Book examines the history of West Grove fire stations
By Steven Hoffman
R. Scott Steele spent more than a decade carefully researching and writing “West Grove Fire Company: A Century of Protection.”
Steele said that he was asked to write the history of fire stations 22, 12, and 32 for the fire company’s centennial in 2004. The resulting 300-page book traces the fire company’s history from the earliest efforts to organize fire protection for the town to the 2013 dedication of Station 32 in London Britain Township.
Steele was particularly interested in how the West Grove Fire Company came to be, in part because it took several attempts to accomplish the goal, and in part because many of the people who were responsible for starting the fire company also played pivotal roles in West Grove’s development.
“The group who helped start the fire company is a who's who of West Grove pioneers,” Steele explained.
In late 1887, a fire struck in Avondale, prompting residents in neighboring West Grove to consider establishing a fire department to serve the community. A group of West Grove's most prominent citizens gathered in November of that year to discuss the matter, and there was enough support to schedule a second meeting. Within a month, twenty-five residents came together and signed a petition to support the charter for a fire company. A five-member board of trustees was formed. And then, for reasons that have been lost to history, the effort never came to fruition.
Three years later, when a blaze broke out at 11 o'clock at night at the Jefferis & Wright General Store at the northeast corner of Exchange Place and Evergreen Street, residents banded together to form a bucket brigade to put out the fire before it destroyed the building. The sight of a fire in the center of town once again prompted a call to start a fire company. But It would be another decade and a half before West Grove would have a fire company of its own.
In 1904, town leaders gathered on the second floor of the bank building on Exchange Place to talk about establishing a fire company. That meeting took place in August. On Sept. 2, 1904, the fire company was officially established, with Robert Pyle serving as the first president of the fire company. Organizers set out to acquire apparatus and a home for the fire company.
In March of 1905, a four-wheel, horse-drawn chemical engine truck rolled into town. Then, in 1906, a new building was built at the corner of Prospect and Walnut.
Steele details how the fire company went about the routine activities of the day, raising money to help offset costs, acquiring apparatus, and responding to emergency calls. As each year passed, there were more and more fire calls.
“I read all the meeting minutes from 1904 to 1913,” Steele explained.
In some instances, the meeting minutes simply listed the date and time of an emergency response, but that would be all that Steele would need to look up more information from other sources.
“Sometimes, in researching, it's about connecting the dots until you find the end of the trail,” he explained.
1928 would turn out to be a fateful year in the West Grove Fire Company's history.
On May 21, 1928, West Grove firefighters joined eight other companies when a fire swept through a feldspar grinding mill and adjacent lumber and coal yard in the village of Toughkenamon. A West Grove firefighter, Raymond Walker, was killed by being crushed under a falling chimney of the lumberyard building. Two firefighters from neighboring company's were also injured.
1928 was also the year of the largest fire in West Grove history. In the meeting minutes from Nov. 5, 1928, there was a simple report of the firefighters responding to a blaze at the West Grove Millwork company that took place on Oct. 11, 12, and 13. The millwork company produced kitchen cabinetry, custom millwork, stair moldings, garden archways, and porch benches. Approximately 150 people were employed at the company at the time.
On the evening of Oct. 11, the three-story, 18,000-square-foot building went up in flames. It would later be determined that the fire started in the paint shop on the third floor. Piles of semi-finished woodwork in the building provided fuel to the fire.
Twenty-six fire companies were called in to help fight the out-of-control fire, as homes on Jackson, Murray, and Walnut were evacuated. Most of the millwork property, including the building, equipment, and inventory, was lost during the fire. Only a shift in wind direction helped spare some of the neighboring homes. The fire company kept watch over the smoldering ruins through Oct. 13.
Steele, a local history enthusiast who grew up in West Grove, was surprised to learn of the extent of the fire.
While 1928 was a difficult year for the local fire company, most of the time the organization was involved in events and activities that improved the West Grove community. The fire company had a band for entertainment. The fire company worked hard to finance the operations of the Roselyn Theatre.
Steele said that he was surprised at the amount of success that the fire company had at holding fundraisers to pay for its operations.
“They had really large carnivals from 1909 to 1925,” he explained. “They were making $3,000 with the fundraiser, and at that time that was half the cost of a new truck.”
Steele also wrote about the various apparatus that the fire company acquired through the years.
“I love the stories about buying the equipment,” he explained.
While Steele focused on the historical developments, he was assisted by Lawrence and Amy Coppock, who compiled the list of apparatus and company officers.
The book includes about sixty photographs from the fire company's collection, which is quite large.
Steele said that he was honored to be asked to write the history of the fire company, and the one thing that he will always remember about the project is learning about the enormous dedication of the men and women who have volunteered to protect the community. He closes the book with a tribute to those who served the West Grove community.
The book is available for purchase at the West Grove Fire Company website (wgfc.org) or by emailing Steele at email@example.com.