East Dundee fire department marks 125th anniversary
Towns and their fire departments usually grow up at the same time. Like siblings, they share the same backyards, growing pains and spirit for service from their residents.
Through the years many times, they are too busy to realize how much they have grown and how far technology has taken them.
This year, though, firefighters and paramedics in East Dundee are taking time to look back and chuckle about how things may have been when the fire department was young and depended on smoke and horses to save lives and homes.
The department is celebrating its 125th anniversary. No one is still around to talk about what life was actually like in the Northern Kane County small river community called East Dundee in 1890. Jason Parthun, the fire district's current assistant fire chief, and many of us have heard stories that people back then put out their fires with the help of their neighbors.
"There were no sirens, pagers or 9-1-1. People saw something burning and shouted for help," Parthun said. "A bucket brigade of volunteers handed pails of water to each other to throw on the fire."
After enough of those fires, East Dundee residents, whose village was only 19 years old, decided they needed organization and formed an all-volunteer fire department. They brought a horse or two and a fire wagon, and they were in business.
Unfortunately, no records of early calls or later purchases remain; only 1920-era photographs of volunteers standing next to a fire truck stand as proof that the department existed before fire district was formed in 1959.
"There probably were just barn fires, but I can't imagine there being any large fires," Parthun said. "There was nothing to burn but houses and barns."
The largest fire, a five-alarm blaze, the department put out didn't ignite until March 2007. Lightning struck and destroyed the abandoned Dundee Lumber Co. on Barrington Avenue.
"That was a big one," said Fire Chief Steve Schmitendorf. "If the wind would have shifted that night, we would have lost the village."
Other memorable fires destroyed North River Street businesses in the 1980s.
There was an advantage to turning the department into a fire district. A district gave East Dundee fire trustees the authority to charge property taxes to pay for equipment and services. Even though the village and the district were still in their infancies, fire trustees still had to pay for gasoline to power the trucks. Gas, then and still, is more expensive than hay for horses.
They also had to build a fire station to house the growing fleet of trucks.
"The first firehouse was on Third Street," said Mark Guth, one of the oldest East Dundee residents still active with the fire district. "It had two (truck) bays and room on the second floor to store the hay for the horses."
In 1959, the house was torn down and replaced with a brick building that still stands, but no longer serves as a firehouse. The village's police department has taken the structure over because it needed more room.
Within the last year, the fire department opened a station along Route 25.
Guth is president of the district's board of trustees. He has also worked as a firefighter and was the district's first paramedic in 1975.
"I started with the fire district in 1959, and firefighters were paid $2 for each call," he said. "At the end of the year, the firefighters received IOUs from the district because it didn't have the money to pay us."
They eventually received their money. Guth stayed with the East Dundee fire district to watch it grow and become its first paramedic.
In his first year of services, firefighters responded to 25 calls and worked with a budget that was a fraction of its current $2 million spending plan. Their services covered hundreds of residents. Today, the fire district covers 10,000 residents from the Fox River to The Arboretum retail center along routes 59 and 72 in South Barrington.
These days, the East Dundee Fire Protection District has 30 full-and part-time firefighters and paramedics who responded to 1,350 calls last year.
Before the paramedic program started, firefighters put out fires, pulled people from wrecked cars and waited for an ambulance to arrive.
The notion to partner emergency medical response teams with fire departments came about because firehouses are closer to areas they served and response time is quicker. Private ambulance companies were located farther away from the emergencies.
"At that time, there were five paramedics in the East and West Dundee, Carpentersville and Rutland-Dundee (fire districts). We all helped each other when we needed to," Guth said.
They had to. Those five paramedics were all they had to patch people up, so they could be taken to the hospitals. When you think of it, some of those paramedics were the sons and brothers of firefighters who worked in the same or neighboring departments.
Through its history, many East Dundee firefighters were related to each other and helped the department grow. Max Freeman was the district's first fire chief. His brother, Earl, was a firefighter who died of a heart attack in 1958 after responding to a call.
Earl Freeman was the only East Dundee firefighter to die in the line of duty.
Eugene Rakow served as fire chief until retiring in the 1980s. His son, Mark, took his place as chief.
Even Guth comes from a line of firefighters. His father, Marcus, served on the East Dundee Fire Department. His son, Mark Guth III, works for the West Dundee Fire Department.
Many of those same names have been linked to local businesses. They've worked in the community, held elected offices, and organized summer carnivals and November turkey raffles.
The years, decades, and centuries may have changed, but the East Dundee Fire Department still runs on the premise of neighbors helping neighbors, Parthun said.