The good folks at the Gardiner Fire Department (GFD) are in a celebratory mood this year. They don’t know the exact date — “They never kept minutes in the old days,” says fire chief David Bailin — but they do know that the town’s original Fire District was formed sometime in 1912. They have chosen the second weekend in October for a big two-day bash commemorating the GFD’s centennial, and will be working up to it with a series of smaller events and fundraisers.
The fire company has had a proud history — all of it on a strictly volunteer basis — under the auspices of 21 fire chiefs since the days of Lee McIntosh, 14 of them still among the living. The original Fire District covered only the Gardiner hamlet, but a disastrous fire that engulfed much of the town’s commercial center in 1925 convinced the townspeople that a better-equipped fire squad capable of serving a larger area was badly needed. So the original Fire District was dissolved and a larger one incorporated, and in 1926 a new Sanford engine was acquired to replace the old Deming hand-pumper that had been built in 1896.
That was but the first of many new pieces of firefighting and rescue equipment added to the GFD’s toolkit over the decades, culminating with a state-of-the-art Spartan Gladiator tanker purchased only a month ago. The brand-spanking-new truck hasn’t even been used on a “real fire” yet, although it gets put through its paces at the fire company’s weekly training drills. First lieutenant Luke Lyons, Jr. is in no great hurry to try it out on some Gardinerite’s home in peril. “The worst hardly ever happens these days,” he says. “Car accidents are probably our most common occurrence, except for medical calls.”
His father, Fire Commission chief Luke Lyons, Sr., who has been with the force for 40 years, explains that changes in homebuilding technology have made catastrophic house fires less common in recent decades than they were in the old days. “New homes have wired-in smoke detectors,” he notes, making it more likely that a fire will be extinguished before an entire building goes up in flames.
Putting out a big conflagration like the one in 1925 was an impossibility, say the Gardiner firefighters; the best that their forebears could do with the original pumper was to wet down adjoining properties to keep them from catching fire. That primitive piece of equipment was pulled by a human team and operated by a crew of six burly firefighters, hauling up and down with all their might on two long wooden bars. If no natural water source was available nearby the fire site, citizens would have to form a bucket brigade to keep refilling a wagon known as a “hand tub” that would be parked alongside the pumper.
One of the honored guests at the centennial celebration the weekend of October 13 and 14 will be that very Deming pumper that got the GFD off to its start. It had been abandoned behind what was then John Moran’s General Store (now Majestic’s Hardware) during Moran’s 21-year tenure as fire chief, and was recently discovered “90 percent buried in the mud,” according to the younger Lyons. “We got it to pump again,” Chief Bailin reveals. “We’re doing the actual work to restore it ourselves. It’s a little more meaningful that way.” The intent is to stage a demonstration of the old pumper at work at the fall festival.