By Helen Weaver
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014 Gazette
When Winnetka was first incorporated as a village in 1869, fire was a fearsome threat. Early Winnetkans fought fires by joining with their neighbors in bucket brigades, dousing fires with barrels of lake water carried by horse and wagon, or buckets of water drawn from nearby wells and cisterns. The North Western Railway Company sent workers from Chicago armed with shovels and pickaxes to help prevent the most dangerous wild fires from reaching village homes. Train conductors would keep an eye out for fires, sounding the whistle and alerting the residents if a fire was spotted.
By the time Winnetka opened its new municipal water works in 1893, the Village had established two fire companies: The Lakeside Hose Company, headquartered in a small wooden station between Scott and Asbury west of today’s Green Bay Road, and the Winnetka Fire Department, headquartered at Academy Hall –a former school house located at the corner of Ash and Ridge that also served as the library and the Village Hall.
As part of the new water system, the Village installed approximately two hundred Crane Company hydrants, fifty of which were still in operation as late as the mid-1970s. According to an 1893 Chicago Daily Tribune article describing the water works, the 50,000gallon tank fed water through 12 miles of pipe throughout the Village with “enough pressure to throw a stream 150 feet high.“ The men pulled the department’s only equipment, a hose cart, themselves if the fire was within four blocks of a station. If the fire was farther, the firemen “borrowed” the nearest available horse to do the job. A volunteer Fire Marshal oversaw both companies, each made up of twelve volunteers and headed by a Captain.
In a 1905 Messenger article, Village President Arthur B. Jones described the membership of the companies as “in the main composed of men whose occupations do not take them out of the village, so that they are available at all times.” The original Fire Marshal, Charles Schroeder, was a local butcher. Other members included John Busscher, a blacksmith, Jacob Smith, a painter, and J.H. Luensman, a shoe repairman. While considered volunteers, the men did receive some compensation for their efforts – a 1902 Village Ordinance (#887) allowed for the Fire Marshal to be paid $50 per year and the members $2.00 for every duty served.
Winnetka’s early alarm signal was unique to the Village. To call the volunteers to duty, a police officer would use a heavy iron pipe to bang a giant steel locomotive wheel hung on the grounds next to Academy Hall. (Lakeside Station also had its own railroad wheel alarm.) By 1905 the Village council members had determined that a more modern telephone-based system would be more efficient. But when arrangements were made with the Chicago Telephone Company to notify each volunteer firefighter (and a nearby horse owner) in case of fire, the Villagers complained – the citizens felt they had a right to know when a fire was happening too. The old wheel still clanged until 1919 when the Village instituted a number of changes to create a more professional fire department.
In 1909 the Village Council authorized $500 for the purchase of a dedicated fire department horse, shed and equipment. Known affectionately as “Daisy,” the horse was retired in 1914 when the Village bought its first fire truck, a converted Packard. The truck, driven by the police department “desk man” not only provided horseless transportation, but extension ladders and a 40-gallon chemical tank. Unfortunately, it was not designed for high speeds, so it spent more time in the repair shop than it did attending fires. The back up vehicle was a volunteer operated Ford hose truck kept at the Lakeside station.
Over the next several decades Winnetka continued to modernize and professionalize its fire department. During 1919, the Village hired its first professional Fire Chief — G.M. Houren; replaced the unreliable Packard truck with a new “pumper” truck for $13,583 (about $190,000 in today’s dollars;) closed the Lakeside station; and hired two full-time firemen. In 1925, after the construction of the new Village Hall, architect S.S. Beman remodeled the old Academy Hall as a modern fire station. In 1964, that building was torn down and the Village built the current combined public safety station (remodeled in the mid-1990s.)
By 1948 full time salaried firemen (14) outnumbered the volunteer, or paid-on-call men (12), and by 1993 the entire staff was paid. Many of the “vols” as they were known, put in multiple decades of service including Jacob Smith, a public works department employee, and Arthur Schultz, a water and electric plant foreman. According to a Chicago Tribune article written in 1964, the staff of Runnfeldt & Belmont Service Station on Oak Street made up much of the volunteer team during World War II, as “the depletion of manpower allowed the Village only three regular men per shift.”
Fire Prevention became a major emphasis during the 1930s and 1940s, ambulance service was added in 1952, and more sophisticated equipment was continually added to the fleet. In the 1970s the fire department formed its first SCUBA team, paying for the training of eight divers who provided their own gear and equipment. During the same period Winnetka trained its first paramedic officers, initiating full paramedic service in 1976.
The Winnetka Fire Department has served more than just Winnetka residents. The department also covered the village of Northfield from 1929-1939 and the “no man’s land” area of Wilmette from 1931 to 1942. They began service to the village of Kenilworth in the mid-1930s and continue to provide full services to Kenilworth residents today. The department has come a long way since the early days of a hand pulled cart and hose, now considering themselves an “All-Hazard” Department: prepared to respond to any and all emergencies, large and small.