BLOOMINGDALE - On the night of Feb. 1, 1912, a group of more than a dozen men gathered at the St. Armand Town Hall to form a fire department to serve what was then the village of Bloomingdale.
The minutes of that meeting, which were kept by William E. Flanders, still exist, taped to the inside of one of several old, weathered fire department log books.
Typed on stationery from The Home Insurance Company, where Flanders worked as an agent, the minutes show the meeting was attended by 15 men who are listed as charter members of the department. They were elected to various positions, including foreman, assistant foreman, secretary, treasurer and pipeman.
Bloomingdale firefighters extinguish a blaze in a mobile home in Vermontville in May 2011.
(Photo — Richard Gonyea)
A committee of three was then formed to give the department a name.
"The committee reported the following name for the company: Artesian Hose Company No. 1, of Bloomingdale," the minutes read.
The meeting was then adjourned until a special meeting the following week where plans for the company's first fundraiser - a firemen's ball - were to be discussed.
Much has changed in the 100 years since that first meeting, but one thing hasn't. The reason those men came together to form a fire company is undoubtedly the same as the reason why so many people have volunteered with the fire department over the years.
"It's a valuable service, and it's a way to help the community," said Tim Woodruff, the fire department's current chief and a 21-year member. "That's why we do it."
15 original members
In 1912, the charter members of the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department, known then as the Artesian Hose Company No. 1, were as follows:
Ben. E. Titus
Rufas H. Myers
Joseph P. Bercier
Wm. E. Flanders
The Enterprise recently sat down with several of the department's members and asked them to talk about the company's history and share their memories.
Bob O'Neil, a 54-year member, said the company still didn't have its own firehouse when he joined up in 1958. Its meetings were held in the basement of the town hall, and its trucks were kept at the town garage.
"The first one was a 1956 Ford," he said. "We bought the cab and chassis and built the rest ourselves. The first factory-built truck was a 1962 Dodge. Of course, back when they first started, they had two open-cab trucks. In the wintertime, nobody rushed to be the drivers of the trucks."
The fire trucks used by the department today are much bigger than those of the 1950s. At most, the old trucks could carry a couple hundred gallons of water and a couple hundred feet of hose, O'Neil said.
"When you got to the fire, you more or less just wiped up around it," he said. "In the village here, you'd have a pretty good chance of getting a fire out, but when you get out in Vermontville or that area, it was going to be burned down by the time you got there."
The current fire house was built in the late 1960s, O'Neil said. It had two truck bays and a meeting room. Three other stalls were built in 1974, and the second floor was added on a few years later.
The department remained known as the Artesian Hose Company No. 1 until the early 1950s, when its name was changed to the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department Inc.
In the department's early days, it responded to fire calls with a hose cart that was stored in a shed behind a small house next to the town hall. A metal triangle mounted on a post was struck with a hammer to sound the fire alarm.
The first alarm listed in the company's old log book was at 7:30 p.m. on April 25, 1912, when the foreman, R.P. Towne, "ordered (the) hose cart out for practice."
Many of the relatively few fires that are listed in the company's records from those early days were total losses.
"Oct. 25, 1928," reads one entry. "At about 3:30 a.m., fire bell rang. The Hose Co. responded to the call. Velma Wardner's cottage burned to the ground."
Often the fires destroyed barns, killed livestock or damaged crops.
"Fire bell rang at about 2 a.m.," reads an entry from Nov. 13, 1930. "Bigelow house and barn burned with 8 head of cattle and 2 horses."
"A large barn belonging to Arnold's Poultry Farm was completely destroyed, a small barn and her house was saved," reads a June 10, 1948 entry. "Besides the barn, about 3,500 chickens along with all equipment was destroyed. The fire was out of control when firemen arrived."
O'Neil said the Loon Lake Hotel fire of September 1956 was one of the biggest the department has ever handled. The five-story hotel, built in 1879, was completely destroyed.
"The huge rambling 100-room resort hotel was a monument of flames as Bloomingdale's fire department, first on the scene at 12:45 a.m. with 22 volunteers, laid their hose lines," Bill McLaughlin wrote in an Enterprise account of the fire. "Firemen said that the building was completely consumed in a matter of minutes when a breeze from the lake fanned the flames, which roared through the completely wooden edifice."
O'Neil also ranked the 1978 fire that destroyed another grand hotel of the Adirondacks, Saranac Inn, as one of the biggest during his tenure with the department.
"We had a wedding in Saranac Lake that we were at that day; almost all the fire department was there," O'Neil said. "We all cleared out in a hurry, went the scene and spent the rest of the day there and half the night. It was a big fire because it was more than one building on fire."
Other veteran Bloomingdale firefighters said they'll never forget the 1991 Vermontville forest fire, which consumed some 300 acres, destroyed one home and damaged several others.
"It was the first major fire that I ever went to," Woodruff said. "We sat there and watched the flames cross state Route 3, and that was just unbelievable. I hadn't had any training at the time, and it really gave me a sense of how fire can move."
Nancy Swinyer, a 25-year veteran of the department and its first female member, was coordinating the response to the forest fire from the firehouse.
"I ran the phones, dispatched people where they needed to be, called other departments in, called the auxiliary and started up a place for people to come," Swinyer said. "It was hectic."
Swinyer later played the same role during the 1998 ice storm, when the firehouse served as both a command post and an American Red Cross shelter for more than two weeks. Firefighters went door to door, checking on people who had no power. Countless meals were served at the firehouse.
The May 2011 fire that destroyed Spencer Boatworks was named by several members as one of the department's more recent large conflagrations.
Bloomingdale firefighters have also responded to plenty of car wrecks over the years, including several that involved fatalities.
"Accidents have hit me the most because I've seen a couple of my friends die in car accidents," said Danielle Akey, an eight-year member and the department's first lieutenant. She referenced the September 2008 crash that killed 24-year-old Daniel Hamm of Vermontville.
"I was actually the second or the third one on scene," Akey said. "I did the job I needed to do, but afterwards you start to think about it and it sinks in more. The guys and my officers were really good. They each called me and said, 'We need to talk about it.' They were really supportive."
That kind of camaraderie is what has helped keep the department together over the years, said Mike Cassavaugh, a 21-year member.
"You become one big family, and help out each other a lot," he said.
The department's members have also helped with searches for missing people. In the summer of 2000, for example, the firehouse was the command post in the extensive search for Harriet Olsen, an elderly woman who disappeared from her home on Fletcher Farm Road. She was never found.
While the department's members all share a desire to help the community, their specific reasons for joining vary. For some like Woodruff, it's a family tradition. His brothers, his father and his grandfathers have all been members. Others, like Nancy Swinyer, joined because they simply have the time.
"During the afternoons, I didn't work, and the fire alarm would go off and there weren't many people around to answer it because everybody's working," she said. "I thought I could be one of the ones who could help out during the day, and that's why I joined."
Some members had personal experiences that led them to join the ranks.
"We had a shed fire at our house," said 10-year member John Houghton, the department's first assistant chief. "I wanted to be a volunteer for years but wasn't ready to do it yet. That kind of made me double-think my priorities, and I just wanted to become a volunteer so I could help other people."
As much as it's provided an important service over the past 100 years, the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department has always been a social hub of the community. The department and its ladies auxillary have hosted countless fundraising events - dances, dinners, bingo games and car washes - over the years, but none bigger than its Field Day, held annually on Labor Day weekend, until recently.
An old program from the department's eighth Field Day in 1953 says the event featured a parade with bands and floats, baseball games, a midway with rides for kids and a turkey dinner. In 2006, a huge crowd showed up to see the Southern rock band Molly Hatchet perform as part of the 61st annual Field Day.
"Growing up here, the field days were a big a social gathering where you'd see everybody once a year," Woodruff said. "As a kid, that was the big event before we went back to school."
But the department stopped putting on the event several years ago.
"It takes a ton of time and people don't have the time to put into it," Woodruff said. "We've gotten away from that, and that's the sad part, but we only have so many hours in the day, too."
While fundraising is always a challenge, Woodruff said the department continues to draw strong support from the community through its annual mailer, its biggest source of revenue. The department sells food and beverages at the field by the former Spencer Boatworks on the Sunday of the annual Can-Am Rugby Tournament. It also has fire contracts with the towns of St. Armand and Franklin.
The biggest challenge these days is keeping up with new standards in firefighting technology and maintaining the department's membership, which currently stands at 32. Several members said the state's training mandates, including a 90-plus-hour basic firefighter course, discourage some people from joining.
"That's the biggest drawback," O'Neil said. "People just don't have the time to do it. All the departments are struggling with that."
"We don't have the manpower that we used to have when I first got in," Woodruff admits. "Yeah, training is a big thing, but it's also a very important thing. Everybody has family and other commitments, people are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, and the fire department isn't always a priority. We understand that."
Answering the call
Despite the challenges, Woodruff and the other Bloomingdale firefighters interviewed for this story said the department is critical to the community, and its members will continue to come when called.
"I think it's crucial," Swinyer said. "If it wasn't here, it would take longer for the other departments to get here. We do have mutual aid, but I think it's crucial to have a department answering the call right here in our own area."
"We cover over 900 square miles around Bloomingdale, in part of two counties," Cassavaugh said. "Now everybody's building farther and farther back in the woods where there's no hydrants and it's hard to get to. But people need to know they can rely on us."
"If there's a forest fire in Loon Lake, we're there," Houghton said. "If there's a car accident in Sugarbush, we're there. It just takes a lot of dedication from the people."
"When they need us, we'll be there," Woodruff said. "We're doing the best we can to serve the people in our community and our neighboring communities."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.