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 over 55 years.
Thirty-five men attended that meeting and on September 25 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 district. 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 Mr. Lux and a title 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, for which Mr. Bill Doyle loaned the funds to the department, and the installation of five phones 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 even leave their home until they were sure someone else would be able to answer the fire phone. This practice continued until 1972 when the department purchased 23 plectron radios, 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 and members responded from that alert. One wail indicated an inhalator or rescue call and several wails meant that the emergency was a fire call. Also in 1947, the Gurnee Fire Department gave Newport a 1942 Chevy fire truck and this brought the fleet to two. 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.
In 1949 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. It can still be seen in the township today.
Due to the nature of the rural environment of Newport Township, grass fires were prevalent, most of the time finding access to these fires was quite a task and with this in mind a new 1955 Jeep brush truck was purchased. The Jeep truck was bought from Harris Motors in Winthrop Harbor and converted to a fire truck by the Grayslake Fire Truck Company. The truck is retired from service now but is still used for parades.
1955 Jeep Willies
By 1960 the aging of the current fleet made it necessary to obtain a new engine. Bought for $9,755.00 from Pedersen GMC in Antioch, 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, which remains in service today. It’s four-wheel drive abilities were tested annually in the forest preserve behind the firehouse at the firemen’s 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 Pumper
1968 Dodge Power Wagon
Attendance at local parades was considered good public relations and kept the firemen busy waxing the trucks. Personnel were also expected to be present for tours of the firehouse for local groups as well as hosting fire drills at the local 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. After hosting the annual party for many years, in 1974 the department decided to bring Santa on the road with them as 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. Today the practice continues, only now it takes five Santa’s to reach all of the children in one day.
The station itself required a lot of maintenance and the department relied heavily on the plumbers, electricians, painters, etc. 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 in providing quality fire protection and rescue service and in 1984 the latest addition was added bringing the station to the present nine bay structure that includes a hose tower. The new 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.
During the early years of the department, first aid was the only 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 and would have to respond to the scene with a fire truck and take care of the patients as well as they could until an ambulance could be called from neighboring funeral homes, private ambulance services or the other fire departments or rescue squads. 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 E.M.T.’s (Emergency Medical Technicians) 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 the ambulance was purchased from the Antioch Rescue Squad.
1977 saw the delivery of a squad truck that was purchased with donated money. Because neither of these vehicles was air-conditioned and more interior room 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 and E.M.T. Intermediate program was started. This program brought another level of training between E.M.T. and Paramedics. The first individuals trained 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 requirements for the I.D.P.H. to become a Medical Intensive Care Unit (Advanced Life Support Unit) was to hire a Paramedic to be on duty in the station during daytime hours, when manpower was always a problem. Prior to hiring full time people several things were attempted to alleviate the daytime manpower problem, including changing the bylaws to include men working in the township without having to live in the township, include women, allow for people to join as firefighters or rescue personnel or both, and changing the boundaries to include a parameter outside of Newport Township. These changes brought about the acceptance of the first female members, Ann Campanella, who became a paramedic and Therese Stubbs who became an EMT. 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 become a municipal department.
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.
No history of the Newport Volunteer Fire Department would be complete without mentioning the wives 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 grassfire 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.