Hail to the Chiefs: 100 Years of the Hillsdale Fire Department


The Internet is amazing. You start out looking for one thing, only to find something else so fascinating it sucks up the hours you were planning to spend on the first thing.

This happens to us a lot. This week we were researching historic buildings in the Hillsdale Hamlet. No sooner had we typed “Dimmick’s” into Google than up popped “Our History & Past Chiefs,” a page from the Hillsdale Fire Company website. The page was compiled from handwritten notes delivered at the fire company’s 75th Anniversary Open House in 1993, which makes 2018 the Hillsdale Fire Company’s centenary. Happy 100th Anniversary, Hillsdale Fire Company!

The Hillsdale Fire Company is an all-volunteer organization and depends on public support to respond to emergencies, 24/7, in Hillsdale, Egremont, Copake, Austerlitz, and other communities in a 43-square-mile area. A big thank you to Richard Briggs and all the Hillsdale volunteer firefighters and auxiliary members for keeping our town safe.

Here is a link to the history page. It’s a delightful read, full of arcane fire engine facts and gossipy asides. A few of our favorites:

• The Hillsdale Fire Company was formed in 1918, the same year the U.S. entered World War I.

• The company’s first fire truck was an Obenchain-Boyer on a Ford chassis. A February 1919 underwriter’s report said the truck had “no pump, no hose and no nozzles.” What the …?

A restored Obenchain-Boyer Chemical Truck. When new in 1921, it cost $1,648.68, about $21,000 in today’s dollars. A new chemical truck today will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the Obenchain-Boyer was a bargain!

• From 1918-1928 the company’s fire alarm consisted of a railroad locomotive metal tire, split and hung from a tree limb by Dimmick’s Store (today’s Hillsdale General Store). A hammer was left conveniently nearby.

• It’s no small irony that during the first half of the 20th century the company lost significant property and equipment to fire. The Hillsdale Fire Company met at the Masonic Lodge on Cold Water Street until it burned down in 1927. The company’s first fire truck was stored at Conklin’s Garage, which burned down in 1940. A drug store owned by first Fire Chief Harry Cornell burned down in 1983.

• A large siren, which could be heard for miles, was mounted on the roof of the second Masonic Lodge (built 1928) on Cold Water Street. Before direct dial phones arrived in 1952, people reported fires by calling telephone operators at the A.M. Johnson Telephone Office on Anthony St. The operators activated the rooftop alarm and firefighters called “Central” to learn the location and type of call.

• A “new fire house” was built in 1931 (today’s Columbia County Sheriff station). Just like today, there was very little parking in the hamlet and many men had to walk to the calls. The building was heated by a coal-burning furnace, which members took turns tending. Wet coiled fire hose that was stuck in the coal bin started a fire in the coal by spontaneous combustion. The cellar ceiling was charred badly, but no other damage was reported.

• In the summer of 1947 a cargo truck flipped on Route 23 and Molasses Hill at the Massachusetts state line. Bystanders looted the truck’s contents while Massachusetts State Troopers arrested the Hillsdale Fire Chief for having unregistered vehicles (fire trucks!) in the state.

• In 1954 Fire Chief Everett “Stub” Shadic, responding to a call from his home across from the Hillsdale Library (today’s Town Hall), commandeered a bike from a youngster to make better time. The bike had hand brakes, which he did not know how to use, and he sailed past the firehouse and through the ball field, coming to rest in a ditch.

• A wild duck was removed from a chimney on Mitchell St.

• Summer grass fires from lightning strikes were frequent. At one grass fire the owner flailed at the fire with a pine branch, which fanned the flames and set his pants on fire.

• One lady got angry at firefighters who trampled her tulip beds to extinguish a grass fire near her barn.

• In the early to mid-20th century, picking up a wet hose in a manure-covered barnyard after a lightening fire at 3:00am was a rite of passage for young fire company volunteers. This tradition declined, along with the number of active farms in the area, in the second half of the 20th century.

We all depend on our local fire company. Whether abandoning their cozy beds in the wee hours, or taking time of from work in the middle of the day, these men and women put their own lives on the line in some cases to save ours. And they do this not for pay, but because it’s necessary and the right thing to do.

This is the season to make end-of-year charitable contributions. We are making a donation to the fire company and urge you to do so, too. There are never enough volunteers. You don’t have to don a turnout suit and race into a flaming building to be a valued volunteer. Check out the Hillsdale Fire Company Facebook page for ways to help.

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