By Deb Patterson
CLAYPOOL — The first apparatus ever used for fighting fires in Claypool is still housed in the station. The 1894 hand pumper was pulled through a lot of small town parades with firemen responding to an outhouse fire in the parade lineup.
Jason Neher, firefighter, remembers being one of the clowns that were a part of the parade fun. There would be guys on the hand pumper pulling it through the parade. Somewhere else in the parade would be several clowns mingling with the crowd, and one guy pulling an outhouse. One of the clowns would go and use the outhouse, setting off smoke bombs and firecrackers. The crew pulling the pumper would rush to the burning building, start pumping and spray water on the fire. Of course anyone in the vicinity would get a little wet as there were gaps in the walls.
This relic from the original days received trophies and traveled to the Mermaid Festival in North Webster, Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, Bremen’s Fireman’s Parade, and the Three Rivers Festival in Fort Wayne. Neher remembers his father, who was also a fireman, taking it down to Anderson, which was a big event. “It seemed like every weekend they were going to a parade,” Neher recalled. “There was a camaraderie of the guys loading up, going somewhere just having a great time.”
Neher, whose father served on the department for 34 years, is in his 24th year with the department and is also a full time firefighter for Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory.
Today, it just sits in a corner of the fire station.
Claypool Fire Department was organized in May 1894, according to early records, and was established for the protection of property against fire. Only taxpaying residents within the town of Claypool could become a member and the department was referred to as a “company.” They were fined 15 cents for being absent from any meeting without good cause. The company was not to have over 16 firemen.
Uno S. Sheets was the first chief and E.W. Kinsey the assistant chief. The department also consisted of a foreman, engineer, two nozzlemen, one spanner, one axeman and two side captains. The original constitution and bylaws of the department spelled out the duties, membership, reason for expulsion of members, and time of meetings.
While records of the department were kept for a number of years, all records ended in 1912.
It wasn’t until May 2, 1938, the town board called a meeting to organize a volunteer fire department. W. J. Neff was the first chief of the newly formed volunteer department. Walter Bouse was captain, W. Byron Neff, secretary and C. I. Tully, treasurer. This department was for fire protection but also to be on the alert with the civil defense on tornado warnings or other emergencies. Meetings were held twice a month for equipment maintenance and training. The equipment included a town pumper, emergency unit, township pumper and tanker and housed at the fire station on North Main Street.
Dennis Rowland, who retired from the department in 2013, recalls firefighters’ phones were hooked up to the phone building down the street. “They would put a jumper wire from the fire phone to our home phone. When a call came in, it also would ring into our house – pulsating, so we knew it was the fire phone.”
Rowland remembers the station on North Main Street, across from where the fire department building currently stands. Rowland joined the department in 1973 and remembers the township building the new station. “I remember the night that we moved the equipment over here. The equipment was a 1954 pumper then we had another truck. Our good truck at that time was a 1969 pumper. That’s what we had.”
The 1954 Ford pumper and 1969 pumper were used through to the mid-1990s. “When we were able to get a new truck, pumper, that was a big deal,” said Rowland. “That was really something. It was a mid mount pump, you didn’t have to stand on one end … you could see that was really nice.”
The department has added a grass truck, which was built by the local firefighters. So were two of the tankers the department used to use. Rowland remembers the first “round tanker” with Gary Shewmaker doing a lot of the work.
The department currently has two engines, a tanker and a grass truck. One of the engines carries rescue/extrication tools.
Claypool Fire Department was one of the first departments to have extrication tools, “at least in the southern part for a long time,” said Neher. Until then the department relied on Warsaw to bring their extrication tools. Their first hydraulic set was purchased in the late 1990s. “It was a big deal for us … We just purchased a new battery-powered unit … same specifications as the hydraulic. It’s a big purchase for us, knowing our budget is not ginormous.”
Because of the small budget, Claypool Fire Department watches its expenditures. “We don’t really buy what we want. We always buy what we need. A lot of times there are several things we need. We just have to pick out of those.” One of those necessity items is fire gear for firefighters. The cost is $3,000 a set. “You have to have those,” Neher said. “With departments like us, you don’t have the tax base.”
“We make do. We always have. We may be behind the curve on some stuff. Not everybody runs battery-powered tools … I remember my first few years there were six or seven guys on the roster … no one wanted to join at the time … we could get things done with a few guys.”
They hold a pancake breakfast for the community on the first Saturday in May and October. “We do pretty well,” said Neher. They also help with the Lions Club fish fries, which “raises a little bit of money for us.”
Today the fire department is a township department, with the town having a contract for financial support with the township for fire service.
Rowland noted there was an allocation for 20 firefighters and the township paid a stipend at the end of the year. “Very seldom, when I was on, did we have a full contingent.” Today there are 13 on the roster. “Back in the day most of the guys around here were farmers or when the town was booming, they worked in town,” said Rowland. “Nowadays we may only get a couple guys during the day. Businesses don’t let you leave or they just live to far away.”
Besides financial limitations, the department also has to contend with two railroads running through town. “Every now and then you have to sit and wait for a train. Even in the middle of the night,” said Rowland.
The department had a huge learning curve when Louis Dryfus built a plant in Claypool’s territory. “It was a huge learning curve. We go from house, barn fires to a gigantic industry in our response area,” said Neher. “Our biggest thing now is not knowing what we’re getting ourselves into out there.”