Lansdowne firefighters mark century of service in Baltimore County

Volunteer company celebrates anniversary of its founding in 1902

March 25, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The small attic fire grew in intensity and swallowed the entire Fourth Street house as frustrated Lansdowne residents looked on, unable to help.

The nearest Baltimore County fire company was nowhere to be found as crews were kept from the scene by heavy snow.

Then and there, leaders of this southwest Baltimore County town decided to start their own fire company. The station opened on Valentine's Day 1902, making this year the 100th anniversary for the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Association.

"One hundred years of anything is a remarkable thing," said James Doran, administrator of the Baltimore County Volunteer Fireman's Association. "But for volunteers who don't get a penny for their service, it reflects the spirit of the community."

Today, the Lansdowne volunteer unit - third oldest in the county behind Cockeysville and Pikesville - is modern, with two firetrucks, a medic unit and 65 active crew members.

But that was not always the case for a fire department that sprouted from humble beginnings.

A century ago, the association built a 640-square-foot wooden firehouse for $450 at 140 Laverne Ave., where the current red-brick station stands. The department's first piece of equipment was a hose reel, tank and hand pump attached to a hand-drawn cart.

"When they took the apparatus to the fire, they would leave it there and someone would bring it back," said James Donald Mooney, a 45-year Lansdowne department veteran and former chief.

A fire hall was built in 1913, making the station the community's social center. No doubt, the hall's popularity was bolstered by the presence of an early 20th-century curio: a movie projector.

Much of the early history of the department had to be passed down by word of mouth. That's because the department's records were destroyed in a fire in 1922 at a private home where the documents were kept, Mooney said.

That same year, the department moved into the future, buying its first gasoline-powered truck. The fire service soon had to return to horse-drawn wagons when the truck collided with a candy truck.

At one point in the 1920s, the department had a pipe and bugle corps and fielded a semiprofessional football team.

In 1937, during the depths of the Depression, the association formed a ladies auxiliary, which helped raise desperately needed funds using everything from bake sales to dances. Even so, the association, hard-pressed for money, almost folded the next year, Mooney said.

"We had members who mortgaged their houses to keep it going," said Mooney, who served as fire chief from 1968 to 1991 and has become the department historian.

The company struggled to stay afloat during World War II when many of its volunteers were called to duty. But membership stabilized with the end of the war, and in 1955 the department built a brick station on the site of the original building; the station is still in use today.

Mooney officially joined the squad in 1957, but like many of the volunteers, he had been hanging around the station waiting for his chance.

"We all grew up in this place," Mooney said. "I was born into it, my grandfather was the chief and my father was the president for several years."

Though state law required firefighters to be 18, Mooney was jumping on trucks at 16.

"I fought a lot of fires before I was 18," he said.

To show how financial pressures have changed since he joined in 1957, Mooney noted that a pumper truck then cost $8,300. Today, a pumper costs $230,000.

Keeping the fire association afloat has been a struggle, said Chief John "Jay" Lewis Jr. Training demands have grown considerably. Firefighters and medics once were certified after 60 hours of training, a figure that has risen to more than 300 hours, he said.

And the days of bake sales and dances have disappeared as the company tries to maintain its $180,000 annual budget. The chief fund-raiser for the squad is the annual summer carnival. The association also seeks donations from residents and receives funding from the county.

"As long as I've been here it's been a struggle to make money," Lewis said. "We're always looking for a new way to make a dollar."

Lewis, however, said he has no worry over whether the company will survive. Like Mooney, Lewis' grandfather, father and uncles worked in the department. His sister, Georgette Airey, became the first female firefighter in 1985.

"The determination that is here in Lansdowne is like no other place," Lewis said. "Everybody here takes pride in the company."

Even the ladies auxiliary is trying to make a comeback. Louise Dell, who has been a member for the past 21 years, is recruiting members. The auxiliary has suffered as older members have passed on, Dell said.

"We're all older and a lot of the younger ones weren't interested," Dell said. "But now they're getting interested."

And the fire service is hoping to build a station on land it owns at Hollins Ferry Road near Ryerson Circle.

The fire association held its formal century celebration last month. State Del. James E. Malone Jr., a lieutenant and 17-year firefighter with Baltimore County, served as master of ceremonies.

"A fire service is basically a big family, it's a tradition, a community," said Malone, who has served 17 years with the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department. "It's people who really care about the community and want to be involved."

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