by Sue Ann Rybak
For more than a century, volunteer firefighters at the Wyndmoor Hose Company No. #1 have risked their lives so that others may live. Wyndmoor resident Edward Welch, a local historian and Wyndmoor volunteer firefighter, recently wrote a book chronicling the history of the firehouse.
Welch, 53, who works full-time and is the primary caregiver for a family member, said he can no longer be as active in the fire service as he once was. “Because of that, I wanted to contribute in another way,” he said. “I have a degree in history and a masters in education, and I work for the national park service as a ranger, so I know history, and I know where to look.
“In writing this book, I came across a gold mine,” said Welch, referring to the vast collection of bound books containing the minutes of official meetings over many decades. “We have 90 percent of them. It was a really humbling experience reading them because their [firefighters] use of language was so eloquent. I found a sort of kinship with the man who was secretary of the Wyndmoor Hose Company #1 for over 40 years … It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to be a firefighter. I view the fire service as one the last true bastions of volunteerism in the nation.”
He said the volunteer firefighters save the townships and municipalities all across the country billions of dollars because most communities simply cannot afford a paid fire service. “It takes more effort today for the average family to keep their heads above water. Volunteer firefighters are meeting a need that if left unfulfilled would be catastrophic.”
Welch recalled how 36-year-old Joyce Craig-Lewis, a Philadelphia firefighter, became trapped in the basement while battling a house fire in West Oak Lane last year. The 11-year veteran and mother of two children was the first female firefighter to die in the line of duty in Philadelphia’s history.
“That really hit home for all firefighters,” Welch said. “It’s a stark reminder that it is the most dangerous occupation in the world. More firefighters are killed than police officers. It’s extremely dangerous … And it’s a lifelong friendship. There are firefighters I fought fires with 38 years ago who are still dear to me, and we have great memories, and many of them are under great distress.”
The Wyndmoor Volunteer Fire Department has not gone unscathed through the years. In 1980, Joseph J. Nee, Jr. was the first volunteer firefighter to die in the history of the Wyndmoor Hose Company No. #1. Nee was attempting to direct traffic on Haws Lane to facilitate the fire trucks’ path when he was struck by a car. In the summer of 1987, the Maltese Cross was erected on the firehouse. The Maltese Cross is the universal insignia of the fire service and represents the ideals of saving lives and extinguishing man’s greatest enemy — fire.
The first recorded minutes were on Sept. 5, 1906. Prior to the formal creation of the Wyndmoor Hose Company #1, a fire brigade was begun to protect the men who worked at the Nelson Valve Company at Mermaid Lane and Queen Street. Eventually, the in-house brigade evolved into a modern fire house. The pages of early minute books are filled with “discussions of buckets and horses, fire watches, fire alarms and planks for hose carts.”
One hundred years ago, “The fire house was really a communal public space. It was literally the center of the town.” When the Grace Lutheran Church was destroyed on March 19, 1920, according to the minutes, the department let the church use the building “for all religious services, including choir practice free of charge.”
Welch shared another interesting anecdote. Wyndmoor was home to one of the first experimental TV stations in the country. Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, worked with his research team at a laboratory in Chestnut Hill. “These guys used to work to 2 to 3 o’clock in the morning and then go to the Wyndmoor Hose Company #1 to play musical instruments and unwind.”
Because the firehouse was a public space, building expenditures were a constant concern, and at the end of June, 1921, the Ladies Auxiliary held a huge carnival on Willow Grove Avenue between Queen and Elm. The carnival is still held to this day every June.
Despite technological advancements in fire service, many of the issues and challenges faced by the founders are still being addressed today: finance, building maintenance, the cost and maintenance of state-of-the-art fire apparatus and equipment, safety, a growing community and membership drives.
“Even though technology makes the firefighters job easier by providing lighter equipment, better protection and a variety of portable communication tools, the conditions today’s firefighters face are far more volatile. Today’s buildings are not just made of wood. Instead, a variety of materials are found inside, many made of plastic and rubber, all of which give off hazardous gases far more toxic than the standard concerns of heat, smoke and carbon monoxide.”
Fran DePaul, fire chief at Wyndmoor Hose Company #1, added, “Doing this job does not pay bills or ensure future health or prosperity. Doing what we do, however, enriches our lives in ways that are hard to describe without sounding trite. To continue doing this job, you must believe that words such as ‘duty,’ and ‘responsibility’ mean something deep inside … As long as people drive cars or surround themselves with things combustible and hazardous, they will need us. We are men and women who sacrifice our time, energy and talent so that their neighbors — friends, enemies and strangers alike — may continue to live.”
The cost of the book is $20. It can be ordered at www.wyndmoorfireco.com or can be bought at the Wyndmoor Hose Company No. #1, 1043 E. Willow Grove Ave., Wyndmoor; at the Springfield Library, 1600 Paper Mill Rd., Wyndmoor; or at the Chestnut Hill Print Shop, 8441 Germantown Ave. The firehouse can be reached at 215-233-2808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.