By Deb Patterson
NAPPANEE — What does a fire department from Elkhart County have to do with Kosciusko County? The answer is simple. Most of the territory protected by Nappanee Fire Department is in Kosciusko County.
The department serves the two northwestern townships in Kosciusko County – Scott and the west portion of Jefferson. Because of this, and the fact Elkhart County no longer has a fire association, the department is part of the Kosciusko County Fire Association brotherhood.
But the real story about Nappanee Fire Department is how it became known as Nappanee Smokey Stovers Fire Department.
The fire department was started in 1892. One of the first fire stations, if not the first, was located on East Lincoln Street. A new station was built in 1971 and it was then the fire department adopted the Smokey Stover logo.
Bill Holman, originator of the Smokey Stover comic that was syndicated and published in Sunday morning papers around the country, was born and raised in Nappanee and lived part of his life in Nappanee. Nappanee Fire Chief Don Lehman stated Holman “always wanted to be a fireman. He couldn’t, but always wanted to be a fireman so his cartoon was all about funny antics of Smokey Stover and the fire chief. So all the comic strips were about those characters and about fires.”
Holman was getting ready to retire in the early 1960s. It is unsure if he was contacted by a friend who lived in Nappanee, knew the mayor Willard Price, or a member of the town council. But a letter was received from Holman on the letterhead of the National Cartoonists Society out of New York. It was addressed to the mayor and dated June 15, 1962. “Dear Willard:- You may use my stuff in any way you see fit for the Nappanee FD – You can bet I am highly flattered. Our best to everybody – Fire-ever Bill.”
Since that time the department has been known as the Nappanee Smokey Stovers with Smokey Stover in his Foo car (the fire engine used in the comic strip) on the fire trucks. But it goes beyond using Smokey Stover on the trucks. The logo, sometimes with the cloud and sometimes without, has been used on clothing, coffee cups, mugs, dress uniforms, hats, trinkets, stickers, patches and numerous other items. For the department’s 100th anniversary a Maltese cross with Smokey Stover in the middle of it was made.
“We’ve changed it a little bit over the years. To put the cloud behind it, in stitching and everything, it gets expensive. So we took the cloud off. If we do something special we put the cloud back on it,” Lehman said.
But it didn’t end with the cartoon. Mayor Larry Thompson heard about an auction in Warsaw and told Lehman he was going with him. “There’s an item here you’re going to have to buy.” A Foo car – a one-wheeled vehicle or cart – was in the auction. “We ended up paying a little bit more for that than what we wanted to, but we ended up getting that and we restored it. That’s sitting over at the museum.”
The Foo car was invented by a man from Francesville who put together kits. “There was a limited amount of kits. We know one was burned up in a fire. We don’t know how many of these kits are available or still around. But we feel like this Smokey Stover Foo car is pretty rare.”
Unlike other departments in Kosciusko County, the Smokey Stovers is governed by the mayor and board of works, like regular city departments. “I have to report to the board of works and to the city council every month. We operate off a city budget,” Lehman said. “The city’s pretty generous to us. We have a good relationship with the city. They give us excellent equipment to work with.” Because of this the fundraising events hosted by the fire department – a fish fry and chicken barbecue – are used to purchase shirts for the firefighters and other equipment for things they don’t feel is appropriate for the taxpayers to pay for out of the budget.
There are two fire stations for the department, one downtown and the other called a south station. The south station is located on the south side of the CSX railroad tracks at a location where a street department building was located. The tornado at 10:18 p.m. Oct. 18, 2007, destroyed the building. When it was being rebuilt “people were really concerned because the fire station was on the north side of the tracks,” and CSX was putting in double tracks. So when the building was rebuilt, a 25-by-100 foot section was walled off and one truck is housed there. “In case something would happen and firemen not be able to get to the other side of the tracks. The firefighters that live on that side would have access to a truck.”
“Recently we hired somebody to come in and did an evaluation of the department and equipment … They are helping us try to establish a good location for a new fire station,” Lehman said. This is because the department is in the process of merging the paramedic service with the fire department. “Hopefully in the near future we’ll be able to put some full-time firemen on during the day.”
At this time Lehman is the closest to being full time, as he works in the city building, otherwise, with the exception of one other individual, all members of the department are volunteer. Their roster includes 24 men, with 20 of those receiving a stipend for gas and clothing based on the number of daytime calls they respond to. The part-time person works 16 hours a week to maintain the trucks, keep the equipment clean, makes sure everything is in the trucks when it comes back from a fire and maintains all the department’s self-contained breathing apparatus.
“We would have a bigger pool to pull from than other departments that don’t have the manufacturing or businesses in town (like here),” Lehman said. Many of the firefighters in Nappanee work at local auto repair shops, work in offices, some in manufacturing or city employees … allow them to get away. “Some guys are on full-time departments and respond on their days off.”
The department takes care of a portion of Union and Locke townships in Elkhart County as well as Scott Township and the west portion of Jefferson Township in Kosciusko County. “It’s about 59 square miles,” Lehman said, estimating 12,000 people reside in that area. Besides residences, the area includes industry, farms and a lot of Amish shops. “Locke has a pretty big cabinet factory. There aren’t too many Amish places out there where they’re not doing something in their barn.”
Among the equipment is a ladder truck and three sets of jaws — an electric set, gas powered, and battery operated. Its oldest piece of equipment, a 1989 2,500 gallon pumper/tanker, is housed at the south station.