By Deb Patterson
WINONA LAKE — The Great Fire of Winona Lake April 11, 1914, is a story that will forever be remembered and was the official start of the Winona Lake Volunteer Fire Department.
When the town was incorporated June 2, 1913, the town’s fire protection was provided by citizens using a hand pulled single hose cart that only contained a firefighting hose and nozzle, but no pump. The town relied on the assistance from all the town’s people when there was a fire.
At 11 a.m. April 11, 1914, several men were burning leaves on park grounds east of the Winona Hotel. A sudden gust of wind blew the leaves against the base of the hill and carried flames and sparks up the hill to cottages lining Chestnut Street. Within minutes several cottages east of the hotel were on fire.
The hose cart was pulled by Philip Laurien and Victor Hatfield from where it was stored in a barn, located at the corner of 10th and College streets. But it was useless against the fire. There was no water pressure in the system supplying the hose and the lack of a pump to boost the pressure.
The winds increased and flames intensified. Efforts were placed on saving the Winona Hotel. M.F. Howe, the Winona railroad towerman on duty who watched his home burn to the ground, wired Fort Wayne for help. A special train supplied by Pennsylvania Railroad Company brought a complete fire company of Fort Wayne firefighters with pumping equipment 40 minutes later. Utilizing their pumper to draft water from Winona Lake, the Winona Hotel was saved. Dynamite was brought in and several cottages with the consent of owners, were blown up to stop the advance of the fire to the east. Several hours later the fire was contained.
Twenty-three homes and cottages were destroyed. Four city blocks had been reduced to smoldering ash. The damage was estimated at more than $100,000. Today that would be more than $2.4 million.
Mike Cox, department public information officer and former fire chief, noted the town depended on able body men to come. “The only water you were going to get was plugging into somebody’s water.”
Shortly after that the town organized the volunteer fire department, it purchased a fire truck and built its first fire station south of the Winona Hotel on Park Avenue. It had three bays and an office. The police department moved into the office and took up one of the bays, leaving two bays for the fire department.
At that time the department had two engines and an old Army jeep as a rescue truck. A tanker was needed as there were areas in town where there were no fire hydrants. While Warsaw Fire had a 5,000 gallon semi-type tanker, it couldn’t get to some areas of Winona Lake and there wasn’t always someone who could drive it.
“We didn’t have a place to put a tanker,” Cox stated. “So we started pushing for a new station.” This was around 1985. “We designed plans and started getting funding. Then once we got the OK to do it, the Free Methodist World Headquarters donated this land (at the corner of Kings Highway and Rupe Drive) on a 99 year lease. We had to pay $1 for it.”
The second fire station and current station was built principally by volunteers. “We had a company come in and put up the steel, then we did the concrete work, plumbing, electric, framing.” Blaine Warren, fire chief at Claypool came in and did the dry wall as that was his profession. “Everything else we built.”
The station has a block wall separating the kitchen/meeting room/office area from the truck bays, which was a requirement. Recently the volunteers updated some of the flooring and repainted walls.
Today the department has 32 members. In addition to providing firefighting services, they also provide services such as medical first responders, Haz-Mat operations and vehicle extrication.
The department has two engines, a 2011 that is first out on all Winona Lake Calls, and a second engine, a 1995 that responds to mutual aid calls throughout the county. They also have a tanker, and a ladder truck.
The final two pieces of apparatus include a 2002 Ford F550 4×4 used in fighting grass fires and small fires. It is also used as a medical first responder vehicle carrying a wide assortment of EMS supplies, auto extrication tools, class B foam and other tools for many jobs. The 2003 John Deere Gator is used on the Greenway and bike trails and is equipped with an assortment of medical supplies, ropes and a winch.
There is one piece of equipment Winona Lake has no other department has. A water curtain. One of the firefighters created the water curtain made out of angle iron with a hose coupling welded to it. A hose is hooked up and it sprays into the angle iron putting out a curtain of water. This has come in handy as many homes in Winona Lake are around 5 feet apart.
The department is funded by the town of Winona Lake. “We used to get money from the township … since they went to the fire territory .. we’re an automatic call but its not our primary area. We still do the same coverage, but we don’t get any money from the township.”
The department has some challenges. The streets in Winona Lake are narrow. “We have to watch the equipment we buy. Now we’re gathering information so that possibly we can buy a new engine to replace the one that is 26 years old. We have a length stipulation. It (the truck) can’t be any more than 30 feet, 4 inches. Companies are saying they can’t build those.”
The department has had to purchase commercial chassis, then go to a truck builder and build the whole thing from the bottom up. Street widths are another issue. “The streets in Winona, such as 14th Street which is a one way street with parking on one side, is between 8 feet 3 inches and 9 feet all the way down. So if we have a custom cab, what we want, we have to be careful.
“You have to plan how you get your apparatus to a scene. Sometimes you can go this way, but can’t make this turn. So you go this way with a more gradual turn. You have to go another two to three blocks to make the turn.”
The department has a number of long time firemen on the department. Cox and Roger Gelbaugh are the senior firefighters on the department. Cox started in 1966 and Gelbaugh in 1968. Another is Bob Wulliman who started in the early ‘60s. They’ve also had a number of family members serving on the department and a plaque honoring those families is hung in the meeting room area of the station.
The department suffered a devastating loss May 5, 2019, when Fire Chief Mitch Titus died as a result of a workplace accident.
The Winona Lake community supports its department. “Winona is a unique town,” Cox said. “There are a lot of people here for the college. They are here four to six years and then they’re gone. They don’t develop a real relationship to the town, but we’ve always had over all good support from the town.”
This support helps the department when it raises funds for various purposes, such as muscular dystrophy, the Grace College women’s soccer team, or for one of their own firefighters who he and his wife were having health problems.