire that was fought. According to some sources, a lot was purchased from A. W. Thompson on Spring Avenue for $300 but no building was constructed at that time.
The depression impacted all town services. According to the minutes of April 3, 1934, the service station was paid $5.00 per month but received $7.50 for each fire fought by the operators of the service station. The Sept 7, 1935 town budget for the fire department was $150.
On Feb. 5, 1936, a contract was drawn between Lee Rowland and the town for servicing the fire truck (ending Ballentine’s contract). Yet during the depression years, the town instructed E. H. Clark and Town Manager, Cordle to purchase a fire truck and fire siren (minutes Feb. 7, 1938). The Fuquay Volunteer Fire Department (according to fire department history ) had been organized a few days earlier on Feb. 3, 1938. Definitely, W. Lee Rowland was chief.
As instructed, a 1936 Chevy fire truck was located for sale in the Town of Durham for $40. This April 4, 1938 purchase included a reconditioned siren for $180. Bradley noted that this truck had a water tank for use in fighting fires. This truck may have been kept briefly back of K. B. Johnson’s shop according to Bradley. (Note that the first connection to the new town water system occurred at the Bank of Fuquay on Sept. 6. 1937) Bradley then listed the new location of the fire truck as a tin building behind Main Street stores with an exit onto Depot Street. Charles Tingen was instructed to enlarge this house according to minutes of Nov, 2, 1940. (This building could have been on the lot purchased from Thompson in 1933.)
Greater service was provided with the purchase of an adapter(minutes January 15, 1939) to enable the Raleigh Fire Department fo assist the local department. The fire alarm was activated by Walter Howard at Main and Raleigh Streets using this siren. All fire calls were routed to him at Elliott’s (Fuquay) Drug. There were metal boxes with phones on Main Street in Fuquay and on Broad Street in Varina. The museums were given the flag Howard used for controlling traffic and informing the fire truck as it came by him about the location of the fire.
The town budget was raised to $662 on July 2, 1942. The next year, June 7, 1943, W. Lee Rowland was paid $40 per week as Fire Chief. The budget included $100 for volunteers
and $100 for equipment.
Enter the March 7, 1946 Fire. This blaze ignited about 2:00 p.m. in a bucket of gasoline being used in the Proctor-Barbour tractor repair department. Destruction of this one-story building, was complete with major water damage to the adjoining two-story Proctor Barbour establishment . Wade’s Theater, Barefoot Barber Shop, and Mudge & Prince Insurance were all destroyed as well.
Fighting the fire was handicapped by numerous problems related in the N & O March 8, 1946. The Fuquay Springs truck was not capable of fighting the fire because of water pressure problems (according to local accounts, the tires were flat and there was a hen’s nest on the seat). Apex’s pumper truck did not fit the hydrants. Angier and Lillington were hampered by water pressure. Dunn’s equipment would not fit the adapters. Raleigh broke down in transit but arrived and using the adapters was able to extinguish the fire on the Bank of Fuquay’s roof.
Dr. Edwards (victim of the 1916 fire) removed his office contents from the upstairs of the Bank). Dr. Cozart’s new office behind the Bank suffered some damage as did the Plymouth-Dodge auto on Raleigh Street which was under construction. According to the N & O report “virtually all business firms in the town were closed and scores of businessmen and farmers rushed in to fight the fire.” Fire broke out in Holleman’s Grocery across the street, which had been emptied of stock, but there fire was extinguished. Most of contents of the Insurance Company and Barber Shop were also removed by citizens. Much of the damage had insurance coverage. The total cost was given at $150,000.
On July 2, 1947, a Mack International Fire Truck was delivered to Fuquay at a cost of $5,55.80. This is the vintage truck restored and displayed by the Fuquay-Varina Fire Department today. A, Y. Hairr and Manager Willard Council were instructed to work on a site to house the fire truck (minutes August 4, 1947). According the Bradley’s memory, the truck was then being kept back of Edsel Fuquay’s Service Station.
In 1948, Chief Rowland requested a fire drill each month and reimbursed firemen $1.00 if they were present for practice. The town budgeted $240 for rent on July 13, 1948. According to Bradley the truck was housed in the garage beside Bradley and Sherron Welding on Raleigh Street. The chief now was paid $572, and $300 each was budgeted for volunteers and equipment.
Finally, the first Municipal Building (now the Museums) was opened August 22, 1951. The fire bay on the left side of the building became the home of the Fuquay Town Fire Department. On June 11, of that year the department had been restricted to calls 1/2 mile outside town limits. A tin building was later attached to the side of the municipal building for equipment.
Fire calls now came into the Police Station at the Municipal Building. Phones were labeled Town and Rural. The dispatcher on duty activated the appropriate siren. The two sirens located on a pole at the corner of Main are remembered by residents to have had different sounds. Two siren sites are often recalled—one at Main & Raleigh, another atop Proctor Barbour although we have been unable to verify dates. Later a siren would be placed atop the rural fire department building itself.
On May 21, 1954 under sponsorship of the Farm Bureau, the Fuquay Rural Fire Department was organized. Many volunteers served both fire departments until on August 7, 1961 the new Rural Fire Department and the Town Fire Department were required to have two separate personnel rolls. The Fuquay Rural Fire Department housed equipment in K. B. Johnson’s garage and in a tin building at 134 Fuquay Avenue. They dedicated their brick building across from the municipal building August 2, 1965. (Later this housed the Rescue Squad and now Cultivate coffee shop)
W. Lee Rowland served as Chief of the Fuquay Springs Volunteer Fire Department from 1938-1963. With the 1963 Fuquay-Varina name change, Clifton Keith became Chief of the
Town Fire Department from 1963-1972. Tom Bridges was Chief of the Rural Fire Department, serving from 1953-1959.
When the two departments merged some operations on July 10, 1972, agreements were drawn for leasing and sharing equipment, insurance, and taxes. By 1977, four rural trucks were housed at 128 S. Fuquay Avenue and two town trucks were housed at 134 Fuquay Avenue.
We end this “early history” with the last of three fires on Main Street the Fire of 1977. Chief Ed Schmelzer was serving as the Chief of the combined fire departments (1977-78). On March 1, 1977, smoke and flames were detected by a policemen in the Country Gardens and Gifts portion of the old Proctor-Barbour Building on the corner of Vance and Main Streets. When mid-morning came, the entire block south of the Bank of Fuquay had been virtually removed. The total cost is listed as $500,000. Kessler’s women’s clothing and Ransdell’s men’s clothing and shoes were completely destroyed. Only the records from United Credit Corporation were saved. Country Gardens, Flowers and Gifts and Home Office Machines were total losses. Friendly Florist’s second story was lost and the first floor too damaged to save. Earl Lee’s Portrait Studio had severe water damage and was unable to continue.
The block remains today a stark reminder of the damage a fire can do to a block of buildings even with a well-trained operation and the assistance of neighboring fire departments as well. The Independent April 28, 1977 pictured wrecking squads clearing the B. B. Johnson property adjoining the Bank of Fuquay. S. L. Lane eventually cleared the partially burned portions of his Proctor Barbour Building. Thus the parking lot along South Main is left.
The Town of Fuquay-Varina Fire Department today represents a complete merger of the two earlier departments worked out by both departments as they began to share the building at 301 S. Fuquay Avenue in August, 1977. A total of nineteen men are known to have served to date as Chief in the history of our Fire Departments. Most are pictured in our museum’s story.