History of the Pharr Volunteer Fire Department
By: “Tex” HDMUNDS
The hub of the Rio Grande Valley was only six months old when, early in July 1916, fire laid waste a square block in the heart of the little community. In this block were the Pharr Lumber Co., where the fire started; The Pharr Mercantile Co; Folsom Hardware Co; National Theatre; and several other representative business houses that supplied most of the needs of the growing city that has been incorporated on Feb. 8, 1916.
The disastrous fire was at first believed to be the work of ‘raiders’ from south of the River since a favorite strategy of many of the bandit gangs and patriots who nourished the idea of returning to Texas and the entire south west to Mexico, while looting and raiding for personal gain, was to send a scout to fire a ranch building, or a city residence or store, to attract the attention of the people in that area while the raiders made off with stock from the ranch or looted at will in the little communities on the Border.
A thin line of American soldiers, usually split into small detachments, was stationed along the Border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. The National Guard had been ordered mobilized and was arriving in various stages of unpreparedness to supplement the regular Army Forces; and most of the Anglo residents along the Rio Grande, and to the west, were more interested in the condition of their guns and ammunition than in organized Fire Fighting and fire apparatus. Fire- fighting was every citizens business- when fires started- and while many helped to extinguish a blaze others kept an eye open to repulse and band of raiders who might be using the fire to cover their operations. These conditions, combined with the usual lack of interest on the part of the average citizen when fires were few and far between, served to retard instead of help the organization of Volunteer Fire Departments.
When the National Guard was withdrawn from the Border in the winter of 1916-17 there were quantities of Army surplus material- including large numbers of Two-wheel Hand-drawn Hose Reels, which were then standard Army Fire Fighting apparatus in the surplus stockpiles. Many of the little towns on the Border acquired one, or more, of these Hose Reels and in most communities these “Reels” were the first fire equipment the Community owned.
The City of Pharr, obtained its first fire equipment – an Army Surplus Hose Reel with hose- early in 1917… Reports indicate that it was stationed at the light and Ice Plant operated by D. McLendon and Dave Simmons, which was about the geographic center of the sprawling little City and at which there was someone on duty day and night. Dave Simmons took charge of the apparatus and could always be seen helping to haul the Hose Reel to the scene of a blaze- and directing the activities of the Citizens who assembled to help fight the fire. His services in fighting fires brought him the title of “Chief” – and from 1917until early in 1922 Dave was Chief to the Citizens of Pharr who helped pull or push the Hose Reel and formed ‘ bucket brigades’ whenever their Community was threatened by Fire.
Judge L. J. Polk, Sr., who in 1916 was practicing law in the Valley; J. J. “Johnnie” Maurer who now owns a grocery and market in Pharr and D. McLendon who was associated with Dave Simmons in the Light and Ice Planet are, as far as is known, the sole survivors of the little group of ten or twelve men who turned out for every fire and assisted Dave in directing the efforts of the Citizens in fighting the blaze. There was no “organized” Fire Department in Pharr during this period- and, according to these survivors who helped pull or push the old Hose Reel and fight fires between 1917 and 1922 no effort was made to organize a Volunteer Fire Dept.
Judge Polk, in describing fire alarms of this period said: “The first person who saw or smelled a fire would fire his pistol or gun into the air and neighbors would start firing also. Soon shots were ringing out all over the town and it sounded like a Fourth of July celebration. It was a most effective alarm system and never failed to draw nearly every resident of the Community to the scene of the fire where they’d all pitch in and help remove anything that could be saved and douse water on the fire until it burned out”. Polk continued: “Those who reached the Hose Reel first would start it rolling towards the blaze and those of us who usually helped Dave would try to direct everybody’s efforts in fighting the fire to the best advantage.”
In 1918 the City of Pharr purchased a Studebaker Chemical Magazine and Ladder Truck to be used in fighting fires. This automotive equipment was housed in a little building just north of the present phone office building and was maintained by “Chief” Dave Simmons until 1922. Several interesting accounts of its use for other than fire-fighting purposes have been related to the writer- the most amusing being those of Dave’s serenading ‘ joy-rides’. It seems that he would frequently drive the Chemical to Hidalgo and load up with a Mexican Orchestra, which came to be known as “Dave’s Chili Orchestra”. He would then return to Pharr and serenade the community- and frequently take out for San Juan or Donna- or up the Valley to McAllen and Mission- continuing the serenade in those towns. On at least one occasion he drove to Rio Grande City- some 50 miles- serenading all the towns on route. This may have contributed, in no small degree, to the organization of the Pharr Volunteer Fire Department.
During the winter of 1921-22- following several disastrous fires in the Valley area- a meeting was called in the City Offices for the purpose of organizing a Fire Department. The roster if this organization, with a copy of it’s Constitution and By-Laws which were prepared for the Pharr Volunteer Fire Department in July 1922 by Judge L. J. Polk, shows that early in 1922 the Department was organized with J. E. Rogers, Chief; D. McLanden, 1st Asst. Chief; A. A. Kelly, 2nd Asst. Chief; W. E. Allen, 3rd Asst. Chief; and L. J. Polk, Jr.; Roland Krueger; M.B. Gore; Ralph Salisbury; R. M. Henderson; John White; K.C. White; T. H. Pollard; J. J. Maurer; Bennie Egley; Hurley (Lumber Yard); Ernest Calhoun; Joe Lammers; Newell Thomas; G. E. Brittan; Shirley Nyoum; P.S. Devine and Ben Kelley as Charter Members.
The “automobile Chemical Engine” and the old Hose Reel were turned over to this Volunteer Fire Department by the City of Pharr and by May 1922 the Pharr fire- fighters had Attorney J. L. Polk, take up the matter of obtaining a Charter for the Pharr Volunteer Fire Department with S. L. Staples, the secty. Of State. At the same time, Mr. E. L. Greene an Insurance Agent in Pharr, wrote G. W. Tilley, State Fire Marshal to ascertain what effect the incorporation of the Pharr Fire Dept, reelect the Officers appointed in July and to add two new Officers: Loren Dumont as Lieutenant of the chemical Co, and Geo. Paoto, Lieut. Of the Hose Company and one of the Valley’s most active Fire Dept’s. was under way.
The first minute book of the Pharr Volunteer Fire Department records the members of the reorganized Department as follows: Roland E. Krueger, Chief; Paul Norton, Asst. Chief; D. G. Hurley, Capt.; Willie Brodt, Capt; F. D. McGehee, Secty; O. C. Brown; W. H. Brewer; Henry Derr; Lee Doty; Loren Dumont; Bennie Egly; Bryce Ferguson; Willie Gillespie; Julies Hausman; Guy Johnson; Joe Lammons; Johnnie (J. J.) Maurer and Geo. Paoto. No new members were taken in until October 1925 when Fred Fox; Sam Guico; Geo. Harris; Ray England; and Glenn Delapp were added to the roster. D. B. Briggs joined in March 1926 and this group comprised the membership of the Pharr organization during the first year of activity of the present Department.
In June 1926 the Pharr Volunteer Fire Department received it’s first pumper- a 750 gpm American La France. This apparatus was turned over to the Pharr Fire- Fighters at Harlingen following the Golden Jubille Convention at which it was a stellar attraction- exhibited by the manufacturer before delivery to Pharr. This brought about the organization of an additional group to serve as the Engine Company and we find three Companies: Engine, Chemical and Hose functioning in the fall of 1926 and a material increase in the Departments membership by the first of 1927; and greater interest in the organization being exhibited by the people of Pharr. A White Pumper, with 750 gmp capacity replaced the A. L. F. and served the Department until 1938 when the oldest apparatus now in use by the Pharr Volunteers- a Ford 750 gmp Pumper with a 150 gallon Booster Tank and a 500 gmp Ford with a 150 gallon tank were purchased by the City. The 750 gmp has been converted into a combination Hose and Pumper with the Booster Tank removed and both of these Fords are still in service and doing as good a job as they did in ‘ 38.
Fire Station built in ’28
From the ‘shack’ that housed the Chemical Engine Apparatus in the late teens and early ‘20’s to the present modern Fire Station that housed Pharr’s fire- fighting equipment is a trip from the ridiculous to the sublime. Built in 1928 of concrete blocks this modern two-story building is an outstanding landmark in The Hub City. In 1950 a one- story addition was added to the west side of the structure which more than doubled the floor space for apparatus and provided a fine patio on it’s roof for dances and other entertainments, O. C. Brown, who was Asst. Chief of the Department in 1928 was the builder of the original structure and he was also the contractor who built the new addition in 1950… Brown became Chief of the Department in ’28 while the building was being constructed because of the resignation of Chief Krueger who moved to Mission on Aug. 14, 1948. The Fire Station houses five pieces of apparatus and the light truck and has ample floor space in the new park for another Pumper or High Pressure Truck. There is shop space and hose rack space and a kitchen on the main floor also; and a Tri- City fire alarm hook- up which is duplicated on the second floor in the dormitory. Clubrooms and the Department’s meeting hall are located on the second floor and plenty of steel easement windows on all sides of the building provide excellent ventilation that air- conditions the Fire Station.
Five pieces of fire- fighting apparatus, a four-light Generator Plant and an E & J Resuscitator give the Citizens of Pharr a Volunteer Fire Department with equipment equal to that in practically any city of it’s size in the State.
No. 1 Truck is a 1938 Ford, 500 gpm Pumper with a 150-gallon Booster Tank; No. 2- a 1938 Ford, 750 gpm Pumper which was remodeled in 1958 as a combination Pumper and Hose Truck. A new Ford F 8 motor was installed, the booster tank removed and the truck now carries 2,400 feet of 2 ¼ inch hose instead of the 150 gal. Tank- No. 3 a 1948 Bean High Pressure on a Ford Chassis is equipped with power take- off and a 450 gallon tank- No. 4 also a 1948 Bean Hi Pressure with power take- off has a 450 gallon tank and a 150 gallon auxiliary tank carries 600 gallons of plain or wetter water when it goes into action. Last but not least is the 1931- 750 gpm ALF Pumper with its 150-gallon booster tank and miscellaneous ladders and small tools.
The Department’s Light Plant has four powerful spots each equipped with 200 feet of heavy rubber insulated wire to permit a maximum operating range for the lights where needed. This equipment is mounted on a trailer and, when needed, is taken to the scene of the blaze by a Volunteer Fireman with a pick- up truck. A trailer hitch is being added to No. 1 to permit the light plant to be hauled by that fire truck when necessary.
The Department’s First Aid equipment is “tops”… A new E & J Resuscitator enables the Parr Volunteers to “come through” on the toughest calls and this equipment has helped the Pharr Fire- fighters to save the lives of some three or four persons during the past three years- including that of a 6 month old baby whom the Doctor pronounced ‘dead from strangulation’ and left the victim. Members of the Pharr Fire Department continued working over the child with the E & J Resuscitator for nearly one hour and when they left the victims home the infant was nursing happily at it’s mother’s breast. The child is now nearly two years of age!
Back in 1922 when the first Pharr Volunteer Fire Department was organized; and again in 1928; the question of “incorporating” the Department was discussed at length- but nothing was done about it.
In 1950, after A. L. Wood was elected Chief of the Department, this matter was again brought up and arrangement, which has served it’s Community faithfully and diligently for the past thirty years….
Fire Department Chiefs
While no regularly organized group was formed in the early days of the City’s history it is only fair to record that Dave Simmons earned the title of “Chief” of the fire- fighters on Pharr and served his Community and fellow men- who accorded him the title- from 1917 until a Fire Department was organized in 1922… Every Citizen was a Volunteer in those days and Dave led them when the need arose and a conflagration threatened the City.
Early in 1922 the Pharr Volunteer Fire Dept., was organized with J. E. Rogers, Chief (1922-23) and A. A. Kelley, Chief (1923-25)- Interest in the Department waned as the little City forged ahead without any disastrous fires and during the winter of 1924-25 the organization reached it’s lowest point. A disastrous fire early in 1925 reawakened interest in fire protection and the Department was reorganized on July 20, 1925
Roland E. Krueger was elected Chief and served from July 20, 1925 to Aug. 14,1928 and served to July 24, 1930 when he resigned to leave Pharr on other business.
J. A. Slaughter was elected Chief on Aug. 14, 1930 to succeed Brown and served to Aug. 11, 1933 when he was defeated for reelection by:
Loren Dumont who served as Chief from Aug. 11, 1933 to April 8, 1937 when he tendered his resignation because he was transferred to another City. The Department granted him a “Leave of Absence” in lieu of accepting his resignation and J. A. Slaughter was appointed to fill the job as Chief.
J. A. Slaughter continued as Chief from April 1937 to Sept. 23, 1937 when he resigned because of other business requiring his attention.
A. Merle Kelley succeeded Slaughter and served from Sept. 23, 1937 to May 12, 1938.
Nat M. Groves became Chief on May 12, 1938 and served until October 13, of that year when he left Pharr and was succeeded by
John Will Green who took the Chief’s office on Oct. 13, 1938 and served until Feb. 9, 1939 when Ward Walters was elected to that Office.
Ward Walters was Chief from Feb. 9, 1939 until his death on Oct. 11, 1950. He had attended a District Meeting at McAllen the night of Oct. 10th and was apparently in good health when he returned at about 11 o’clock, and expressed his appreciation of the excellent meeting at McAllen. Shortly after midnight he was stricken by a heart attack and passed away before a Doctor arrived.
A.L. Wood, was elected Chief on October 26th, 1950 and holds that office at this time. “Woody” joined the Department on June 9th 1938 and served under Chief’s Groves, Green and Ward Walters. He has always taken an active interest in all Department activities and the morals of his Department and its activities are a glowing tribute to his leadership. Chief Wood is proud of his Department, it’s equipment, and of the “new” Fire Truck, which was ordered in 1950 while Ward Walters, was Chief. This truck bears a plate that reads “This equipment dedicated to the memory of Fire Chief Ward Walters” and Chief A. L. (Woody) Wood looks upon it as a tribute to the greatest Chief who ever served the citizens of Pharr.”….
Hon. C. B. Shumaker,
It gives me great pleasure to present you with the History of the Pharr Volunteer Fire Dept. Is this what you have been raising so much hell about,