By Deb Patterson
PIERCETON — Pierceton Fire Department is rumored to be one of the oldest departments in the state, having been formed on Aug. 4, 1876. Gordon Baker, fire chief, stated this information has not been confirmed, but the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office believes it is one of the older departments in the state.
Baker pointed out when the first department was formed it was named First Alert Engine Company No. 1. Nothing has been found in the department’s history if there was ever a Company No. 2.
In talking about the history, Baker and Matt Brubaker, firefighter, both noted the department had one engine and for years the department was located south of the railroad tracks, where the senior center is now located and the horses were kept uptown. Also there were no fire chiefs in the early days. “The fire chiefs were called foremen,” said Baker.
Among the department’s history is a fire that destroyed much of the town in September 1895. The fire that broke out at 1 a.m. and half of the business portion of the town was destroyed. The hand engine of Pierceton and the volunteer fire department of the town were on scene soon after the fire broke out but couldn’t fight such a fire and Fort Wayne was called at 3 a.m. Fort Wayne loaded up steamer No. 6 with 1,000 feet of hose at the Pittsburg depot at 3:38 a.m. and by 4:10 a.m. the steamer along with eight individuals arrived in Pierceton.
Historical accounts, from Memories of Pierceton’s Facebook page, report Pierceton’s hand engine failed and the buildings were left to the flames. Once Fort Wayne arrived with the steamer, the crew went to work and extinguished the fire and saved adjoining buildings, returning to Fort Wayne at 8:05 a.m.
While a number of businesses were destroyed, the town corporation engine house was also destroyed, but the hand engine was saved as it was being used at the time the building caught fire. This was the largest fire Pierceton experienced until 1967 and again in 2014 when the feed mill caught fire.
“Pierceton used to be a very thriving town years ago,” Baker noted. There was a lumber company and mill among numerous other businesses. “Everybody traveled by railroad,” Brubaker noted.
It was in the mid 1960s, early 1970s the fire department moved further south to its current location. A building was built specifically for the department and then donated.
Baker remembers at one time there were all “glass doors so when you drove by you could see all the apparatus in the bay. It was really cool, nice,” he said, but it was hard on the trucks. “Inside, every truck had, at that point, the front end faded from the sun. The trucks looked great, expect the paint on the front.”
Pierceton Fire Department is a town and township department, but its own entity, according to Baker. “There is equipment owned by the town and equipment owned by the township. That seems to be common throughout the rural area. Both the town and township contracts with the fire department for service.”
Along with serving Pierceton and all of Washington Township, the department is also contracted to serve one-half of Monroe township and a large section of Whitley County as a mutual aid department.
Pierceton Fire Department is “fortunate” according to Baker, for the equipment it has. “I can’t complain about our equipment. We have a lot of good equipment. The town and township has taken pretty good care of us.”
There is some uniqueness to their equipment and a few stories to go along with it.
Both Baker and Brubaker remembered the new engine they ordered out of Ocala, Fla., by 3-H Fire Equipment in 2014. It had already taken over a year to get the engine. “We were ready to accept delivery and the driver pulled into Walmart and hit a tree. It had to go back to the shop to be repainted.” This just delayed the delivery a little longer.
One of the snorkels the department had in 1967 was bought from the city of Salem, Ill. Baker remembers looking at the apparatus and deciding it would serve the department well. “We had it for a lot of years,” Baker noted. But prior to deciding to replace it, a member of the Palentine Fire Department out of Illinois, who originally owned the truck, tracked it down to Pierceton. He stopped by the department and it was learned that truck was used in a fire in Palentine, where several firefighters died Feb. 23, 1973.
A memorial was being planned and Pierceton was asked if arrangements could be made to take the truck to the ceremony. “They came over, picked it up on a flatbed and took it over and brought it back when they were done with it. So when we bought the ladder truck we currently have, we decided the rightful place would be back home with the original department. We let him have it, basically for expenses to get it there. They had it repainted.”
Baker further explained Palentine purchased the truck originally in 1969 and sold it in 1981 to Salem, Ill., who used the truck until 2001. It remained in service in Pierceton until 2016. The truck is now a memorial dedicated to the fallen three, but the names of the three fire departments who owned the truck are listed on the boom.
Two of the trucks used by the department — rescue truck and grass truck — were built in Pierceton by members of the department. “We bought the trucks and all other work was done by the department” Baker stated. “We take care of a lot of things. If we had to farm it out, it would cost taxpayers a considerable amount of money.”
The current ladder truck, which is one of four in the county, was originally used in the Bronx in 1975. It was retrofitted in 1995 and then used by Dillsburg, Pa. Pierceton purchased the truck around 2016. “The hardest thing about it was getting the pickle decals off the door. It’s been quite the truck ever since,” said Baker. The town paid $50,000. A new one would now be well over $1 million. “It passes certification every year with flying colors,” said Baker.
The department is also a large part of the community. Each year the department hosts a fish fry. “For a lack of a better term, it’s a social event as opposed to a fundraiser,” said Baker. “It’s cool it brings the town people together.” During the pandemic the department still held the fish fry. A drive thru and delivery service was offered.
Many years ago the local festival in Pierceton was put on by the fire department. Then it was called the Pierceton Fireman’s Fair and the department even had a concession booth. In 2018 the department partnered with the Pierceton Chamber of Commerce and it became Pierceton Days. “We still have an active role in the process,” Brubaker stated. Baker added the chamber and fire department are the two main groups sponsoring the event along with a lot of volunteers.
The department has 20 members on its roster and has remained an all volunteer department during its 145-year history. Every firefighter is certified as a first responder. There is also a firefighter/EMT and several going through firefighter 1 and 2 classes. “We’re pretty strict what our requirements are. In order to bring somebody on as a firefighter, it’s a year before they can do anything,” Baker said. This is due to the fact training takes approximately one year to receive certification.
It’s estimated Pierceton responds to 450 calls a year, a majority of those calls at US 30 and SR 13 and other locations on US 30. “That’s a lot for a volunteer department,” Brubaker said.
“Back in the day, when Pierceton was thriving there were a lot of businesses in town. Businesses at that time let firemen leave for fire runs. Now everybody in the family has to work. There’s still quite a bit of industry, not what it used to be, can’t always be where you can leave for fire runs,” Baker said.
Baker added, “it used to be many years ago if you needed help you could pull someone off the street. They were covered. It’s not that way any more. Being a fully volunteer fire department is challenging when you’re running this many runs a year … Recruiting people is hard. They don’t have the time they once had. It takes time to volunteer. We’re fortunate with the people we do have.”
Both Baker and Brubaker have been on the department for more than 30 years. Baker joined in 1987, fresh out of high school. “The fire service has been very good to me.” He credits Jack Phillips, who was a firefighter, with getting him involved. He worked with Phillips and one day he went with him to a grass fire. “I thought that was cool. The next day I applied and here I am.”
For Brubaker it is a family tradition. His father was on the department for numerous years and then he joined. His younger brother has also joined the department. “At one time there were four generations of Brubakers on the department.” There have been several other families who have had two or three generations serve on the department.
“We have have a lot of dedicated ones here. The ones we have I’m pretty proud of them. A lot of good people make up the department. I’m proud of the people we have,” said Baker. Additionally he is proud of the community. “It’s a very giving community,” added Brubaker.