BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Working in his Providence Street office, Chuck Witte was a daily witness to the dedication of Whitehouse Fire Depart-ment volunteers who operated out of the fire hall across the street.
“I’d watch those guys come out and try to push-start that old bread truck, so I thought I’d go help,” said Chuck, who joined the department in 1958 and served for decades – including with his sons, Jack and Kirk.
An old bread truck was used as an ambulance in the days when the two-story, wood-framed fire hall sat at the corner of Providence and Maumee streets.
The Wittes were among the dozens of retired firefighters who came to Veterans Memorial Park on June 11 for a ceremony marking the 125th anniversary of the Whitehouse Fire Department.
On May 25, 1896, a group of men met at the town hall, with Chief William K. Jones presiding.
“There was no municipal fire department back then,” said Chief Josh Hartbarger. “They voted for the chief and officers from among the ranks, as well as who they would take on as members.”
Holding the original minutes book, Hartbarger points to the list of those first members, including side captains P.O. Merritt, John Pray, W.H. McMullen and Jacob Lehman.
The books also contain notes on which families paid their fire insurance to the department. At one point, many departments nationwide would provide a plaque to hang outside the door to indicate membership in that early insurance policy.
“I would hope the department would help those in need, even if they didn’t pay,” Hartbarger said.
In those early days, men would respond to the fire hall to gather gear before heading out to a structure fire. Thankfully, most homes were made of wood timbers from trees and burned more slowly than the man-made materials used in construction today, the chief said.
“Water was a precious commodity, and it was a true bucket brigade,” he added.
The first motorized fire truck, a REO chassis purchased from Lehman and Sullivan in 1926, still runs and was on display with other memorabilia during the Cherry Fest on June 12.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” said Daryl McNutt, who served as fire chief from 2003 to 2016 – a conclusion to his 35 years with the department. The first uniforms were made of wool, and firefighters had just a collar and helmet to protect their faces and necks. Now, the uniforms include hoods for better protection.
Until 1978, the fire department was focused only on fighting fires and related emergencies, but in 1978 – shortly after the completion of the existing fire station on Waterville Street – the Lucas County Life Squad was added, staffed by personnel trained as paramedics.
As the community has grown, so has the need for expanded operations, including the addition of dedicated part-time and full-time personnel to handle nearly 900 calls a year, said Deputy Chief Jason Francis. In addition to their firefighting training, each member is also a trained EMT or paramedic.
During the June 11 ceremony, four new full-time personnel were recognized, including: Megan Beaudry, Jason Fox, Tyler Wepler and Nick Wismer. The addition of personnel is made possible because of a levy that voters approved as part of a co-op with Waterville and Waterville Township, Hartbarger said.
“Today, we have 60 extremely dedicated personnel, including 16 full-time, 25 part-time and 19 volunteers,” Francis said. “Volunteerism continues to be strong. It’s a tradition of the fire service that’s not forgotten.”
These men and women put themselves in harm’s way while responding to scenes they might not want to see, said Mayor Don Atkinson, who thanked the families who support the fire department personnel and volunteers.
Chuck Witte nodded in agreement and told of two such instances: when a Swanton woman drove her station wagon 100 mph into a tree, killing her and five children; and when he responded to a fire in Monclova and the entire family perished.
Sharing these tragic experiences with others necessitates a bond that continues even after retirement.
“We had a friendship and oneness,” said Carol Asmus, who retired in 2011 after 34 years with the department. She was, for a long time, the only female, but that didn’t deter her from being part of the family of those who come to the rescue.
“I liked the job itself and I liked helping people,” Asmus said.
In honor of its 125th anniversary, the White-house Fire Department has posted interviews with retirees on Facebook and will host an open house during Fire Prevention Week, the first week of October.