One can hardly tell the story of the Fire Department without first speaking of the town that it serves. The beginnings and how it came to be and what it is today will be discussed in this written word.
The town in its conception was known first as Whetstone or Youngstown after its founder Jacob Young. Because the town was founded 24 years before Morrow County was created, it sat in Marion County. Delaware County was three miles to the south and Richland two miles to the Northeast at this time and Mt. Gilead was thought of it being a "border town" which at this time was very true.
The town was situated around a creek that still exists today. Whetstone creek located at the bridge on South Main Street was the deciding factor that placed Mt. Gilead where it is today. The town was originally placed into lots. The lots were situated around the intersection that is known today as South Main and Marion Street. The area where the south light is today was known as the "South Public Square."
In 1832, the name was officially changed to Mt. Gilead, after a town in Loudon County, Virginia. The local Whetstone creek helped supply the towns mills with daily water. A stagecoach ran from Delaware to Mansfield through the town delivering passengers and supplies. In the month of December in 1832, Henry Ustick added more lots to the town. The intersection of Main and High Street was born and created at this time. This area became to be known as the "North Public Square."
The topography of the area was a factor into the slow growth at first in the area. The area West on South Main Street looks much today as it did then. South main was known as the business block. Here several business owners had their stores to help serve their community.
The town in 1848 became the county seat of a newly formed county. The county was named after congressman Jeremiah Morrow. Morrow County begins to take shape slowly. Towns sprung up and the railroads came to the area. Local lore includes stories of Indians and Johnny Appleseed passing through the area.
Along with the growth of Mt. Gilead came the houses, shops, businesses and mercantile. Some of the buildings in the center of town have lasted a century. Many replaced wood frame structures that were destroyed by the many fires that plagued the town early on. During the 1850's and 1860's several large manufacturing buildings were built in town. The businesses burned and never were rebuilt.
A History of Morrow County in 1880 describes the early days of the town as the following.
In 1876, construction on the Van Horne block was started. The building became a multi-purpose building. A mercantile building with shops, the town hall, fire station, and a city jail would soon be the main focus of the town. The top floor known as Levering Hall was an opera house seating 1,000 people. The first known fire station was located at this spot. The bay door is still visible today from Center Street.
In1883, HPM was instituted into the village. The business was completely destroyed in a fire, August 13, 1887. This would become one of many fires that plagued the company.
The year of 1902, the village brought in a water works system to be installed in the village. The first water tower was built helping with the supply of water for the purpose of fire extinguishing. The town needed help with its fires that were destroying the buildings of the town. Installing the water tower was perceived as a way to help save the town and its buildings.
The department continues as the Olentangy Fire Brigade into the early 20th century. On February 22, 1923, a fire occurred that showed it was time for a change. A fire destroyed property valued at $90,000. This was a great financial loss to the community and the business owner. Seller's garage and 50 automobiles burned that day. The fire threatened the Buckeye Mill and several residences on South Main Street. The fire chief at the time, E.B. Russell, decided that the garage and surrounding out buildings were a complete loss. He directed all firefighting efforts to save the surrounding buildings therefore, that is what they did. This fire proved that a more organized way of firefighting was needed.
On September 11th, 1924, Mayor A.A. Broiller designated a special company of fire fighters to serve the village. This is where the Mt. Gilead Fire Department was born. Davis Philips, Tom Geyer, Clem Myers, Earl Bending, and Tom England were named as the fireman of the Mt. Gilead Fire Department. Jay Rinehart was elected Fire captain and H.C. Johnstone, Fire chief. This selection was in hopes that the confusion from past would be averted and buildings and lives could be saved. The overloading of the fire truck en-route and no one having the authority at fire scenes was to be stopped because of the dangerous situation everyone was put into.
On October 16 1941, the Florence Pottery Company which was located across the tracks on Westview Drive off of Douglas Street caught fire at 1:00 am. The building was the second largest industrial plant in the village. It had just been annexed for a year. The city water line had not been run to the area for their usage as of this date. The three-story building measuring 100x100 employed one hundred and fifty employees. The Fire Department had difficulty-getting water from the 2 fire cisterns close by. The building was a complete loss including all of the out buildings. A total cost of $2,000,000 was the loss. H.C. Johnstone, Mt. Gilead fire chief, died of a heat attack at the scene that day. This was proven to be a devasting loss financially and emotionally for the village of Mt. Gilead that sad day.
The Sentinel newspaper explained the situation. Chief Johnstone, was sixty six and had operated a barbershop in town for almost fourty years. He had been on village council for sixteen years. The chief died if a sudden heart attack according to the paper. He was found slumped over the wheel of his car that day. The paper explained that he had been suffering from a heart aliment for several years. It was determined that the excitement of a large fire combined with exertion of directing the firemen brought on the fatal attack.
During the next regular council meeting, October 20th ,1941, Elzy Snair was appointed fire chief at $50.00 a year. The village council then decided to have fire practice at monthly meetings with the eight firemen receiving fifty cents a practice. Mayor Bennent felt that too few knew how to operate the engine and that at least eight people should be available at all times who knew how to run it. This would be a turn around for the small volunteer department.
On December 19th 1948, a major fire occurred at the Denton seed house. A loss of $100,000 was incurred that grave day. The building was located on West Center Street where the Seniors-On-Center building currently stands. Several mutual aid departments were called that day for help. Edison fire department covered the south exposures while the Cardington Fire Department covered the east exposure. The Galion Fire Department and the Marion Ordnance Depot Fire Department were also called in for assistance. The fire was believed to have started due to faulty wiring. The fire also destroyed a few surrounding structures of the seed house. At the peak of the fire, seven fire hoses from four fire hydrants were being used to fight the fire. This was a great community effort for everyone involved that day.
For the year of 1949, Chief Mel Geyer, was given a raise from $75.00 to $100.00 annually and was to receive $2.00 per hour for each fire and training he attended. Edison, Cardington and Mt. Gilead met with fire brigade members from HPM and North Electric to discuss a mutual aid agreement between the three towns. It was time to come together and be a family of fireman that would serve anyone in the area in need.
In the month of February, 1949, the village decided to purchase another fire engine. The department only had one truck and was still running out of the original one bay firehouse on Center Street. Mt. Gilead's fire dept was given $750.00 for the purchase of a new or used truck. The village wanted a second truck so a mutual aid agreement could be signed. The village wanted a 500-gallon tank with a 500 GPM (gallons per minute) front mount pump. Four bids were received from the Queen City Company of Cincinnati, Boyers, Sutphen and Seagrave companies also submitted bids. The village decided to buy the truck from Sutphen for the amount of $8110.00. The delivery was to be in ninety days. The council decided to build a new firehouse to house two trucks that year. The Sentinel noted twenty two members on the Mt. Gilead Fire department at the time that a new station and a new truck would be added to the department.
On June 11th, 1949, the new fire truck arrived with a new found excitement for the town. The new fire station was not completed at this time; therefore, the truck was temporarily stored in the Gordon-Jagger Garage.
At this time, The Sentinel has an article dated, July 22nd 1949 where they wanted to address problems that chief Geyer wanted to make the public aware. The Mt. Gilead fire department held a training session with the fire siren blowing; they took both trucks on a timed practice run to see how the trucks would operate and to time the session. The practice session went to the new HPM plant on Marion RD. After the session, Chief Geyer was upset because too many cars were following and parking close to the fire trucks on the calls. This was creating a dangerous situation where people wanted to see what was going on and it would often block or stop needed efforts that needed to take place. There was also a concern because too many men who were not members of the MGFD were running and jumping onto the trucks when the trained firefighters were responding to calls. This practice had to stop for the safety of everyone involved.
The day is, August 25th 1949, where a site on East center Street was selected for the site of the new Fire station. It was where an old blacksmith shop currently stood.
As stated in an article on September 8th 1949, the rates for answered calls in Gilead Township are $ 400.00 for the first five calls and $65.00 for every call over five in a given year. The council also agreed to allow the Mt. Gilead fire department to answer calls in Congress and Franklin townships at $75.00 per call.
The fire department volunteers just east of Levering Hall on East Center Street constructed the second fire station in 1949. This would prove to be a great effort of the department and the community to build a fire station that the village could be proud of.
The first Lo Band radios were first used in 1948 and vehicles were numbered in the county in the early 1960's. The first fire phone number was "144". Then it was changed to "2222" in the late 1960's. The procedure of a run at this time was to have the fire call ring into several fire officers' homes and the telephone operator at the same time. The officers would get the information and tell the operator to blow the siren to alert the volunteers that they were needed.
March 18th 1994, a scare was brought to the entire town. An arson fire was started in an old hardware store on South Main Street. The store bordered the neighboring buildings and was situated in the heart of the downtown. At the time, the building was being remodeled and is currently the location of the Dollar Store. The fire broke out quickly. With apartments on top of these storefronts the loss of life could have been expected if the fire department had not acted quickly. After the scare of almost losing the downtown block, a debate took place on whether the purchase of a ladder truck was needed.
Early in the year of 2000, a decision was made to purchase a ladder truck. The fire department spoke with Dallas Ft. Worth airport and found the truck that we have today. The platform truck was purchased and put into service November of 2000. This was a great accomplishment for a fire department of this size. Volunteers continued to train and more firemen were added to the department. The loss of the HPM factory hurt the number of firemen who were available during the daylight hours. Men had to find jobs out of town. A change was needed again for the Mt. Gilead fire department.
The change from an all-volunteer fire department to a combination fire department started when the department's first full-time chief was hired. A levy had been proposed to fund a department with a full-time position. This would protect the village and the surrounding area because firefighters would be on duty during the day when volunteer firemen were working at their jobs out of town. The passing of a levy in the village and surrounding Gilead Township made it possible.
On July 5th 2005, Chief Don Staiger became the first full- time employee of the Mt. Gilead Fire Department. The next year, January 3rd 2006, the next step was accomplished with pride. Part -time firefighters were hired to staff the station during the daytime hours. Every shift consists of 3 firefighters and the chief or an officer. Currently the station is manned, Mon- Friday 8 a.m.- 4p.m. The on-call paid firefighters respond at night and on the weekends. They are paid hourly while on an emergency call.
The department has come a long way over the many years that it has been in existence. For many of the firefighters, the fire department has been a family tradition. Their fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and cousins all served the community and department sometime during its existence. The department has become a second family to many. Countless hours, holidays, and special occasions are spent away from our regular family helping others in their time of need. The department has grown and adapted to change. It is constantly striving to give the best service to the public in which they serve.
Everyone should be proud of the beginnings of the fire department and strive to keep the level of professionalism that it currently has. As long as the community supports the efforts of these trained individuals, the fire department will live on.