In 1736, Benjamin Franklin organized a volunteer “bucket brigade” in Philadelphia to more effectively respond to fires in the entire city – not just for members of a local Mutual Fire Society, the practice in Boston at the time.
Long gone are the days of leather buckets and alarm bells in the town square, but the spirit of Franklin’s community-minded Union Fire Company lives on in Millstadt.
The village’s volunteer fire department turns 150 years old this year. Throughout its history, the department has remained volunteer-only, making it one of the oldest continuously such departments in the state, another being the New Athens Fire Department.
The department’s name is also a carry-over from Franklin’s 1730s brigade, as the official designation of the volunteer organization is Millstadt Union Fire Department.
The Millstadt group was loosely organized in the late 1860s, but it became an official organization when the Union Fire Company of Centreville was founded Aug. 5, 1871, with charter members Leonard Kropp, Charles Jacobus and P.F. Breidecker.
The original name reflected the community’s name prior to 1843 when the village’s first postmaster, George Kuntz, changed the village name to Millstadt to avoid confusion with the other Centreville 10 miles to the north.
The name Millstadt was not recognized by the fire department’s board of trustees until 1880 and has since been known by its current moniker.
The first fire engine was purchased in April 1920. A Masked Ball in January 1922 to pay the remaining balance and members of the department who did not attend the dance were fined 50 cents. The annual Fireman’s Ball is still held every January, although members are no longer fined.
Another bygone tradition of the department was to fine members who did not attend other volunteers’ funerals.
They added a chemical truck purchased from the Mertz Motor Company in 1924 with help from the Millstadt Commercial Club.
The department reached the height of fame in 1929 when Fox Movietone News, a company that produced cinematic newsreels from 1928 to 1963, filmed a reenactment of a fire call replete with smoke bombs for effect.
The firemen in the film wore pajamas to reflect the tendency of volunteers to respond in the middle of the night and simply put boots and helmets on over their night wear, earning them the nickname “Pajama Fire Brigade.” The department’s mascot mutt was also featured in the film and could be seen either picking up or stamping out lit cigarette butts.
The current station on South Jefferson Street was completed in 1979.
MUFD volunteer Ralph Schaefer invited the Republic-Times to look at the station’s historical artifacts during its recent Easter BBQ, and it was apparent that he has the same pride of duty the charter members of the organization had in 1871.
The conference room and office area of the fire house are adorned with pictures of the founders and other crews and equipment from many of the department’s decades of service.
A display case on the wall holds articles from near the beginning of the department’s founding, including a banner and original uniforms from different eras along with advertisements for firemen’s events and other photographs of past eras.
Schaefer, whose great-grandfather emigrated in the 1870s, feels a particular pull to “carry the family tradition” since his uncle lost his life fighting a fire in a bowling alley at the property that house’s Ott’s Tavern on East Washington Street in Millstadt.
Fellow volunteer and former department president Butch Hettenhausen’s story is similar to Schaefer’s.
His family arrived in the area in the mid-1800s, he lost a family member to a fire and he has been with the union for the past 44 years, about the same amount of time as Schaefer.
He was on the “active” list for 32 of those years and is thankful the department has “no problem acquiring new, younger volunteers.”
“This is a dedicated group of firemen,” Hettenhausen continued. “There’s been no need to advertise (for new members) and that’s very positive. The village really supports the fire department.”
Millstadt Fire Chief Kurt Pellman said under normal circumstances the department would celebrate its sesquicentennial during its annual Fireman’s Picnic in June, but COVID-19 has prevented that event from happening for the second year in a row.
Since organizers have been advised that permits for rides and beverages will not be issued by the state until after July 1, Pellman said they decided to mark the anniversary in style next summer, saying it would have to be a “150-plus-one” celebration.
The department has changed with the times over the past century and a half, from buckets to hoses, wagons to high-powered engines and bells to scanners, but the spirit remains the same as reflected in the union’s motto, “Volunteers Because We Care.”