By Jacob Mahaffey
For 50 years East Holmes Fire District has been protecting the citizens of Berlin Township, Clark Township, Salt Creek Township, Walnut Creek Township, and Mechanic Township. To reminisce about the past 50 years Mike Yoder and Duane Miller, both founding members, Fire Chief Gary Mellor and Assistant Chief John Schlabach sat down recently.
The idea began in 1966.
“It was after the first Pioneer Days,” Yoder explained. “There was a group of guys who decided to start a fire department in the eastern part of Holmes County.” Fire coverage was non-existent for that area. There was a fire department in Millersburg and there was a fire department in Sugarcreek. The plan was initially to be Millersburg Fire Department Station 2, but over the course of two years, those plans went by the wayside. In 1968, Berlin Fire Department Inc. was born.
Their first truck was a 1948 International KB-7 pumper donated by the Millersburg Fire Department. Their first fire chief was Marion Kandle. The initial roster had 19 members. They also offered EMS services with several members being first aid trained with a donation of an old hearse style ambulance from the North Lawrence Fire Department.
Since then members have responded to thousands of calls. For the founding members, several stick out. “One thing that sticks in my mind is we had a barn fire,” Yoder explained. “And we saved the barn.”
With the help of a small pump kept on the back of KB-7, the miracle was possible. “As I went across a little creek I stopped and told them to drop the pump and grab a 2.5-inch hose.” Yoder shared. “As I went in the hose unreeled and I pulled up to the barn and started the pump. As the pumper ran out water was coming from that pump. And we saved the barn. Unheard of at the time.”
There were 5-6 guys on the truck that day, but they all weren’t in the cab. “They were riding on the tailboard,” Schlabach stated. “That was common practice until the 90’s,” Mellor added.
Another thing the guys remember was the flood of 1969. “Millersburg called us and asked us if we could pump out a basement,” Yoder said. “I could have drove there without any headlights there was so much lightning.”
The house was on State Route 83 and it was up by the old Castle Hill. Water was rushing down the hill and into the house and coming out the front. “I called Millersburg station and said ‘it’s impossible,’” he continued. “They said ‘quick come down to the fairgrounds and help us remove nursing home patients.’”
“If you want to see how high the water was,” Mellor added. “Go to Killbuck sometime and on the front of their fire station they have a hash mark showing how high the water was.”
The original station sat in downtown Berlin across from Boyd and Wurthmann restaurant. “It had two garage doors in it and we sat two trucks side by side,” Schlabach described.
They had four trucks, an ambulance, a tanker, the KB-7, and a John Bean High Pressure Engine. The tanker was an old milk truck without baffles, which inevitably lead to its demise. Responding to a call it rolled over, turning onto State Route 557 from State Route 39 just outside of Berlin.
“Weldon was on the tailboard,” Mellor stated.
In 1997 the group decided their current station wasn’t going to cut it anymore. This prompted the group to find its current location on County Road 77.
“We started out with a shoestring budget for this project,” Mellor said. A database was created with every household in their fire coverage area. A letter was sent asking for help, both monetary and otherwise. “In just a few days, letters started coming in with checks, and phone calls of people asking what they could do to help,” Mellor recalled.
Many companies started asking what was needed. In fact, a local cabinetmaker donated the entire kitchen. East Holmes was able to build their current station on that shoestring budget.
Technology has also come a long way since 1968. “The only alarming system we had was an alarm system on top of the station,” Yoder stated. “We didn’t have two-way radios or nothing.”
“There was a phone number, 893-2222, there were designated firemen who had those phones,” Mellor explained. “They would take those calls then go to the fire station and blow the sirens. That’s how you knew there was a call.”
Today, the fire department is summoned by a paging system and members have Active 911 on their cell phones that let them know they have a call.
Schlabach noted that the speed of a call for help has also helped the department. “It used to be they had to go a mile to the closest phone,” he added.
“In our start, we didn’t have house numbers,” Yoder said. “It was just routes.”
Training has advanced as well. Originally, firefighting classes were 20 hours. “I took it with Marvin Ott in Baltic,” Miller said. Today it can take up to 240 hours for some fire training.
Trucks have also come a long way, both in efficiency and price. The John Bean truck was bought for $15,000 compared to the ladder truck they bought which had a price tag of $1,000,000.
One thing they pride themselves on is community support. “I was a trustee for 30 years,” Miller stated. “We never borrowed a dime.”
“The community has always been a huge backer of the fire department,” Mellor continued.
At the East Holmes Fireman’s Festival, 2,300 chicken halves are made and sell out. For their fish fry they make 1,400 pounds of fish. Normally, the line to eat starts an hour prior to the start of the event.
The 19-man roster has grown some over the years, currently they have 45 active members. “When we say active, we mean they are active,” Schlabach said. There is a waiting list to join. The department currently runs over 600 calls for service on an entirely volunteer basis, something that is basically unheard of in the field. “Our employers have been so great,” Mellor said. “They could be gone the majority of the day from their employer. We haven’t really heard too much from the employers about it.”
Fifty years is quite a milestone for a fire department. Especially one that has managed to operate like East Holmes Fire District has. “It has been incredible to look at 50 years. Where we started to where we’ve come now,” Mellor shared with a hint of nostalgia in his tone. “And the one thing I think is constant in that time is the dedication and perseverance everyone has had to get us to this point. It’s been there since day one.”
This story originally appeared in the August 15, 2018 edition of The Budget. For more news, pick up a copy of this week’s edition available Wednesdays at area retailers. Better yet, subscribe and the news will be delivered to you each week. For more information, call us at 330-852-4634.