Monday, November 28, 2005

St. Vincent Firehall


Another historical essay by a Humboldt-St. Vincent student, written in the 1960's, tells of a significant fixture in the village of St. Vincent - the St. Vincent firehall. The firehall was still there when I was growing up, but was eventually torn down after the last flood before the dike went up, sometime after 1966.

The firehall tower bell was donated to an area museum, but I'm unsure if it was the Pembina Museum or the Kittson County Museum...
St. Vincent Firehall
by Richard Clow

As you drive through St. Vincent, Minnesota there is a building that catches your eye. It is an old firehall of the past. It is one of the few remaining old buildings of a once large town.

The St. Vincent Firehall was built in 1903 by Edward Cameron, a carpenter, and his sons. It was built on a corner lot on Main Street, four blocks east of the Red River bridge. Originally the forty-two by twenty foot firehall faced Main Street and was painted red. When the building faced north, there was a big wooden bridge across the ditch. In the winter a snow bank blocked the doorway so the building was moved to face the east side street as it does now. It has a single and a double door in the front. Two windows are on each side. A large square steeple was built around the southeast corner, with heavy beams across the middle of it to hang up the wet fire hoses, to dry after a fire.

In the top of the steeple is the belfry with the fire bell inside. The chimney was built on the west side for the stove which was used to heat the building. A fire was kept burning constantly in it during cold weather to prevent the water from freezing in a ten thousand gallon cistern that was underneath the firehall. This cistern held enough water to take care of most of the local fires. It was filled from the river by the engine on the firewagon. Whenever there was a big fire near enough to the river for the hoses to reach, the firemen pulled the firewagon to the river by hand and pumped the water from there to the fire. The business district of St. Vincent was located mainly between the firehall and the river so most of the water for the fires was supplied from either the cistern under the firehall or the river. But to take care of the dwelling places firewells were dug at several locations throughout the town. This kept the insurance rate down on these buildings because of easier access to water.

The first firewagon was a wagon with four big wheels that was pulled by a team of horses. The driver sat up front behind a kind of buckboard. The wagon had a firebell on it that was rung by a foot pedal. The fire chief would ring it while driving his team of horses to the fire. A large centrifical gasoline motor was mounted on the back of the wagon to pump the water. The pressure was great enough to send the water eighty feet in the air. A separate cart was used to haul the two thousand feet of hose. This cart was pulled by hand to the fire. Later they got another fire engine which was an old Chevy motor mounted on a four wheel trailer. Finally they bought a regular fire engine that was pulled by a truck or tractor. This last fire engine and cart with the hoses is still in the firehall.

Wallace Cameron, the town Marshal, was janitor of the firehall and kept the fire going in the winter. He also ran the firebell at 9:00 every night as curfew. Phil Ahles, who was fire chief, kept the fire equipment in working order. The firemen were volunteers and that was almost any man in town that was available. A few of these were R. H. Lapp, R. E. Bennett, N. E. Green & J. A. Monroe. There were also young volunteers to bring the cart with the four ladders to the fires if needed. The firebell whose rope hung almost to the floor was rung by whoever saw the fire first.
One of the largest fires they had to fight, was the one that burned down the Lynch Saloon and living quarters. Mr. Lynch went to sleep while smoking a pipe and ashes fell out and burned the place and himself. His wife got out but died shortly after. Later the Lynch barn burned down in about the same way. A man crawled into the barn to take shelter for the night and went to sleep while smoking and the hay caught on fire. Besides himself, a good team of horses was lost, the firemen arrived too late to save either of these places, but they did save the surrounding buildings.

One night the firebell rang to herald the fact that the Rube Smith Restaurant was on fire. The fire spread rapidly to the implement building nearby and destroyed both buildings. This time the fire engines were used to spray water onto the Lapp Store nearby and save his tin covered building from too much damage. Only the wood around the windows was burned. The last time the fire engines were used was to put out the fire at the Harold Easton barn which was located one block south of the firehall. They managed to save most of the barn and Mr. Easton remodeled it. The firehall closed down about 30 years ago and St. Vincent arranged with the Pembina Fire Department to take care of the fires. It was cheaper to pay them than to hire men and keep the building and equipment up.

At one time the firehall housed the village light plant. It was run by a hydro, but in 1916 the Pembina Light and Power Plant supplied power to St. Vincent. Later Otter Tail Power came in and extended their line to St. Vincent.

The Firehall was also used for a morgue in the olden days. A man who drowned in the Red River, the man who died in the Lynch barn fire, and others, such as some who died in jail, were brought into the Firehall Morgue.

The firebell in the "Old St. Vincent Firehall" may never ring again to summon firemen to a fire, but if the St. Vincent Historical Society have their way, this building will be preserved along with the few remaining other historical landmarks of this old historical town of St. Vincent, Minnesota.

Interviews: William Ahles; Eli Gooselaw; Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lapp
Another essay, with other details including descriptions of some of the more famous fires fought by the St. Vincent Firehall volunteers, can be read here...