Tuesday, October 7, 2008

1923 Fire Leads to Founding of Gates-Chili Fire Dept.

By John Robortella

Nearly 85 years after a house claimed the lives of two Gates (N.Y.) children, the Gates-Chili Fire Department now has the details of that 1923 tragedy that led to its founding.

"We always knew that our fire department was organized following the deaths of children in a fire," said William A. Gillette, chairman of the Gates Fire District board of commissioners. "But we never knew the details or had names, an address, or the date. Having this information now shows us exactly what motivated the residents of Gates (a western suburb of the City of Rochester) to form the fire department. It is an important part of our history and for the first time since 1923, we have the full story."

John Robortella of Canandaigua, N.Y., the former editor of the Gates-Chili News and a member of the Gates Historical Society, located news coverage of the fire in the records of the Rochester Public Library and the Rochester Museum & Science Center.

"The story of the house fire was first related to us by the late Charles Russell in a 1977 interview on the 50th anniversary of the fire department," said Mr. Robortella. "In 1923, he was a boy living in the Beechwood tract of homes off Lee Road. He remembered the fire and the loss of the children's lives, and told us that this was the event that prompted the citizens to establish a town fire department. We published the interview as part of the coverage of the fire department's anniversary, and again in 2002 in the 75th anniversary history. At the time of the interview, Mr. Russell was the only person then living with first-hand knowledge of the fire, but unfortunately he could not recall every detail.

"The fire marked a turning point in the settlement and growth of the town," Mr Robortella said. "This was the tragedy that brought the rural Gates community together to form an association that would provide protection for everyone in the town, and in a portion of Chili, as well. The deaths of two children caused the people to realize that they had to provide their own fire protection, especially since the town was beginning it transition from farmland to housing tracts."

There were no emergency services in Gates in the 1920's. The only piece of fire equipment nearby was  a horse-drawn chemical hose truck, No. 21, stored at St. Mary's Hospital farm on Fisher Road. Charles J. Diringer, the farm superintendent, had purchased it from the Rochester Fire Department on Genesee Street and stored it in the barn.

"Houses were going up in the Beechwood Gardens tract in Gates for a dollar down, a dollar a week," said Mr. Russell in his 1977 interview. "People were putting up shacks."

According to a news report in The Rochester Herald the day after the fire, Mrs. Maurice Balmer was at her home on Evelyn Street on the afternoon of Monday, November 19, 1923, with her children: three-year-old Maurice Jr., two-year-old Howard, and nine-month-old Lee. Maurice Sr. was at work at the American Woodworking Machinery Company. The homes in the settlement were described as three- and four-bedroom structures with no basements and beaverboard interiors.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Mrs. Balmer lit a fire in the presumably wood-burning kitchen stove to start supper, and then left the children alone in the house while she went to visit her sister, Mrs. Bruce White, who lived nearby.

Not only after 3 p.m., a neighbor, Edward Doud, saw smoke coming from the Balmer home and came to investigate. As he neared the house, flames shot up through the roof. He tried to get in but was turned back by the fire.

"He rushed to the home of Mrs. White and informed Mrs. Balmer of the blaze," the Herald reported in its November 20, 1923, issue.

"My God," she shrieked, "and my children are in it."

Another neighbor, Dorothy Viesenbach, heard the cries of "fire" and came from home, about an eighth of a mile away, with an extinguisher.

A group of neighbors had assembled in front of the burning house and several of the men used the extinguisher to fight back the flames from a window. That enabled one of them, J. F. Sharkey, with a wet towel covering his head, to climb into the house and reach two-year-old Howard. He managed to pull the boy out the window to safety.

"He was driven back by the flames, while trying to reach the other children" the Herald reported.

Little could be done to put out the fire, which destroyed the home. At 4:30 that afternoon, the remains of Maurice Jr. and Lee were discovered and removed from the debris.

Neighbors called Monroe County Sheriff Franklin W. Judson (a Gates resident) to the scene, along with the county coroner and Ezra Kauffman, a special investigator. The sheriff assigned Deputy Edward P. Fosmire, who was primarily assigned to patrol in Spencerport, N.Y., and Deputy Edward Rice to the case. The officials determined that an overheated stove was the cause of the fire.

Albert R. Stone, Rochester's well-known newspaper photographer of the day, arrived with his camera to take pictures of the house, which by the time he arrived had been completely destroyed. One of his photos was printed in the Herald's article.

When Mr. Balmer arrived home from work, he newspaper reported, that, "both he and his wife were prostrated by the tragedy."

"Fire apparatus from the city went to the scene but was helpless," the news report continues. "The house was a charred and burning ruin when they arrived. With the neighbors, who had formed a bucket brigade, they helped pump and carry water to cool the ruins and enable willing hands to drag the little bodies from the embers of their former home"

After the fire, Mr. Russell, Elbert Finch, and seven other men met in a shed on Long Pond Road near Trolley Boulevard to make plans for a local fire department. (Mr. Russell became president of the Gates-Chili Fire Department in 1939; Mr. Finch was elected supervisor of the town of Gates in 1948).

Four years went by before the group held an official meeting in M. A. White's garage on Beahan Road on February 15, 1927, where they formed the Gates Protective Association. Thereafter, progress was swift.

A week later, on February 22, 1927, the volunteers reconvened and met with two men from the Rosecroft Club, a civic organization. Mr. Diringer joined them and proposed that a siren be installed on the St. Mary's farm barn to summon the volunteers when an emergency was reported. The group agreed to begin spreading the word that a fire department was being formed. A committee was appointed to gather petition signatures of townspeople in support.

A third meeting was called on March 3, 1927, at which 26 men paid dues to join. The committee turned in a petition with 112 signatures in favor of the Gates Protective Association.

The first officers were elected at the fourth meeting, on April 6, 1927, held at the Common School District No. 1 schoolhouse, located at what is now 2355 Chili Avenue, the location of present-day Station No. 1 and Gates Fire District headquarters. They were: Max Voit, president; Harry Miller, vice president; L. A. Christopher, secretary; Fred Schwartz, treasurer; Charles J. Diringer, chief; C. N. Turner, deputy chief; and Seth Ford, captain.

The horse-drawn cart was the only equipment available for use. Members answered calls on horseback, bicycle, or on foot. A bell was installed at the top of the windmill at St. Mary's Farm. Emergency calls were directed into the farmhouse, where the nuns answered the phone and rang the bell to summon Mr. Diringer from the field with his team of horses. He changed the harness and hooked the team onto the chemical cart. The sisters stood by to answer calls from the volunteers and tell them the location of the alarm.

The fire department's first motorized truck was delivered in January 1928 at a cost of $2,400. The body from the horse-drawn apparatus was transferred to the truck chassis. The truck was housed in a shed attached to the side of Seth Ford's grocery store at 2349 Chili Avenue, just east of the schoolhouse, near the corner of present-day Chili Avenue and Fisher Road.

On February 6, 1931, the voters of Common School District No. 1 voted 50 to 5 to sell the schoolhouse to the fire association for $2,000. The school was relocated across Chili Avenue to the site of present-day Washington Irving Elementary School. Volunteers remodeled the old schoolhouse into a double truck room, meeting hall, and caretaker's quarters.

In 1932, the Gates Protective Association was reorganized under the membership corporation laws of New York State as the Gates-Chili Fire Department Inc.

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