Firehouse Folklore

Generations of firefighters enjoy family atmosphere, camaraderie

Madison, Ind., volunteer firehouses struggle to find new recruits

(January 2020) – Pulling over to make room for a speeding fire truck is an automatic response for most drivers. Many of those drivers don’t realize that the fire fighters in that truck may be all volunteers. Individuals who have lived in larger cities are accustomed to full-time fire and rescue staff members who work round-the-clock shifts in local firehouses. However, in Madison, Ind., as well as other surrounding rural communities, each fire company is staffed by volunteers who work other full-time jobs. 
Mary Ann Lohrig Plummer is the daughter of the late Harold Lohrig, Madison’s Fire Chief from 1952-1970.  She remembers hearing the fire alarm from “Little Jimmie,” which sits atop the bell tower at Fair Play Fire House No. 1. Consecutive blasts of the horn signaled the fire location. For example, three beeps, one beep, four beeps, blasted the location as 314.

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Frank Taff poses beside a 1913 Model T Chemical Truck (baking soda plus acid) inside his Walnut Street Fire Museum in Madison, Ind.

Every home in Madison had a fire card showing the signal numbers with the corresponding locations. Neighborhood volunteer firefighters would immediately race their equipment to that location. Of course, everyone else in town heard the alarm as well. Many spectators also arrived at the fire location.
“Little Jimmie” no longer blasts out fire codes. Today, cell phones provide instant communication with firefighters. Equipment, apparatus and vehicles also continue to evolve. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for volunteer firefighters. 
Volunteer firefighting is a proud tradition. Plummer’s grandfather, George Lohrig, was a firefighter. Her four brothers, William, Ronald, James and Graham, followed the footsteps of their father and grandfather. Graham’s two sons, Thomas and Peter, now continue the tradition. His daughter, Monica, was also involved in the past. Recently, Graham, 69, and fellow members, Pete Backus, 74, and Paul Carlow, 84, reminisced about some of the good times at Western Fire Co. No. 3, located at 815 W. Main St. in Madison. Camaraderie was a hallmark of the multigenerational reunions, picnics and other gatherings. Each fire company played host to an annual birthday party. Members from other fire companies as well as police officers and local dignitaries were invited to the parties. “It was a big deal to be invited to one of the fire parties,” Backus said.

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

Mary Ann Lohrig Plummer displays an album of historical memorabilia from when her father, Harold Lohrig, was the Madison, Ind., fire chief.

Each station worked to out-do any previous party. Graham Lohrig remembered that one year his father did a hog roast.
“It was quite an affair,” he said.
The fire station was a gathering place. Nearly everyone would come down to the fire station after work. Everyone knew everyone, and they helped each other. Today, many members still use the fire station for birthday parties for their children and grandchildren. They also hold an annual dinner for the men and their spouses.
“It is a pretty elaborate deal with gift baskets, door prizes and raffles,” Backus said. “We want to show appreciation to our wives for putting up with the demands of what we do.”
The main fundraisers are the annual Fish Fry during the Fourth of July-Madison Regatta Parade and working the beer tent at the annual Madison Ribberfest each August.
Frank Taff is a volunteer firefighter with the Walnut Street Fire Co. No. 4, located at 424 Walnut St. “Our members work together on the annual golf scramble fundraiser and the annual Christmas dinner. The men cook the dinner, and the wives provide the sides.”
Frank’s wife, Charlotte, said, “We are not an organized auxiliary. We just jump into action when needed.”
The wives help with the golf event. She also remembers taking water and coffee to the Elks Lodge and Jefferson County Court-house fires – two major fires in Madison in recent years.
In retirement, she starting quilting with her friends at Margie’s Country Store. Now she has completed several quilts featuring fire equipment.

Photo Provided

Charlotte Taff (above left) poses with a quilt she made depicting antique fire equipment. At right, her husband, Frank Taff, holds a riveted antique fire hose at the Walnut Street Fire Museum in Madison, Ind.

Frank transfers line drawings of the equipment to fabric. Charlotte fills the outline with intricate colorful embroidery stitches, based on photos of the equipment. The finished blocks are stitched into large fire-themed quilts. Frank’s involvement as a firefighter led to his interest in firefighting history, including equipment, apparatus, uniforms and vehicles. Collecting is now his passion.

In 2012, he and Charlotte bought the old Walnut Street Fire Station, located at 808 Walnut St. He moved his collection from his home garage to the old fire station to create the Walnut Street Fire Museum. The museum is open by appointment and for special events.
All of these fire fighters remember when it was hard to join a fire company.
“I had to put my name on the waiting list,” Carlow recalled.
Today, fire companies are actively recruiting new members. Western Fire Co. 3, posted a “Members Needed” banner outside their building. So far, response has been very limited. Members are required to be residents of Jefferson County, Ind.
“In the past, training consisted of coming along on the next fire,” Graham Lohrig said.

Photo by Sharyn Whitman

From left, brothers Jim and Graham Lohrig pose at the Western Firehouse No. 3 in Madison, Ind.

Today, there are specific training requirements for all members. The six fire companies in Madison are independently organized with their own members but operate as parties under one contract with the city.  Throughout all of the changes and challenges, these members agree that the fire station is a still a place where you belong.

• To become a volunteer fire fighter, contact any local fire station or call Madison Fire Chief, Bill DeVries at (812) 265-8350.

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