The history of the Ephrata Pioneer Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1 is one of the oldest in Lancaster County and the state of Pennsylvania. Some of the history has been lost, but what remains is long and interesting. Please continue to read on and learn how the modern day fire department originally got its start.
The first recorded fire in Ephrata occurred in the late part of 1700, when enemies of the Seventh Day Baptist of the now known historic Ephrata Cloister, attempted to destroy their foes buildings by burning them down. However with two large fresh water springs on site the Cloisters were able to control the fire. Then a shift in the winds pushed the fire back to the arsonist buildings, burning them to the ground.
During this period of time the only form of firefighting in existence was known as a bucket brigade. In the 1800’s when a fire was discovered an “alarm” was sounded. This alarm was made by suspending a split locomotive wheel in a frame and striking it with an iron hammer, the sound of which could be heard for great distances. When this alarm was sounded there was no way for community members to know where the fire call was, so if you heard the alarm you ran outside and looked into the sky to see the smoke or fire, or you watched where others were running. These community members grabbed the nearest bucket usually made of wood, but some of the nicer ones were metal, and proceeded on foot to the scene of the fire. Usually by the time the fire was discovered and help could be summoned it was too late to save the original building so efforts were focused on the surrounding areas. Water was thrown on the exterior walls and roofs of the nearest buildings to cool them down and hopefully prevent a fire. In this time period all properties either had fresh water wells or rain water cisterns equipped with a hand pump. Two men pumped the water out of these wells into the awaiting buckets. Then a line was formed from the well to the building they were trying to save and the buckets were passed down the line. By the end of the line there was usually very little water left in the bucket, because of spilling and leaking from the wooden buckets. Thusly, making the efforts of the community members almost fruitless, if there was any extra help, men would run into the burning building and throw whatever salvageable goods they could find out windows and doors and community members would move them away from the buildings.
The need soon arouse for a better solution to fighting fire. Some influential community members stepped forth to protect the town of Ephrata, and a hand pump was purchased. This hand drawn, hand pumped equipment carried with it two large buckets of water and hose. This allowed three people to prevent fire spread. Two were used to pump the handles which siphoned water from the attached tanks and then pushed it out the hose, guided by the third member of the team. As technology advanced, three community members stepped up and laid the ground work to the modern day fire department. D.R. Hertz, J.R. Mentzer, and C.S. Yeager, three prominent members of the community formed the original fire department and housed a steam fire engine in 1874. These three men chose to name Ephrata’s first fire department after Pennsylvania’s oldest fire department, S.J. Ettla No 1, which was named to honor Harrisburg’s best fire fighter. And so Ettla Fire Department was formed. The members furnished the money to buy the steam fire engine which cost $1,000. This new engine was housed in a small wood building to the rear of 40 W. Main Street (or Eitnier & Hoffman Funeral Home, now the current A&J Furniture Store).Then in 1880 the department moved into a small building built to the rear of a two-story brick school house. This was advantageous because the school bell could be used to alarm the volunteers of a fire. In 1884 as the city of Ephrata grew, the services provided by this department also grew. Ettla Fire Company held two town fairs in 1884 and 1885, using the proceeds to purchase a two wheel hose cart for an unknown price.
On September 17, 1888 Ettla Hook and Ladder Company was granted a charter, and became an official fire department under the guidance of Chief Hose Director M.G. Mentzer and President H.C. Gemperling. The Ettla Hook and Ladder Company housed it's apparatus and equipment in what is loving referred to as the Ettla house. This was a small one room wooden garage to the rear of what was Sprecher's Hardware Store, the current home of The Funniest Toy Store. At some point in time the title Chief Hose Director got shortened to the now used term Chief. This highest honor was held by the very best fire fighters of that time. As the years past the leadership changed. Superseding Chief Mentzer was Chief G. Groff (1889), Chief W.D. Gates (1890). Chief H.H. Stroble (1891-1892), Chief C. B. Fisher (1893). Along with the first Chiefs of the department Presidents H.C. Gemperling (1889-1894) was instrumental in the organization of this new department.
December 7, 1889 Ettla Hook and Ladder Company purchased a used hose carriage from Reading City Fire Department at a cost of $238. This apparatus continued to serve the Ephrata area for a number of years. On January 5, 1893 a lease was presented and signed by the membership to move the apparatus into the town hall, then located on Locust Street. The membership moved the equipment on January 7, 1893 and remained in this new home until 1924. The department continued to grow in membership and importance to the community, as the fire department was involved in every event. Chief Fisher was superseded by J. H. Spera (1894-1895), Chief J. Kilhefner (1896-1900), and then Chief M. Miller (1901). President H.C. Gemperling was superseded by G.D. Strechie (1895), J. Zudrell (1896), S.A. Urich (1897-1900), and by J.S. Heiser (1901).
Due to some political hostilities the fire department became inactive from March 6, 1902 until January 16, 1905, when town council member T.C. Redding circulated a petition to reorganize the fire department. This was done under the new and current name Ephrata Pioneer Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, under the leadership of Chief H. Dierwechter (1905-1908) and President D.B. Leafever (1905) and President J. Heiser (1906-1909). Ettla Hook and Ladder Company remained, however it no longer served the Borough of Ephrata with fire protection. At this time Ettla became more of a social group, not unlike the Elks or similar organizations.
Under Chief Dierwechter’s Chief C.H. Givler’s (1909) leadership the company made great strides in protecting the Ephrata residents, firstly with the purchase of a chemical cart for $250. To help offset the cost of the new equipment the original steam engine was sold to Mr. D. VonNeida, proprietor of the Mountain Springs Hotel (current property located at intersection of Spring Garden Street and E. Main Street, Applebee’s and Hampton Inn currently house structures on this property). During the latter part of 1910 under the leadership of Chief C. Bixler (1910) and President W.B. Gable (1910-1922) Ephrata Pioneer began investigating the advantages of a fire alarm system, although this project was not completed until 1912 when 18 fire alarm boxes were installed throughout the city, enabling firefighters to respond more rapidly. This alarm system was simplistic in terms, as it was a wooden box placed on a pole at a corner of an intersection. The box contained an electrical switch that when pressed would signal a phone operator to dispatch or alarm the fire department of a fire in that area. Although simple by today’s standards this was very high tech and innovative then.
As the company continued its valued service to the community, Chief H.M. Sprecher (1911), Chief I. Dunn (1912), Chief H.M. Sprecher (1912-1915) lead the department, until Chief E. Uible (1916-1919) was elected. Under the wisdom of Chief Uible the company made another stride in fire protection for the Ephrata residents. Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company made its first purchase of a horseless fire engine. An American LaFrance Junior Pumper was purchased for $5,350. Three firefighters were trained on the new motorized apparatus. Those first drivers were FF V.R. Seltzer, FF I. Eitnier, and FF W. Groff. With the addition of motorized apparatus it became necessary for the department to appoint someone to maintain the equipment in proper working order. The first two engineers were named Engineer V.R. Seltzer, and Engineer I. Eitnier.
Next to lead the department was Chief M.G. Kurtz (1919-1922). Under his guidance the department, having been pleased with the performance of the motorized American LaFrance engine, purchased a Nash truck chassis to mount the chemical cart, which was purchased in 1910. The chassis cost the department $1,485. Chief M.G. Kurtz also solidified the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Department as a community resource as they purchased an adjoining property on Locust Street, which became known at that time as the Band Hall. Numerous functions were held at this facility including town meetings, indoor fairs, first motion pictures, high school graduation ceremonies, and other fund raising activities. It also served as a source of funding for the department as it was rented out to various groups when the department was not using it. It was also during Chief Kurtz’s leadership that the Ettla Hook and Ladder Company official disbanded and turned over all its equipment to the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company, on September 27, 1919. Chief M.G. Kurtz and President W.B. Gable helped the department start the necessary steps to form a relief association, so that the department would be eligible to receive foreign insurance policy money to purchase needed safety equipment for the firefighters. This project would take several years and would not be officially completed until June 27, 1930.
Chief M.G. Kurtz was in command at the infamous Cocalico Hotel Fire. This hotel stood at the corner of E. Main St and Lake St, the present site of the U.S. Postal office. On February 20, 1921 Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company was alarmed to a fire at the Cocalico Hotel. After having trouble getting the American LaFrance engine started, the department arrived too late to save the building. However, despite this set back the company made several advances to insure this would not happen again. Because of the size of this fire the need for additional resources was present, and several other departments answered this call for help. As neighboring departments merged to assist one another at this fire, the idea to form a county wide organization was established. On June 28, 1921 Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company joined the Lancaster County Firemen’s Association. Also, a self-starter was installed onto the American LaFrance engine on June 30, 1921, at the cost of $106.88 to insure that it would start every time. Many spectators and press agents were drawn to the scene of this large fire, and their safety became a concern for Chief Kurtz, which directly resulted in the appointment of the first fire police officers. On October 27, 1921 C. Haldeman and H.E. Dierwechter were named the first two fire police officers of the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company. This fire also demonstrated the need for additional ladder resources and resulted in the department purchasing a horse drawn ladder cart on November 23, 1921 at a cost of $400. The ladder cart only served the department about a year and was lost as a result of a fire on December 1, 1922.
1923 was another monumental year for the department under the leadership of Chief P.H. Doremus (1923-1926) and President A. Weaver (1923-1926), as the department laid plans to build a new station. On February 8, 1923 the Borough of Ephrata and the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company entered a joint contract with Harry F. Good to build a new town hall and fire station at 21 E. Locust Street. On December 18, 1924 Chief Doremus and the company decided to purchase two additional motorized apparatus to be housed at the new station upon its completion. An American LaFrance six cylinder, seven hundred and fifty gallon per minute (gpm) pumper, was purchased along with a replacement ladder cart for a combined cost of $7,500. Because of these two major investments fund raising efforts became paramount, and the wives of the firefighters responded to this need resulting in the formation of the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company Ladies Auxiliary on February 30, 1923. The Ladies Auxiliary received its official charter on February 19, 1925.
During Chief A.E. Weaver (1927-1929) and President W.B. Gable (1927-1931) leadership the department suffered a great lost. Past Chief I. Dunn was killed in the line of duty. On Monday July 18, 1927 fire fighter Isaac Dunn was approaching the engine to board as it started to depart. Dunn missed a step and struck the engine bay door, resulting in him falling under the engine and being struck by the rear tires. Firefighter Dunn died as a result of his injuries.
Superseding Chief Weaver was Chief S. Redcay (1930-1931), Chief P.H. Doremus (1932-1934), Chief A.E. Weaver (1935), and Chief P.H. Doremus (1936-1946). President Gable was superseded in leadership by President G. Neis (1932-1935), R Grube (1936-1938), C. Mull (1939-1940), B. Fry (1941) and G. Ibach (1942-1943). Chief Doremus lead the department four different times with a combined total of 16 years. This was for good reason; Chief Doremus was instrumental in many advances in the fire service in the Ephrata Borough. April 30, 1942 Chief Doremus and the department purchased a Chevy service truck to be used by the department for $200. Later in 1942 Chief Doremus answered the cry for help from the public and the department purchased a Buick ambulance for $2,075. In this time period emergency medical treatment was not what it is today. Many of the pre-hospital medical services were done by private organizations. In the case of Ephrata Borough this service was provided by the American Legion, which had been operating out of the fire department station since June 30, 1931. In 1944 the American Legion could no longer afford to offer medical services to the residents of Ephrata and donated the 1931 ambulance to the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company, which continued to provide such services until the formation of the Ephrata Area Ambulance Association in 1961. It was also under the guidance of Chief Doremus that the U.S. Civil Defense organization operated out of the fire station. The Civil Defense organization provides special rescue services to the communities. The relationship with the Civil Defense group continued for many years resulting in the department receiving much state of the art equipment.
In 1943 as the war was under way President G. Ibach was drafted and President R. Grube took over holding the position until 1946. President J. Rupp (1946-1947) reported to the department with Chief Doremus that some of the apparatus was outdated or no longer serviceable and needed to be replaced. On April 25, 1946 Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company received a new American LaFrance pumper at the cost of $9,600. This new engine became known around the station as “Bertha”. Some of the other outdated apparatus was sold off, including the ladder cart, and Chevy service truck, to help pay for “Bertha”.
A Dodge chassis was purchased and the skilled hands of department members built a pumper onto this chassis in 1947, under the guidance of Chief E. Dickershied (1947-1948) and President R. Weidman (1948-1949). Chief Dickershied also led the department into progression and further insured the safety of Ephrata residents, as the company purchased another American LaFrance pumper. This pumper was lovingly called, “Scout”. In June of 1948 the department purchased a portable pump at $359.00.
As the times changed, so did the leadership. Taking office in January 1949, Chief A. Mellinger (1949-1960) lead the department into a new age. August 24, 1950 Chief Mellinger, President G. Neis (1950) and the department purchased a used 1942 Buick Ambulance for $2075. President J. Horst (1951-1956) announced on June 27, 1951 the Ephrata Fire Police received their official charter, although they were an active part of the department since their inception in 1921, thirty years prior. Chief Mellinger saw to it that the aging Dodge pumper was replaced. Much in the same fashion as the original, a new Dodge chassis and Marsh pump was purchased and the skilled hands of the firefighters built a replacement Dodge pumper. The old one was then sold to Mt. Airy Fire Department. The cost of this new built pumper was $2,431. Chief Mellinger also made advances in the notification to firefighters of a fire. With the help of the Ephrata Borough, Ephrata Pioneer members received new Plextron pagers in their homes. With this advancement, as an emergency call was taken at the dispatch center, a signal was sent to the in home pagers, which in turn notified the firefighters that there was a call for help, where it was, and the nature of the call. This allowed a much quicker response then previously possible. President E. Dickersheid (1957-1961) helped Chief Mellinger the remainder of his term. On May 21, 1959 Chief Mellinger led the department into the purchase of “Sparky” an American LaFrance 1250 gpm pumper.
Chief R. Ream (1961-1968), President M. Eitnier (1962-1963), President P. Wise (1964-1966), and President E. Dickersheid (1967-1968) had big shoes to fill, and did not disappoint. In 1964 Chief Ream helped the department purchase an International service truck. This truck could be used to transport additional personnel and equipment to the scene. However, Chief Ream was not without hardship, as the second of only two line of duty deaths struck the department. On May 9, 1968 William Snyder suffered a heart attack while responding in the ladder truck to a fire on West Franklin Street. Chief Ream ended his tenor with an action that would help serve the department to this day. In October 1968 the department purchased the Butzer building on South State Street, paying only $37,000. This property would later serve the department as its’ current station.
As the department set forth to continue its much valued service, Chief V. Schmuck (1969-1974) took lead as Chief R. Ream became President (1969-1970), and followed in his great predecessors footsteps. Under the wisdom and guidance of Chief Schmuck the department once again called on their business relationship with American LaFrance and in 1969 purchased another engine. This one was equipped with a 1250 gpm pump at a cost of $28,995. Chief Schmuck also lead the department in forward thinking and on May 24, 1970 a ground breaking ceremony was held at 135 S. State St, for the current station. President J. Shirk Sr (1971-1973) was elected to help Chief Schmuck, as was President J. Groff (1974). On September 21, 1974 Chief Schmuck announced the completion of the construction of a fund raising trailer. This trailer was to be used at the annual farm show, as well as any other fund raising activity. After Chief Schmuck, Chief D. Kieth (1975-1976) and President R. Ream (1975-1976) led the department, immediately followed by Chief J. Eitnier (1977-1985) and Presidents C. Bleacher (1977-1981), J. Groff (1982) and D. Whitcraft (1983-1985).
As the International chassis serving the department since 1964 aged, Chief Eitnier helped the department purchase a new chassis and body to replace the older one; this was done at a cost of $19,233. Chief Eitnier also led the department in the replacement of the Seagrave aerial apparatus, with the purchase of a LTI aerial device. This was no small task as the cost of a new aerial device reached an astonishing $369,690. In May 1983 Chief Eitnier was present to receive an award from the State of Pennsylvania honoring Ephrata Pioneer Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, with having the first fire protection system in the state. A system now termed sprinklers. This system is credited to the forward thinking of previous Chief A. Mellinger, who after listening to the proposal of the new building at company meeting, and armed with his all too familiar phrase “let’s not forget our common sense, fellas’”, told Chief Eitnier he was disappointed in him. Chief Eitnier asked why this was, and Chief A. Mellinger replied that we are always preaching to others about fire safety and prevention and then we design a building and put no fire protection in it? Chief Eitnier and the department voted that night to fully protect the entire building!
As the clock pushed forward the department was once again lead by Chief V. Schmuck (1986-1990) and Chief Eitnier switched to the President’s office (1986-1989). Chief Schmuck influenced generations to come with many state of the art changes in equipment and operations. Firstly the introduction of large diameter hose on all engines in June 1986. This allowed the engines to connect to a hydrant and apply large amounts of water to a fire. February 1988, Chief Schmuck helped the department to purchase a used Ford pick-up truck to be used for just about anything and everything. In July 1989 Chief Schmuck made another change, that although still in practice today was a hard concept for some. Chief Schmuck announced and enforced no longer shall members ride on the tail board of apparatus. A practice that to this day still remains pictured in the minds of many when they see a fire engine, however this practice is unsafe and many around the country were injured as a result of this. Chief Schmuck paved the way to the future.
Chief D. Whitcraft (1991-2010) and President J. Groff (1990-1994) took office on January 1, 1991. With Chief Whitcraft’s guidance the department made many changes that remain in service to this day. On June 13, 1992 Chief Whitcraft led the department to purchase a Pierce Javelin engine equipped with a 1750 gpm pump at a price of $359,690. Chief Whitcraft started another business relationship that remains to this day, as the department purchased many other apparatus from Pierce Manufacturing. In 1995 the department with the leadership of Chief Whitcraft and President J. Keller (1995-1996) traded in the Javelin and purchased a new Pierce Lance with a 1750 gpm pump at a cost of $331,999. In 1996 Chief Whitcraft, President J. Kiefer (1996-current) and the department replaced the aging squad with a new Ford F-350 diesel pick-up truck. This squad still serves the department today in a vital role. In 1998 Chief Whitcraft once again called on his relationship with Pierce and another Pierce Lance 1750 gpm engine was ordered and delivered. As the advances in technology continued Chief Whitcraft embraced these and once again helped the department decide to purchase a 2002 Pierce Aerial device. This was also no small task as the price for a new aerial device rose above $500,000. During the turn of the century another cry for help was received by the community and Chief Whitcraft answered that call. Chief Whitcraft led the department in the necessary training and purchase of all equipment so that the department became a certified Level II water rescue team. Completely outfitted with the most modern of water rescue equipment and two inflatable boats, the department also purchased a trailer to house these boats. As Chief Whitcraft learned from his wise predecessors, he saw the need to train the future officers of this department and started a program that is now coined “duty officer”. This program allows the Chief some flexibility in his schedule as during weekends another officer of the department is in charge, under the guidance and supervision of the chief. This program led to the purchase of a 2009 Ford Expedition, for the use of the assigned duty officer. Chief Whitcraft led the department the longest for a total tenor of 19 years, and in December of 2010, he turned the department leadership over to the wisdom of Chief R.A. Pettyjohn.
With the insightful leadership of Chief Pettyjohn the department will continue to make great strides forward in the protection of the Ephrata Borough, Township and surrounding municipalities, residents and visitors alike.
Historic information can be accredited to the company historian Paul Wise, a paper published by M.H. Heinicke, Chief A. Mellinger, articles published by Ephrata Review, Chief J. Eitnier, a 100th anniversary of Ephrata Borough publication by Tapsco Inc., a 75th anniversary of Ephrata Borough publication by Hooper Productions, President James Kiefer, Historical Society of Ephrata, Historical Society of Conestoga Valley, Recording Secretary Paul Miley, Ephrata Public Library and by the recorded minutes of the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company. A special thanks to Amanda Kintzler for her valued insight. Article compiled by and respectfully submitted by Ken Weber on this date of July 17, 2012.