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Firefighters recall the history of original Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.

February 23, 2013|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • The Washington County Commissioners are expected to decide Tuesday whether to suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.'s operations.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

The Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. was established in 1947 after a resident’s pants caught on fire while he was burning trash.

“It did some pretty good damage on his legs,” Fairplay Fire Co. founding member George “Pete” Warrenfeltz said.

He said the incident convinced residents to start a volunteer fire department.

Warrenfeltz, 82, and fellow-founding member Charles Semler recently said they were disheartened by the Washington County Board of Commissioners decision to suspend the fire company because of inadequate response times to calls.

Semler and Warrenfeltz said they believe the current leadership has tried to consolidate power over the last several years by forcing out longtime members who hold opposing views on how the organization should be managed.

“I am sure there are many people turning over in their grave, because of what has happened to what they created,” Semler wrote in an email. “There was a lot of very hard work in starting the fire (company).”

The first fire house was at the church in downtown Fairplay, Warrenfeltz said. Because the fire company didn’t have a phone, people would call his parents when there was a fire, which would prompt his mother to run outside and trigger a siren. The noise would alert the volunteers to meet at the church, where they would gather equipment and respond to calls.

Before the fledgling company could afford to buy a fire truck, the firefighting equipment consisted of short hoses attached to 5-gallon water cans, Warrenfeltz said. To raise money for a truck, the original members of the fire company sold hams, soups and pies, and hosted carnivals and Dixie minstrel shows.

“We packed the house everywhere we went,” he said.

After the members collected enough money, they purchased a truck chassis at the former Central Motors Dodge at the corner of South Potomac and East Antietam streets in Hagerstown.

Warrenfeltz said he doesn’t remember how much the truck cost, but recalled that they drove the chassis to Indiana to have it fitted with firefighting equipment.

He said he remembers six or seven firefighters spending three weekends at the University of Maryland to earn their firefighting certifications. They slept on hay in a barn while they were there.

“We kind of enjoyed it,” he said.

Warrenfeltz said that although he is a lifetime member, he stopped going on calls around 1951, when he joined the Air Force and was sent to Korea. He said he lived outside of Fairplay when he came home, which prevented him from being an active volunteer firefighter in the community.

He said it was in the early 1950s, while he was in Korea, that the fire company built the existing firehouse on Tilghmanton Road off Sharpsburg Pike.

Warrenfeltz said he was saddened by the direction that the fire company has taken over the last few years, when longtime members were let go by the new leadership.

Original fire company member Charles Semler said he felt the same way.

“It has saddened me ever since the Fairplay ordeal began,” Semler wrote in an email. “I was there at the beginning of the fire company, which when it started was named District 12 Volunteer Fire Co. It was named that because it served Election District 12, not just Fairplay.”

The problems facing the fire company came to a head on Jan. 29, when the Washington County Board of Commissioners decided to no longer recognize the fire company and no longer provide it with any funding or in-kind services.

As a result, the Fairplay Fire Co. — which drew the attention of the county over its failed response rates to calls — is no longer being dispatched on calls, and the Fairplay community will instead be served by the fire departments from Williamsport, Sharpsburg, Funkstown and Boonsboro.

The commissioners voted in July 2012 to suspend Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. indefinitely for its lackluster response to calls. Officials said the fire department had a “failed response” — it either didn’t respond within 10 minutes or didn’t respond at all — for 26.3 percent of its calls from Jan. 1 to May 31, 2012. The department said the problem with failed responses occurred mostly during the day and department officials were considering paid staff to work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. to address staffing shortfalls.

Semler, who said he would rather convey his memories in an email instead of an interview, said he was a teenager when he and his parents were among the people who started the company.

“They held festivals, had shooting matches, jousting tournaments, card parties, Dixie Minstrels, where all the cast were members” of the fire company, he wrote. “They held the minstrels in the old fire hall in the center of Fairplay, and also took it to several other communities to perform. I got to sing in the chorus for the minstrels.”

Semler wrote that the fire company also had a big tent that was used at The Great Hagerstown Fair to sell food to raise money.

“They used real china, and I would go there after school and wash dishes all evening, along with other people,” Semler wrote. “After a few years they started the Fireman’s Carnival, which for many years was considered the best fireman’s carnival in the area. It always had good food, and the best entertainment of any carnival in those days.”

Semler said he used to pick up trash on the carnival grounds for $1 per day.

“At that time, people were not too great at not littering, and it was a lot of work,” he said. “Everyone worked together to accomplish their goal.”

He said that despite having no “special training or fancy equipment,” the firefighters always seemed to get the job done.

“There was some very elementary training,” Semler said. “They also had a first-aid class, and I attended with my father.”

“I will never forget the day they got their fire engine,” he wrote. “Fire Chief Guy Smith, and (Assistant) Chief George Berger ... picked the engine up from the manufacturer, and drove it home to Fairplay. Everyone was excited and turned out to see what all their hard work had accomplished. The truck was a Dodge, and I believe the company that built the engine was named Howe.”

Semler said some of the founding members included Ed and Ethel Eakle, Guy Smith, George Berger, Jake and Elta Warrenfeltz, Art Rosman, Harry and Catherine Semler, Hezzie and Lucy Moats, Hershel and Ruth Bowers, Ted and Thelma Baker, Dick and Mildred Ford, Paul and Ollie Metz, Richard Swartz, Sylvester J. Gower, Ralph Huntzberry, Adrian and Edna Diebert, Tony and Dot Diebert, Ralph and Lois Hutzel, Bud Hutzel, Clint And Floyd Dayton, Harry Hennesy, Edgar Black, Lyle Mellott, the Anders family, the Barnhart family, the Brown family and the Miller family.

“All of these people had children, and also wives whose names I can’t remember, who worked to get the fire company started and flourishing,” Semler wrote. “I’m sure I missed some names of people, and some I can’t remember their first names, and I apologize. They were all hard working, Greatest Generation Americans, and losing the fire company would be heart-breaking to them.

“They wouldn’t understand because they all worked together to succeed,” he said. “Many of these people were farmers, as it was a very rural area at that time. I am sure there are not too many people left in the area to remember, and it would be a good thing, if someone had kept a record, so we could see the history.”

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