A brief history of the Ontario Fire Company
The Main Street fire of 1885 that nearly destroyed the business district of Ontario awoke the citizens of Ontario to the fact that they needed their own organized fire-fighting unit, although this was not to become reality for another 22 years.
In 1907, Chauncey C. Norton, Supervisor of the Town of Ontario at that time, put forth a resolution to the Wayne County Board of Supervisors to establish a fire district in the unincorporated village of Ontario.
The resolution was accepted and the first recorded information was on January 2, 1909. The first officer of the new fire company was Ira Norton, Fire Chief. It should be noted here that a newspaper article for the D&C, dated August 18, 1940, indicated that the first fire chief was James Allen and was succeeded by Ira Norton however; no other record of this can be found. This could have been because there may have been an un-official fire department before that. Following Norton was Walter J. Mepham, who was elected Fire Chief in 1911. Floyd Risley was the Secretary for the fire company and it was from his minutes of the business meetings that much information was gleaned for these early years. In those first years, the men who consisted of local farmers, businessmen and handymen had to organize and find ways to finance the newly founded group. They also had to acquire equipment to fight fires and train the volunteers on how to use it effectively, hopefully, without getting hurt or killed. 100 years later, we are amazed at how hard it is to put out a large fire, even with our modern truck pumps and adequate water supplies that put out thousands of gallons per minute. In the early days, all the firemen had were nerves of steel, hand powered pumpers and cisterns for water supply. A wet handkerchief over your face served as your “clean” air supply. Your personal protective equipment was the coat you happened to wear that day and the word, “Nomex”, was yet to be uttered.
The late Earl Huxley noted that there was “the great big fight” between the fire commissioners Owen Wooster, Charlie Fewster and Dave Craven vs. The Mutual Fire Company. The Commissioners “figured they would only spend $600 for a hand pumper. This hand pumper needed 6 men on each side, grabbing each rail and furiously raising and lowering it. Needless to say, this pumped water but not very efficiently. The men would either become exhausted or the water supply would run out unless there was a nearby stream. This hand pumper was stored at John Van Ingen’s place, which is now the parking lot on the south side of the village. Around the same time, (about 1910) the firemen of the Mutual Fire Company (presently The Ontario Fire Company) purchased a horse drawn motorized pump fire engine for $1800. These two groups were “fighting all the time” according to Mr. Huxley. So, on a Saturday afternoon, they decided to have a contest between the two pieces of fire equipment in front of the old hotel on Main Street. The Mutual’s motorized fire engine was winning “hands down” until all of a sudden the engine blew up and the contest ended. Engines could be rebuilt and everyone knew that the days of the hand pumper were numbered.
By 1914, the bylaws were completed and the Ontario Mutual Fire Company was designated the official fire department serving the Ontario Fire District.
As early as 1910, to raise money to purchase equipment, the firemen held field days. For an admission fee of only 15 cents, there was a merry-go-round, ox roast, horse race and lots of food to be eaten. Eventually a Fireman’s Band was formed and it performed in other fire department’s Field Days. In 1924, the OFC decided to have our own field days to raise money to support our own fire company. The first of the “new” Field Days was held at Craven’s Farm, which is where the Elementary School now stands. The main feature of the day was the ascension of a hot air balloon. The first launch was successful, however, on the second launch; the balloon became tangled up in the trees. But young boys came to the rescue and scrambled up the trees and freed the ropes and the balloon.
The Field Days eventually moved to where the golf course property is today and were known as “The biggest little day of Western New York, second only to the NYS Fair. A corporation was formed, Ontario Entertainment Management (OEM), to handle the profits from the events. The money was used to build fire stations and buy fire trucks and other equipment. All this was then turned over to the fire district.
The hand pumper that was first stored at John Van Ingen’s place was moved to Tummond’s Mill in late 1909. This is where the apartment building is on Knickerbocker Road near Murphy’s Funeral Home. The bell was hung in the loft of the mill barn, which was torn down in 1949. In 1932, the fire equipment was moved to the former Bartle Vest factory on Ridge Road East and was kept there until 1940. That building later became the bowling alley. The new home for the Ontario village equipment was a new station that was built by the OEM for $8000. This is the building just east of the current Murphy Funeral Home.
Ontario Center firemen were invited into the OFC in 1924, but it was not known if they had any equipment at that point. In 1925, the Ontario Village firemen bought a 500-gallon Foamite-Childs fire engine and they sent the hand drawn motorized pumper to the Ontario Center Station. This was located in the rented McCarty building, which was formerly a pool hall and barber shop. The Burnett Building was constructed next to it. In 1927, a 300-gallon Foamite-Childs fire engine was donated to the Ontario Center station by the OEM. In 1937, the OEM constructed a new Ontario Center Station next to the current Ontario Center post Office.
In 1942, Ellsworth Thompson was electrocuted, and the Pultneyville firemen were called for the use of their inhalator, but it was too late. The Ontario firemen decided that they needed one. Eventually one was purchased as well as a Pontiac squad car to carry it. By the mid-1950s, the firemen were called out 50 to 75 times a year, for inhalator service.
In 1952, a group of firemen formed a tournament team, which was named “The Wildcats”. They traveled to several counties to practice different firefighting skills. They raised money to buy a tournament truck and provided labor to expand the Ontario Center Station.
That same year the Ontario Fire Company Ladies Auxiliary was formed to provide food and refreshments for the firemen not only at fires, but also at the tournaments. They are still very active to this day and over the years have raised money for many charitable causes.
The Ontario Fire Company had it’s first line-of-duty death of a fireman on July 3, 1955 after a large fire at The Ontario Grower’s Exchange on Railroad Avenue. Walter Cone Sr. was stricken with a heart attack and passed away about three hours later.
As the years went by, the fire trucks became larger, so it became clear a new fire station was needed. In 1970, a large multi-bay facility was constructed on Ridge Road and in 1971 all the trucks from both Ontario and Ontario Center were put in one station. As more and taller trucks were added to the fleet, the station was remodeled in 1999 and re-dedicated in 2000.
Over the years, the role of the firemen changed from just fighting fires to providing auto extrication, ice water rescue and fire prevention education. In the 1970’s, women started joining the fire service, hence the name Firemen changed to Firefighters.
Today’s challenges include recruiting new members because the training standards mandated by the government have gotten tougher and most families are two-income earners. Many volunteer fire departments are hiring part-time staff, especially during day time hours.
The challenges to the fire departments have changed over the years, but the character of the people that volunteer has not. They still need to be brave, caring and willing to put the welfare of others before themselves.
Information for this piece was taken from the books, “History of the Town of Ontario”, ‘The Ontario Volunteer Fire Company” and local newspapers and interviews with citizens of the town.
Mark Wyse- Ontario Fire Company History Committee.