A look at the history of The Newport Township Volunteer Fire Department
“On September 7, 1945, a group of interested persons met in Rosecrans to organize the Newport Township Volunteer Fire Department. The members each contributed 50 cents in a fund for the Treasurer.” This was the first entry made in the first book of records kept by a group of people who started an institution that would continue to grow to meet the needs of a community for almost 75 years.
Thirty-five men attended that meeting and on September 25th, another sixteen men joined. During the course of the next year the people supporting the cause totaled more than seventy-five. These individuals attended planning meetings and paid dues of fifty cents to belong to the organization of the new fire department. The first order of business was raising funds, and everyone chipped in to help. Card parties were held across the township and the residents came out in droves to support the formation of a fire department. The card parties, which were held at local one-room schoolhouses, raised hundreds of dollars. Every meeting brought more men to contribute their fifty cents. Other fund raising events were sponsored; the first advertising poster and raffle were started that first year at the first dance. The dance was a great success as it netted over $1,200.00 for the department. A charter was applied for and granted to the Newport Township Volunteer Fire Department by the State of Illinois.
The first fire chief was Leroy Fritz, and he held that post for twenty years until he resigned in early 1966. His line of officers were Assistant Chiefs: Les Shields and Art Rice, Chief Engineer: Claude (Cotton) Rice. Ernie Leable served as treasurer and secretary. The fire department was guided by three trustees: Les Shields, who served as a member and trustee for twenty years until the time of his death, Frank Faulkner and George Voss. County Judge Persons, who resided in Newport Township, appointed the trustees at that time. With $614.60 in the treasury, the membership decided to purchase a siren for $125.00 to alert members, and land for the purpose of erecting a fire station. After considerable discussions over where the new station would be, Rosecrans or Wadsworth, it was determined that more daytime help would be available in Wadsworth. On May 28, 1946, a sum of $100.00 was paid to the estate of John Lux for the down payment of Lot #3 in Lux subdivision, the present location. The site was once the Old Woodman Hall, a local dance hall that hosted dances that would draw revelers from other communities as well as the local residents. Card parties and other social functions in the community were also held at the hall until it ironically succumbed to a fire.
On July 15, 1946, a final $200.00 was paid to the Lux estate and a title was granted to the Newport Township Volunteer Fire Department. By January of 1947, local men started buying bags of cement and sand, a little at a time, to start making the block for the new building. The cement blocks were made by hand in the evenings and on weekends. Thus began months of hours put in by the men from the township volunteering their time to build the new two bay station.
In their spare time these same men continued to canvass the township for donations. Members remember receiving large and small donations. It seemed that everyone contributed something, and they were rarely turned away at the door, even at the modest of homes. Social functions continued to be held year round, whatever the event, card party, bake sale, dances or raffles, the residents always came out to show their support.
1947 also saw the purchase of the first fire truck, purchased from the W.S. Darley Co. for $4,422.63. Mr. Bill Doyle loaned the funds to the department to purchase the unit. Five telephones were installed in key members’ houses to alert them of a call.
The member’s wives, who were dubbed the “call girls”, would receive the emergency call on the fire line and would have to call all of the members at home to get them to respond to the call. The first call girls were Grace Shields, Marion Schlosser, Cathy Butwil, Carolyn Bennett and Loraine Dams. The ladies could not leave their home until they were sure someone else would be available to answer the fire phone. This practice continued until 1972 when the department purchased 23 Plectron alert radios that were automatically toned out by Gurnee Dispatch. The fire department honored the “call girls” with a dinner for their years of service. Before the Plectrons, Les or Grace Shields would run over to the station to sound the siren to alert members of the call. One siren wail indicated an inhalator or rescue call and several wails meant that the emergency was a fire call.
A second fire engine was obtained when the Gurnee Fire Department gave Newport a 1942 Chevy fire truck. This vehicle was later destroyed in the only fatal accident in the history of the department. The incident, which killed fireman George Kull and seriously injured Henry Becker, occurred while the department was responding to a call.
By the end of 1947, the department was in full service providing fire protection to the residents of Newport Township existing solely on donations. The first tax moneys were not received until January 1948.
Newport boasted the largest tanker in Lake County when township resident Gene Shea, with the engineering assistance of Henry Becker, built an eleven hundred gallon tanker out of a 1949 Ford F700 cab and chassis purchased by the department. The new tanker was called “Big Red” and was used by the department until Tempel Smith purchased it from the association in 1973.
Grass fires were prevalent due to the rural environment of Newport Township. Most of the time finding access to these fires was quite a task. With this in mind, a new 1955 Willys Jeep grass fire truck was purchased. The Willys truck was bought from Harris Motors in Winthrop Harbor and converted to a fire truck by the Grayslake Fire Apparatus Company. The truck has been retired from service but is maintained for parades and special events.
1955 Willys Jeep Grass Fire Truck
By 1960, the aging of the current fleet made it necessary to obtain a new fire engine. The volunteers purchased a chassis from Pedersen GMC in Antioch for $9,755.00. The conversion of the truck was completed by the Peter Pirsch Company for $5,166.00. In 1968, a Dodge brush truck was added to the fleet. It’s four-wheel drive abilities were tested annually in the forest preserve behind the firehouse at the firemens' family picnic, much to the delight of all the children. In 1970, a Ward LaFrance 1,000 gallon pumper was purchased fulfilling the need for larger pumping capacity and to relieve the ten-year-old first run engine.
1960 GMC/Pirsch Pumper
1968 Dodge Grass Fire Truck
Attendance at local parades was considered good public relations and kept the firemen busy waxing the fire trucks. Personnel were also expected to be present for tours of the firehouse for local groups as well as hosting fire drills at the town's schools. Christmas parties were held annually for the children of the township. The holiday affair was held at the station. Movies were shown and the kids were treated to bags of candy. It was an event anxiously looked forward to by all the local children, some who have returned to the station to serve as firefighters today. Beginning in 1974, after hosting the annual party for many years, the department decided to bring Santa on the road. They stopped at the children’s homes passing out candy and Christmas cheer. The first Santa was Gil Hawk, who faithfully dyed his beard white every year to fulfill his role. As the township grew, it took five Santas to reach all of the children in one day.
The station required a lot of maintenance and the department relied heavily on the plumbers, electricians, painters, and tradesmen who were also members. In the early years, it was even the Chief Engineers job to maintain building heat as well as maintenance on all vehicles. In 1953, a need for a meeting room became apparent and a basement was added to the original structure. Fred Cashmore served as contractor for the addition; his contract was for $3,497.79. In 1966, after lengthy debates and a year of committee meetings, bids were received for another addition to the building. It consisted of adding a long double entry truck bay and a meeting room above the basement area. Leable & Huff were the contractors for this addition. The purchase of an additional lot was necessary to accommodate the addition and it was acquired from Mr. Leonard Beasinger.
The fire department continued to grow with the township, providing quality fire protection and rescue service. An addition in 1984 extended the station to nine vehicle bays and a hose tower. This addition not only provided adequate space to store the department’s fleet, properly store equipment and tools, but also allowed the department to start holding its own dances once again to raise funds for the department.
Hiring full-time firefighters in the mid 1990's necessitated additional changes to the Fire Station. Temporary bunks were used in the basement, however the basement conditions proved to be unsuitable for the firefighters. Temporary trailers were obtained from a tollway project and installed behind the Fire Station to provide quarters for on-duty personnel. These trailers were used until 2012.
Department members and the Board of Trustees evaluated numerous options, listened to Fire District residents, and determined that two fire stations would be necessary to provide adequate protection. Plans were prepared to modify the station that included filling in the basement, constructing crew quarters, a training/meeting room, offices and physical fitness area. The building was also now required to be undated to meet handicap accessibility standards. Lastly, to protect the personnel, equipment and station, fire sprinklers were to be installed. Property limitations and storm water management requirements limited the remodeling to the buildings 1984 footprint. As a result, vehicle capacity was reduced to just four units.
Camosy Construction was contracted to remodel the station in Wadsworth, to now be dubbed Station 1. The remodeled building was opened in 2013. A mortgage loan was secured to fund the construction. In 2019, approximately $700,000 is still owed on the mortgage.
The Board of Trustees needed to secure additional space to store fire department apparatus. Limited financial resources led the Fire District to enter into a lease for a former well driller's garage and office located at 43320 N. Highway 41 (Old Route 41 north of Russell Road). The lease began in 2013, running to 2023. The Fire District acted as the general contractor to update the office area to living quarters for on-duty personnel, install paving, fire sprinklers and fire alarm systems. Total cost to upgrade the building and property was $338,336. Station 2 was occupied in 2013 being staffed 24/7 with paid firefighters.
During the early years of the department, first aid was the only medical training available to the firefighters. Members of neighboring departments taught classes and some of the firemen learned first-aid procedures while serving in the armed forces prior to becoming firemen. Later on, the American Red Cross offered advanced first aid training. The fire department had no vehicle for transporting patients, responding to an incident with a fire truck and take care of the patients as well as they could. An ambulance would be called from a funeral home, private ambulance service or another fire department or rescue squad. In the early 1970’s, some of the members went out on their own and trained with other departments and ambulance services to become certified with the Illinois Department of Public Health as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) and Paramedics. Finding the need to extricate people from automobiles who were trapped in wreckage prior to the arrival of the ambulance, the department purchased a porta-power set like the body shops used at the time. These along with various pry bars and chisels were used until the purchase of the Hurst Tool (Jaws of Life). The department continued utilizing other ambulances until the summer of 1976 when a used ambulance was purchased from the Antioch Rescue Squad.
1977 saw the delivery of a squad truck that was purchased with donated money. The squad could also be used as an ambulance to transport patients to area hospitals. Neither the ambulance or squad truck was air-conditioned, and more interior room for patient care was needed. Another used ambulance was purchased from the town of Mukguonago, Wisconsin in 1984. Seeing the need for more advanced medical treatment, and working with the Victory Hospital Paramedic System, an EMT Intermediate program was started. This program provided a level of training and patient care between EMT and Paramedics. The first individuals trained as EMT-Intermediates were Rick Neal, John Nudo, and Fred Gaca. Newport became the first certified Intermediate Life Support unit in Lake County in April 1983.
After continuing to function as an intermediate life support unit for several years, it became apparent that the only way to satisfy the medical needs of the township was to become an Advanced Life Support (ALS) unit with fully certified paramedics. The transition to paramedic ambulance service was complicated by the decreasing level of volunteers joining the department. Lack of available firefighters working in the area during the day created a manpower shortage.
Several things were attempted to alleviate the daytime manpower problem. The department bylaws were changed to include men working in the township without having to live in the township, extend membership to females, and allow for people to join as firefighters or rescue personnel or both. Lastly, membership boundaries were changed to include a parameter outside of Newport Township. These changes brought about the acceptance of the first female department members; Ann Campanella, who became a paramedic and Therese Stubbs who became an EMT.
Increasing numbers of emergency calls and the need for certified paramedics to respond, especially during weekdays when manpower was always a problem, necessitated the hiring of the Fire Departments first paid (full-time) personnel.
Presently the single station is staffed 24 hours each day with four State Certified firefighter/EMT Paramedics. We house state of the art equipment, provide the highest level of care, and provide mutual aid assistance to those surrounding departments that helped us for so many years.
As the nature of the services provided continued to advanced so did the liability risk for the members of the corporation who owned the fire department. On August 10, 1993, it was decided to dissolve the corporation and turn over operational control of the fire department and title to the vehicles, equipment and fire station to the Newport Township Fire Protection District.
Presently, both stations are staffed 24 hours each day with state certified firefighter/paramedics and EMTs.
No history of the Newport Volunteer Fire Department would be complete without mentioning the spouses and families of the members. From baking for the bake sales, serving brats at the picnics, quizzing for exams to holding dinner or canceling a night out because of a call, you have our deepest thanks. For the kids who sat waiting at the station while dad was at a call and all those holidays and birthdays that took dad away to the grass fire or car accident, your sacrifice has not been forgotten.
John Ryckman spent countless hours compiling and organizing the early history of the fire department. John joined the department in 1962 and retired in 2013, serving just over 50 years to this organization and his community. Ten of those years he served as the Fire Chief. He will always be remembered and very much appreciated.