History of the Branchville Volunteer Fire Co.
the First 50 Years
by Richard Hughes
Written for the 1975 Banquet Handbook - Items in () added by web page author
AS IT BEGAN, It is the law of mathematical science that the whole is but the sum of the parts, and similarly, the present is naught but the past brought up to date. So with these two concepts in mind, let us look backward at Branchville, a little town in Prince George's County and see how it all began.
It was in the fall of October, 1922 that a group of citizens, namely, Bowers, Gales, Sincell, Timmons, Parmalee, Parker, Johnson, Jones, LaValle, Wilson and Baker gathered at the home of Melvin Bowers to form an organization to handle the needs of a growing community. That night, the Branchville Improvement Association was born with Mr. Bowers president and Mr. LaValle secretary and George Parker; treasurer.
(1925 Map) To you people reading this book the south boundary of the community of Branchville was the culvert on Rhode Island Avenue near Tecumseh Street, which was non-existent at this time: Route 1 or the "Pike" as it was known then on the west; the B&O tracks on the east and also embraced Daniels Park at Rhode Island and Fox Street up to Hollywood Road. The Branchville Road crossed the railroad tracks at Scaggs Crossing, named after a few families living nearby that had migrated from Scaggsville, Howard County. The Shipley boys mother was a Scaggs descendant.
Money was raised for the new Association by having strawberry festivals, outside dinners and band recitals. The people found out that the County seat of government at Upper Marlboro was just too far away to hear their cries for assistance, so everyone would pitch in to repair roads, crossings, move fallen trees, etc.
Another prime reason for the association was to see what could be done about the lack of fire protection. The nearest engine was the 1922 Ford T truck of the Riverdale Fire Company, 3-1/2 miles south and the Hyattsville Department another 1-1/2 miles farther. The Laurel Department was 10 miles away to the north.
The average home was wood constructed. Quite a few had wooden shingles. There were no fire hydrants until the early thirties, so water had to be pumped into homes by electric pumps or the hand suction type. Picture a fire then and no phone. One had to run down the road or cut across the field to a neighbor who had a phone and after notifying the operator, she would then call Riverdale or the Laurel Company. Often the only address given would just be "Sam Jones Barn" or the "Carter Farm". After 20 minutes the incoming engines would be guided by a large column of smoke skyward, too late for 50 gallons of chemical to subdue. Insurance rates were $.43 per $100.00 then.
After several homes were totally destroyed it preyed on everyone's mind that fire protection was sorely needed. An invitation was extended to several companies through personal contacts to come and speak to the group. Mr. Andrew Gasch of Bladensburg and Mr. Stewart, an officer from the Riverdale Fire Company, did offer advice for the future.
In the spring of 1923 a drive was made to purchase a new Ford "T" chemical truck. Original specs called for 2-35 gallon brass tanks, hand operated, 1-250 lb. gauge, 100 feet of ¾" rubber hose, 2 brass kerosene hand lanterns, 1 box of soda and 6 bottles of sulfuric acid mounted on the right side of the running board, a tool box on the left side running board. Also, 1-10 foot extension ladder extended to 16 feet. The truck would have a ¾" exhaust whistle and a 2" brass bell mounted on an open firewall above the hood. The tires were 33" by 31/2". It was to be painted barn red and the price would be $2,200.00.
Albert Johnson made the long trip Elmira, New York to get the truck and drive it back. It would take him three days to come home and old times were saying that Ford would never make it over those hills on that road!
Finally it did arrive in its new shiny red paint and that brass bell mounted on a triangle bracket announced to all loud and clear that this was a real fire truck. Never was a bell so shiny!
At the next meeting of the association a motion was made and seconded and passed that an auxiliary to the Improvement Association be formed and called the Branchville Fire Department of the Improvement Association. Officers chosen were Leroy Timmons, Chief, Al Johnson, 1st Assistant, Mr. Parmalee, Lieutenant, with Russell Jones, Engineer. The engine, to use the word loosely as we know it today, was first housed in Chief Timmons shed at 4912 Indian Lane, then later in Lt. Parmalee's garage, but due to the distance involved in manning the truck it was decided to keep it in Al Johnson's garage at Branchville Road and Rhode Island Avenue.
The method of alarm was to report a fire to Miss Kitty Moore or Miss Alfreda Baker, the phone company operators, exchange then located at 4900 Central Avenue (now Berwyn Road). They would call Johnson at his home, number 105. He would race upstairs to his bedroom and yank on a rope which would rock a fire bell mounted on a pole outside his house. This bell could be heard over a large area. This would alert the men.
Meetings were held at Johnson's Pool Room, the second Thursday of each month. In April of 1925 the membership asked the Prince George's County Volunteer Firemen's Association for admittance into their Association. It was hoped that the company would receive some money from the County to enable us to continue as we were still existing on raffles and door-to-door solicitations. When the company decided to ask for admission into the County Fire Association, Chief Timmons stated that he could not continue as chief so he resigned with thanks from the members. Lt. Parmalee also resigned. Albert Johnson was moved up to Chief's position, William Deeck, Sr. was chosen 1st Assistant Chief, Joseph Appleton, 2nd Assistant Chief and James Staley remained as Secretary, George Hudgins, Treasurer.
On September 20,1925 the County Fire Association voted to accept our membership. How proud we were when President Scott of the Association designated Branchville as the eleventh (11) unit.
On the humorous but still serious side of fire fighting, the truck was hard to start in the winter; so it was not uncommon to leave the real wheel jacked up. When calls for help were sounded men could be seen running with pans of boiling water for the radiator and to pour over the manifold. Then, while the starter was grinding someone would also be on the crank. We always made it though. I can remember on a fire that we missed our extension ladder only to recall a member had borrowed it to paint his roof. Another time we discovered the battery had been stolen, so we pushed it until it started up on the "magneto" with which it was equipped.
Plans were made to look for a site for a new and larger building for fire quarters. Having already received our new incorporation papers in November, 1925 the new trustees, J.H. Wilson, Harry Jones and Herbert Arrow, were asked to contact another civic organization known as the Community Center of Berwyn. This group was formed in February 20, 1922 as an incorporation to safeguard the lives, interest and property in the Town of Berwyn and adjacent areas. A part of this organization was known as the Berwyn Fire Department. Their membership was made up of residents of Branchville, Berwyn Heights and Berwyn and although never owning a single piece of fire equipment, they did have money and property as the direct result of their carnivals held yearly at the Rhode Island Avenue and Central Avenue (Berwyn Road) field.
The principal men in this organization were George Bryant, Eugene Emerson, Dr. Arthur 0. Etienne, Arthur Gahan, Dr. Allen Griffith, David Hazzard, Arthur Husted, J. Fred Keafauver, Charles and Harry NcNamee, H. Lee Mohler; Harry Moss, Victor Self, Charles T. Peck, Jr. and Herbert H. Smith.
The Community Center Club, Inc., was directed by Doctor Griffith, President, Sarah Mulligan, Treasurer and E. Walter Mulligan as Secretary. Charles Peck, Eugene Emerson and John Cunningham, trustees of the Club, had purchased that parcel of land on the southeast corner of 49th and Branchville Road to within 10 feet of "Fitches Stable" as the deed implied. This was to be used as community property where the people could get together for strawberry festivals and band rehearsals.
On December 2, 1925 this Club sold to the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company one lot of 33' on the Branchville Road and 48' on the alley side for the sum of $10.00. We were on our way! Men canvassed every house selling cement blocks for $.25 each for the one-story 24' by 40' building. It was built entirely by volunteer labor and men working far into the night, excavating, mixing concrete, laying cement blocks and doing the hundreds of other jobs that were necessary.
The site of the lot had years before been a deep ravine starting at the intersection of Cherokee St. and the Baltimore Boulevard (Brass Lantern) and then southeasterly through the Gaylor property, our property and ended at the streetcar tracks at the culvert (Tecumseh Street). Old timers said our property would be hard to build on, due to the accumulation of trees, stumps, etc. Tons of cinders were purchased and unloaded at the railroad siding and A.H. Smith and Mr. Raymond Burch loaned us Model "T" dump trucks to haul the cinders up the road. For many of the men this work was especially hard and tiring, as they were drawn from all walks of life.
It was indeed a happy day when the building was completed (Undated group photo in front of the station) and the "T" truck was moved in. This was in May, 1926. This building was completed for less than $5,000.00 under the leadership of Elgin Miller. A phone with the number of 108 was installed and the next item needed was a siren. Quite a few were hesitant about buying a 5 horsepower siren for $500.00 as that was a lot of money and we were broke. My dad, Claude Hughes, said, "As long as we are broke we will work to attain it." It was ordered, and installed on November 19, 1926 and hooked up to the telephone exchange. Soon afterward a group of 16 year old boys decided to have some fun with those old firemen who stood ready awaiting the first call by siren at the engine house.
The boys made a human pyramid by kneeling and standing on each others shoulders until they could reach the fire bell rope. They pulled it back and forth, until the firemen, hearing the bell, pushed the siren button. Golly, it did howl and it was still wailing when we reached Al Smith's swamp. Later we were arrested and arraigned at the Courtroom of Judge Phillips and ordered to pay a fine of $7.50. I told the judge that I would pay him later as we were good friends. He looked me in the eye and said our friendship ceased ten minutes ago. I paid.
Before the first year had hardly begun, Chief Johnson accused the membership of "laying down" in not hearing the alarm and attending meetings. He made a motion that if anyone missed a call deliberately or failed to come to a meeting he would be fined $1.00. It was voted down and Chief Johnson quit. It was decided to reorganize the company as the past chief had also served as president. William Deeck, Sr., was elected Chief, Joseph Appleton, 1st Assistant Chief and Robert Mahoney, 2nd Assistant Chief, James Staley, Secretary and Charles Brady, Treasurer.
In all of our endeavors, carnivals, dinners, we were always assisted by our Ladies Auxiliary. We probably could not have succeeded if it were not for having them assist us. Let's talk a little about them.
The Ladies Auxiliary was organized by Mrs. Annie Burnette, known throughout the area as "Ma". She was born in Scaggsville, Maryland on May 22, 1878. Large of stature and quite strong, Ma seemed to know who needed a hand from chopping wood, mid-wifery and attending the sick. Her compassion for others is what drew people to her. That is why she personally asked women to attend a meeting at the home of Mrs. Reba Deeck and the two of them organized the Branchville Ladies Auxiliary, on September 26, 1925. It wasn't until the meeting of November 9, 1925 that officers were elected and on January 8, 1926 they gave the first dinner. More about Ma in another part of this book. She died on April 20,1958 in Branchville knowing that her firemen were well on their way. She served as President of the Auxiliary for 6 years and many more as chaplain.
The County Fire Association did give us $300.00 in the year of 1926 which was the amount allowed for chemical trucks. The Ford served us well. At times we would find the company short-handed for men and we would make a direct appeal to the public for assistance. Then we would have so many men that some would have to get off so the truck would run.
One of the largest fires that we were called out on was the Marlow Farm farmhouse, owned by the Washington Coal man. It stood where President Elkins home now stands (On the grounds of the University of Maryland at College Park). This was the spring of '27. In June of '27 the company was called to a fire at the Christian Brothers at Ammendale for a building fire. While enroute at 11:30 p.m the entire northern part of the sky was aglow. Chief Deeck stopped and notified the phone operator to send more help. Somehow she skipped Laurel and was given the Baltimore Fire headquarters. They immediately sent out one of their famous "Bull Dog" Mack pumpers. Forty-five minutes later they pulled alongside our "T" and the driver yelled down to our driver; "Hey what is that?" He was proudly told a fire truck. He said "Don't let any of my men steal it and put it in my toolbox."
In July the Auxiliary gave a supper and as a result they gave the company $75.00 to pay the final note on the siren.
From the time of completion of the firehouse we held a dance there every Saturday night. Engineer Exel would drive the "T" outside and with 2 violins, a banjo, and a piano ready, a pound of coffee or a cake of wax chipped on the floor, and the dance would proceed.
In February of 1929 the company was modernized by the purchase of an American LaFrance pumper of 500 gallon capacity, with 80 gallons of water and 1,200' of 2-1/2" hose, at a total cost of $6,500.00. Suburban Bank and Trust Company loaned us the money. Drills on the 2-1/2" hose took every spare evening. With the new sanitary water mains installed all over the community, streets and roads became quagmires. The heavy truck was "stuck" more than once.
In 1930, feeling the need for more space, the company obtained the remaining lot adjacent to the firehouse from the Community Club of Berwyn. They also aided us in our efforts to obtain an old portable school building that was moved by rollers from the school yard down onto our property. This building was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged and made into a meeting hall that the community would be proud of. The cost of renovating this was approximately $3,580.00 and was done by "Ma" Burnette's son Robert. In conveying this property to the company on June 30, 1930 for $1.00, the Community Club President, Dr. W. Allen Griffith, Sarah Mulligan, Treasurer and W.E. Mulligan, Secretary, signed the deed. E.B. Heimer and A.B. Gahan were witnesses and it was attested to by Chester B. Farnha, notary.
The Ford "T" was getting quite old now and was sold to the New Woodland Beach Volunteer Fire Department for $40.00 in 1930.
With Blanche Longanecker as chairwoman of the dances and her mother "Ma" in charge of the kitchen, the dances prospered. Other groups rented the hall. The company membership grew. Dues were $.25 per month for all except the secretary. Drills were a must.
In 1931, Mr. Ernest Teske, an active member, presented the company with a Chrysler roadster that he had converted into a chief's car.
In 1937, under the leadership of Chief Alvin Duvall, a new Diamond "T" brush truck with a 300 gallon tank and a 250 gallon pump was purchased for $3,800.00
Early in the spring of 1939, President Mark Kiernan and Captain Richard Hughes became the first graduates from the Fire Company at the University of Maryland Fire Extension School (Now the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute, or MFRI). There were many others to follow over the years as this training has become compulsory in this company.
With war clouds hanging over our head, Kenneth Hughes became our first young man to volunteer for the Coast Guard in June of 1940, and after Pearl Harbor we lost 18 more to service. Things changed considerably. Women were allowed to join on a temporary basis and they elected to fight fires with the Diamond "T". The first woman crew consisted of Dorothy Stauffer, driver, Mae Duvall, Blanche Longanecker, Kitty Fortner; Cathy Kirkpatrick, Alma Caudell, Helen Longanecker. They were good! OCD (Office of Civilian Defense) was installed as a wartime measure and conditions tightened. The phone company installed a switchboard with 6 positions. All calls for assistance for the Greenbelt, Berwyn Heights, College Park and Branchville areas were dispatched from our station, with our Auxiliary manning the boards in the day and our men at night.
During a severe winter in 1943 the heating furnace broke down. We came near closing down the station. Pipes had to be drained to prevent freezing. The Auxiliary had to leave and the Air Raid wardens had to help out. Strings were pulled and the OCD finally granted permission and Alvin Duvall and Richard Hughes installed a new furnace.
A permit also had to be obtained from OCD, and a high priority number from the War Department to enable us to purchase a new wartime 1944 American LaFrance, 12 cylinder, 500 gallon pumper for $5,567.53 and $1,634.00 for equipment.
On September 20, 1951 the company borrowed $13,000.00 from the Citizens Bank to purchase a 1952 Ford 500 gallon pumper for $17,500.00, payable $5,833.00 over 3 years. The county at this time was giving us the sum of $3,000.00 per year, and each election district's fire tax reverted to the companies within. This truck was sold in 1975 to St. Augustine, Florida and is still in service.
Plans were drawn up and work started on a 6 bay, 2 story, 120' by 48' structure. (Picture #1 of new firehouse being built - while part closest to camera is the original 1925 structure. Picture #2 is taken from the opposite end of the building. Picture #3 is taken at the same angle as #1 when construction was nearly complete.) Buildings were torn down and engines covered with tarpaulins when not on calls. The siren was mounted on a temporary base and meetings were held in Johnson's store. The building cost $85,000.00, with Citizen Bank loaning us $75,000.00. The second floor hall would seat over 300 people.
The new firehouse was dedicated on Saturday, October 2, 1954 with an open house, grand parade attended by Mayor Davis of the City of College Park, Maryland State Firemen's Association President John W Smith and Prince George's County Volunteer Fireman's Association President Frank Brigugho. A dance was held afterward.
In 1955 we purchased a used Diamond T from Mt.Jackson, Virginia for $2,500.00 and sold our wartime American LaFrance to Graceham Maryland. Later the Diamond T was sold to Co. 19, Bowie, Maryland.
In 1958 we purchased a used 1948 Mack pumper from Riverdale for $7,500.00 and sold it in 1960 to Coaksville, Pennsylvania.
On October 28, 1958 this company arranged with the Suburban Bank for the sum of $30,000.00 to pay Riverdale for their '48 pumper and also to purchase the Burns property adjacent to us at 8909-49th Avenue. The purpose was future expansion and parking. In 1962 the house and lot located at 8907-49th Avenue was purchased for future parking. Cost was $12,151.00. Property was also purchased at Riggs Road and Lackawanna Street in Adelphi for a future firehouse, but it never materialized. We still hold it. Two utility trucks were purchased through Government surplus, one 1957 and another 1959 Chevrolet for a total of $150.00
In 1963 it became quite evident that our second-hand equipment was wearing out, so plans were made to buy a 1963 Ford American Marsh pumper for $26,504.00. We borrowed $15,000.00 from the Citizens Bank.
In 1969 a new Peter Pirsch diesel was purchased at a cost of $43,225.00. This was paid off in two years. In all of these we still had to maintain the expenses of the property and building, insurances, furnishings, lights, phone, gas, for heat, oil and gasoline and apparatus repairs. A lot of this was done by the able directorship of the trustees in handling the money derived from the dances, bingo and the drives. A new 1968 Ford station wagon, to be used by the chief, was purchased at a price of $2,791.44. This enabled him to respond to alarms from his home at all hours.
In 1970 the county voted through a referendum to collect the election districts fire tax and administer the money back to the companies through an approved budget system. The idea behind the movement was "the county can do it cheaper". After various attempts to take over our mortgage, private property and a try to revoke our charter through court action, we have successfully withstood their onslaught. Judge McCullough ruled in Circuit Court that the volunteers "own all the property and equipment".
On September 12, 1973 a motion was made by Councilman John Garrity to create a pension for firemen over 60 years of age, with at least 25 years of fire service. This was passed by the council and signed by the Executive Winfield Kelly. Those enjoying the pension are: Wilton Hardy - 48 years; Floyd B. Heimer - 48 years; Wm. A. Duvall - 45 years; William Deeck - 29 years; Alexander Buscher - 35 years and Richard Hughes - 42 years.
So that our history contained herein would be less confusing the history of the Rescue Squad was omitted. In June of 1939 the firemen decided that now was the time to place an ambulance in the firehouse to serve the upper part of the county. A new 1939 LaSalle, 3 patient carry was ordered. In the meantime a first aid class of 16 active firemen were schooled by the Red Cross instructor William Wiseman, a most able teacher and a member of the Bladensburg unit. We received our new ambulance in September, 1939 and immediately applied for admission to the Prince George's County Rescue Squad Association.
This unit was accepted in October, 1939 and our territory was Paint Branch on the Baltimore Boulevard south, to and including all of Laurel on the north, Montgomery line on the west to Telegraph Road on the cast. We were assigned Squad Unit 6.
In those days the Bladensburg, being the largest unit in area and number of calls and using 2 ambulances, was receiving $1,000.00 under a special bill approved by the State Legislature. We sent a delegation down to Annapolis under the leadership of Alex Buscher, head of the County Firemen's Legislative Committee, to try to obtain $1,000.00 for the Branchville Unit. We went prepared, though, with records and also the placing of a second-handed Nash ambulance that the men converted. After a few weeks in session, Governor O'Connor signed into law the bill approving $1,000.00 for Branchville.
Because gasoline was hard to obtain under the allotment system, people soon began to use the ambulances as taxis. Calls tripled, and we could not purchase another vehicle until 1946, when we purchased a used Ford, 2 patient carry, for $1,000.00. In 1948, we ordered a new Cadillac for $4,300.00, but when we received it the price had climbed to $5,600.00. This was also a 2 patient carry. The 2 "wagons" served us well until 1955 when we ordered another Cadillac. The price was $8,200.00. We were running 800 calls per year. Men were checked for up-to-date first aid cards and the University of Maryland gave their first Rescue Squad course, which was attended by all of the men.
A new 1961 International Carry-All, costing $4,000.00, was purchased followed by a 1962 International ambulance costing $4,500.00; a 1966 Pontiac ambulance costing $10,000.00, later sold to Grand Rapids, Michigan; a 1968 Superior Cadillac ambulance costing $17,000.00; a 1971 Chevrolet ambulance costing $3,400,00; a 1972 Chevrolet ambulance costing $4,300.00; a 1973 Chevrolet van module costing $10,000.00; a 1974 Plymouth company car for $4,500.00; and a 1975 Ford Swab ambulance costing $24,000.00.
As has been noted a lot of money has gone into equipment and vehicles with insurance costing us $5,000.00 per year. We are ever thankful for the help given us by the community and hope that we can always keep their trust.