The first of the firefighters
The history of fire and firefighters in Webster City will be discussed at an event this weekend.
Terry Johnston, who served as the fire chief of Webster City from 1976 to 1998, will present “The Story of Fire in the First 100 Years of Webster City” on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Mulberry Center Church at Wilson Brewer Park. Johnston will talk about the department’s history from its formation in the late 19th century to the centennial celebration he oversaw as fire chief and much more.
Right after Johnston became fire chief, a box of old pictures of fires and the department was found at the station. The photos were the starting point of Johnston’s research into the department’s history.
“Getting that box out and looking at it, I thought it would be a shame if we didn’t get that history recorded somehow,” Johnston said.
Those found photos are now on display in the community room of the Webster City Fire Station. When the photos were found, Johnston began digging to give the photos some context. He talked to older firefighters at the department, retired local firefighters and families across the community. With those interviews, and a lot of time spent looking at microfilm at Kendall Young Library, Johnston compiled the history of the fire department.
That history began when Webster City was incorporated in 1857. At the time, Johnston said most buildings were made out of wood and had wooden roofs. They also used open flames for heating and cooking.
“Not good,” Johnston said. “Back then, they were losing buildings like crazy and they didn’t have any equipment.”
In 1875, the City formed a loose group of residents who responded to fires. Johnston said they used buckets to douse the flames and long hooks to tear shingles off of burning roofs. In 1877, a wagon was purchased to haul those buckets and hooks as well as ladders and axes. However, those citizens had nowhere to put the wagon. It posed a maintenance problem as well as the threat of vandalism.
In 1880, the first fire station was established in Webster City by order of the City Council. Johnston said firefighters were notified of a fire by the ringing of a bell. A chemical fire extinguisher, also hand-pulled, was also purchased for the department. After a while, the department began using horses to pull their carts. After three sets of horses, the department got their first motorized fire truck in 1917. Johnston said he enjoys the history of the fire department because it reflects the history of Webster City as a whole.
“We started out with not one paved street anywhere, then we had a couple miles of paved streets, then a couple more as the city got bigger,” Johnston said. “I just think it’s an interesting story.”
In addition to the beginnings of the department, Johnston said his presentation will include many other stories about the history of the department, some humorous and some not so humorous. He expects the talk to last about an hour.