April 30, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
BRANDON — The Brandon Fire Department hasn’t operated out of its original firehouse on Franklin Street near the town hall for almost 10 years now. But in the building’s second story, where the Dunmore Hose Company held its meetings since the building was constructed in 1888, relics of another time remain untouched.
On a dusty round table is a roll of tickertape tangled up in a contraption that once controlled the horn on top of the building. Various combinations of horn signals were assigned to each street in town, so firemen knew where to go when they heard the alarm. The horn was taken down in the 1970s, but the last number it called is still punched into the tape.
Scanning a finger down the list of street numbers on an old chart recently, longtime Brandon firefighter Gene Pagano looked at the tape and said, “13. It must have been on Grove Street.”
The Brandon Fire Department, officially known as the Dunmore Hose Company, in 1998 moved to a new building on Franklin Street at the south end of the village, leaving only the water department in the old one. Now the water department is ready to move to new digs, as well, and the fire department has been accepting bids for the 2,500 square-foot, red brick building.
On Friday, May 11, members of the department will look over the offers and determine its new owner.
“Our main concern is not necessarily to sell the building to the highest bidder, but that the building is used for something that would benefit the village,” Pagano said. “Because Brandon is being fixed up so nice and people have been putting their heart and soul into bringing the village back.”
If someone offers $200,000 to put in an auto repair shop, for example, and someone else offers $150,000 with a plan to use the building as a cooking school, the department would take the lower bid, because “it’s better for the town,” Pagano said. He wants to see the space used as a kind of community center.
By the looks of the upstairs meeting room, the building might have been just that for men in the company at one time.
Old scoring beads hang on a line across the ceiling, tallied up from the last pool game played when there used to be a table in the musty room. American flags lie rolled up on the benches pushed against the wall, and faded joke books are scattered on a round table — a casual flip through their pages will expose old-fashioned Penthouse models, flirtatiously covering up bare chests.
“In the later years you didn’t see so many guys playing pool and hanging out here, because everyone was busy, you know, we all had families,” Pagano said. “The pool table now is up in the new hose house, and the guys do use it, they play occasionally up there. But years ago, as I understand, that pool table was pretty active.”
It must have been before Dudley Berry’s time. The former water superintendent joined the Dunmore Hose Company as a firefighter in 1975 after retiring from 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, and he said he never saw more than five games played up there.
But Berry, 73, can attest to the history of the firehouse itself.
Back when he was a kid growing up in the ’30s and ’40s in Brandon, the Hose Company only had two fire engines. The front of the building had two swing-open doors, arched at the top to echo the rounded window casings, he remembers.
As engines got longer and the fire department bought more of them, it became difficult to maneuver them through the rounded doors. So in the late ’40s, they switched them out for the roll-up garage door now in place.
Pagano said that at one time, the downstairs portion of the station was a stable for horses. Harnesses hung above them on a pulley system, he said, and firemen would lower them onto the horses and hook them up to hose carts when there was a fire. But Berry insists the original hose company only used hand-pulled rigs.
“There were never any records of the department buying horse feed,” he said. “Besides, there was a basement with a furnace down there. You don’t ever put horses over a basement.”
Around the same time the garage door was installed, the basement was filled in, Berry said.
“Because the trucks kept getting heavier and heavier and the floor wouldn’t support them,” he said.
At the same time, the number of firefighters was getting lighter. When Berry was a member, the Dunmore Hose Company was about 40 strong. Now they have only a few dozen.
Pagano, who has been part of the crew on and off since the 1960s, said he came back after a hiatus about a year ago because of the dwindling membership.
“You can’t get 40 volunteers these days,” Berry said. “And it’s more expensive now to outfit everyone. In those days, you just basically needed a raincoat, a pair of boots and gloves.”
And of course now, a town-wide siren never rings. All the firefighters carry pagers, which alert them each privately with dispatch from the state police.
“The pager frees your firemen up so they can go do all the other things you want them to do,” Pagano said.
But it also eliminates the kind of town-wide communication, concern and curiosity that with the siren was central to both men’s experience growing up in Brandon.
Berry remembers as a youth waiting anxiously on snowy days to hear number 22, the signal that school was canceled for the day. Pagano recalls listening for the curfew siren at 10 minutes to 9 p.m. and deciding to stay out on the streets anyway.
And when there was a fire, everyone was included in the emergency.
“Every (fireman) had a chart in their pocket, and every household had one, too,” Berry said. “When the horn blew, everyone in town ran to their charts to see where the fire was. You didn’t know what was going on in those days, but everyone wanted to find out.”