By Deb Patterson
MILFORD — Milford Fire Department is unique in many ways. It only has had three fire stations, has at least nine firefighters from the same family and has had a fire chief from the same family for 24 years. The “coolest” part is the fire siren has been going off at noon six days a week since Oct. 7, 1926.
It was in 1884 the town board appointed a fire warden to inspect the construction of chimneys and flues. A year later, a town ordinance directed the property owners to keep the ladder and bucket apparatus and to maintain it.
The first fire station was located on Emeline Street, just east of the railroad tracks. A tower was erected at some point to house a fire bell. The location of that station saved it from being destroyed in 1902 when the east side of Main Street burned. Half a block was destroyed.
Records were traced back as far as 1912 when George Ogden was appointed fire chief. He served until 1918. Any previous records could not be found. Norman Groves was listed as fire chief from 1918-1927.
Since then the fire chiefs have included: Ortie Leemon, 1928-1937; Bill Martin 1938-1953; Harold Kaiser, 1954-1975; Bill Leemon, 1976-1981; Max Duncan, 1982-1987; and Jim Amsden, 1988-1992. From 1993 through 2020, with the exception of 1997-1998 when Ned Hunsberger was chief, brothers Todd, Troy and Brian Haines served as chief.
Todd Haines served from 1993-1996, 1999-2002, 2005-2006, 2012-2016 and 2018-2020.
Troy Haines served as chief from 2003-2004, 2007-2009.
Brian Haines served from 2010-2011 and in 2017.
Virgil Sharp is the current chief.
Max Duncan, one of the department’s longest members and a second-generation firefighter, remembers when his father first started on the fire department. They pulled the hose cart around. He recalls hearing when the east side of Main Street burned, there was a water main made of wood. When activated the wood would swell and it didn’t leak. “There was a bunch of water mains up and down Main Street in different areas,” Duncan recalls.
The second fire station was moved to North Main Street, where the co-op mill was located. The brick building also served as a jail. The department had two stalls in the building to house the two trucks.
According to history, the tanker would “scrape the sides every time it was moved.” A portion of that building remains and one of the jail cells is said to still be there.
The bell was moved to this station and Duncan recalls a rope hanging down and the first guy in was to ring the bell. He also recalls the firemen had to be in town or in a town business to be on the department. Their coats and helmets were kept on the side of the truck and the truck would go through town picking up the firemen and head to the fire.
That bell, which has been refurbished, is now mounted outside the fire station.
The current station, on the northeast corner of Main and First streets, was started in 1958 when the town purchased the property. Construction began in 1959 with more than 40 Milford residents volunteering their time to build the station, donating almost $20,000 in labor and materials. The structure was completed in the fall of 1960.
The first gas powered vehicle for the department was a 1927 Dodge. “I remember it had just a windshield, no cab on it. Whoever sat on the passenger side had to run the wipers,” said Duncan. He noted Bill Leemon had found that truck once and it still had Milford Fire Department on it.
Numerous other trucks and tankers were purchased through the years to serve the town and trucks to serve the township.
Along with the new fire station in 1960 was a new truck. A 1960 C-850 Ford tilt cab pumper, purchased by the town, was delivered. The pumper was used until December 1981 when it was replaced with a 1982 Ford.
Three years later the township purchased a 1960 International truck to replace the tanker. The firemen paid for the tank, pump, generator and equipment, costing about $9,000 each. Other equipment followed including a four-wheel drive pickup truck.
Currently the department has six trucks – a tanker, two pumpers, one owned by the town the other by the township, a rescue truck, grass truck and an equipment van. They also have a set of jaws and air bags. The department is funded by the town of Milford and Van Buren Township.
However, Milford cannot just purchase any fire truck. The height of the trucks has to be considered as there are only 11-foot high doors on the truck bays. Recently the doors on one bay were enlarged several feet to accommodate a new truck.
While the notorious fire siren is located at the fire station, it wasn’t always there. Originally it was in the alley behind the town hall and behind Carl Duncan’s electric shop. “He’s the one who wired it.” A new siren was installed in 1973 and still works today, alerting residents to severe storms, fire calls and, of course, when it’s noon.
Another tradition at the department is its annual chicken barbecue, which is always a sell out. The first one was held in 1953 at the old high school. Duncan noted 2020 was the first year, as far as he knows, there was no chicken barbecue.
A new tradition was started in 2007 when MilfordFest was revitalized. The firemen began offering ribeye steak sandwiches. Just like the chicken barbecues, if you didn’t get there early, you were out of luck.
The two fundraisers are evident how the community provides overwhelming support to the department. Due to the support the department has been able to purchase equipment and an electronic message sign. “ It’s because you guys go out and do everything for them, even the things you don’t have to do,” said Duncan, jokingly adding “It’s you guys’ fault we have such a good reputation.”
Milford has always been blessed with good stuff, the fireman noted. “We’ve always been treated with what we need. Not what everybody else had. We have always taken pride in what we have. We do rely a lot on other departments for what we don’t have,” said Duncan.
Sam Baumgartner agreed. “So many things we have we took for granted. Whenever we had a problem, needed something, the town and township – community as a whole supports us. It’s not like we’re banging on doors asking for handouts every other week. When we do ask for help, there is a genuine need.”
That was the case when the department purchased its first jaws unit. Duncan recalls there was only enough funds to buy the basic equipment. Through fundraisers and community support, the department could purchase additional equipment for the unit. “When the people in town knew what those fundraisers were going for, they donated extra money.”
There are other interesting aspects of the department. The first president of the county fire association, formed in 1946, was Bill Martin. Martin had served as fire chief from 1938-1954. There have also been a number of firemen receiving the association’s Fireman of the Year Award.
“This has been one of those fire departments and the group of guys we have here, who do the work (to make the department what it is),” said Duncan. He said it doesn’t matter if they fight one fire, go home and get called out again, they go. “They have gone out, cut trees off roads, off the railroad, everything like that.”
“What separates us from the other departments is we’ve got good new equipment where we still can fight fires the old school way,” stated Scott Mast, firefighter. “We go in and get after it. We’re still getting it done.”
Former firefighters are not forgotten by the department. To date, they have located the graves of more than 50 deceased firemen from the department. Fire placards, similar to those placed on gravesites by the American Legion, can be found at cemeteries in Milford, Warsaw, Leesburg, Goshen, New Paris, Syracuse and Benton.