100 N. Tomahawk Avenue • P.O. Box 469• Tomahawk, WI 54487 • 715-453-8180

History of the Tomahawk Volunteer Fire Department

Author's Note: All information contained in this document was compiled through interviews with local residents, past and present members of the Tomahawk Fire Department, copies of early city council minutes, news accounts, fire department records and early historical outlines on file at the local library.

------From the June 28, 1994 edition of the Tomahawk Leader newspaper.

The Tomahawk Fire Department this year (1994) celebrates 100 years of  service to the City of Tomahawk. Formed out of necessity, the department has evolved in response to the changing needs of the people it serves, while maintaining a strong sense of tradition.
The history of the department dates to the timber boom years of the late 1800's when Tomahawk was founded. Before 1886, the area was covered by thick forests of pine and was mostly uninhabited.  In late 1886, the Tomahawk Land & Boom Company set up operations here and in the following year laid out the site for the city.

By autumn of 1887, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St.Paul Railroad had reached "The Forks," as the area was then known, bringing merchants, land speculators, lumberjacks, mill workers and others who hoped to find prosperity and a fresh start in the new settlement. Dams were constructed to form holding ponds for logs used by the sawmills and shingle factories, which were turning out building materials for the local market and to help meet the needs of the construction boom taking place in the cities of Milwaukee, Chicago and elsewhere. Tanneries, box plants, stave mills and carpentry shops also made use of the abundant supply of wood and wood by-products.

There was a down side to this boom period, however, that was recognized by the early inhabitants. A repeat of the horrible forest fire that swept through Peshtigo on October 8th, 1871, was a very real danger. That fire wiped out not only thousands of acres of cut-over lands, but everything in its path including the entire settlement with a tremendous loss of life.

The wide scale logging taking place in the vicinity of Tomahawk had left behind the limbs and tops of the downed pines and long, dry summers would leave this waste easily ignited. Additionally, most buildings in the soon-to-be city were of simple wood construction and were usually built close together, with little or no fire-stopping design or material built in. The mills, plants and factories that relied so heavily on the timber accumulated vast amounts of waste and scrap that added to the potential for catastrophe.

With this danger in mind, efforts were made at fire suppression within the village. Pails of sand were kept handy, and ponds, barrels and cisterns of water were located in many areas, along with buckets or simple pumps to apply it to any fire that might occur. Smoking was forbidden in most work areas, and machine belts and  bearings were watched carefully for signs of overheating. These precautions no doubt prevented or lessened the damage from fires. However, many fires quickly outgrew the resources available to extinguish them and proved costly in both lives and property. The settlers realized that a more organized effort to contain fires was needed. Those needs were addressed as the settlement moved to become a city.

One of the first orders of business, after the city's incorporation in 1891, was the funding and construction of a water works and the hiring of an engineer. Water mains and hydrants were laid out and installed, providing a more reliable means of water supply. While fire hydrants are for the most part taken for granted today, their introduction back then revolutionized firefighting. The availability of an easily accessible water supply allowed firefighters to go from what had been a mostly defensive style, where buildings were expected to be lost and efforts were concentrated solely on containing the spread, to an offensive style that halted and then extinguished the fire where it was. (Leaks were common in the early system, however, and low water pressure was a chronic problem until the late 30's, when the present wells and mains were installed.)

By early 1892, a fire department consisting of a hose company and a ladder company was instituted as an adjunct to the water department, with Robert McGregor appointed as Fire Chief. A pair of high-wheeled hose carts and a hook and ladder truck (wagon) were purchased along with 2,500 feet of 2 1/2" canvas hoseline. Funds were authorized for the construction of a two-stall barn to house the new equipment on the site of what is now Sieg Auto Parts. After a short period, Robert Thielman succeeded McGregor as Chief. The many difficulties faced by the early department proved to be overwhelming and after struggling to establish itself the department failed, disbanding in 1893.

In 1894 the Tomahawk Volunteer Fire Department was formed with Matt Stutz named as Fire Chief along with a City Council approved roster of 22 firefighters. This last formation, with few modifications, has continued to operate to the present day. Most of the changes that have occurred have been in the area of operations. Personal protective clothing, tools, equipment, apparatus, and communications among others have all improved from advances in design, materials and technology.

For example, the earliest firefighters often had little or nothing in the way of protective clothing. They simply wore whatever was at hand. Eventually rubber boots and coats were provided along with rubber hoods, leather helmets and gloves. While this clothing did not provide much in the way of thermal protection from the heat at fires, it did offer a degree of protection from some of the other hazards. The fire-resistant fabrics, thermal insulation and steam barriers in the clothing of today have allowed firefighters to take a more aggressive approach than the old "surround it and drown it" method.

For many years, there was little protection available against the smoke and gases encountered while firefighting other than wet bandannas tied over the mouth and nose. The men who fought these early fires earned the nickname "smoke-eaters," and many developed health problems in later years as a result of the damage from repeated exposure to smoke, toxic gases and chemicals. The evolution of respiratory protection saw the early "gas mask" types of filters, as well as recirculating /recycling/regenerating types of canister masks, give way to the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in use today. Use of SCBA has greatly reduced the risk of lung and heart damage, and allows the firefighter to enter and perform fire and rescue work in hazardous environments.

Since the days when it was as simple as shouts and hand signals, communication has played a vital role in managing the fire or rescue response. The use of megaphones, and later, bullhorns, by the officers on the scene was an improvement in controlling operations. Such equipment had a limited range, however, and required maintaining a "line of sight" by the officers with those they were directing. Today's two-way radios and repeater antennas allow instant communication with greater range. Cellular phones, portable fax machines and computer links give the Incident Command Post instant access to regional and national databases containing reference information and hazardous materials identification.

Various methods of alerting fire department personnel have been employed over the years. Following construction of the water works, telegraph pull-boxes were placed throughout the city and were tied in to the engineer's home at the water works. Upon receiving an alarm, the engineer would sound a steam whistle at the pump house, located on the east end of Lincoln Avenue, with one blast for the First Ward, three for the Third, etc.  When telephones arrived in 1900, the switchboard operator was given the responsibility for sounding the alarm and the firemen would then call the operator for the street address. This system of operator dispatching continued after the installation of the siren on top of City Hall. The Tomahawk Police Department later began the dispatching, and the system in 1970 became much faster with the introduction of the Plectron unit (a radio receiver tripped by a tone)  which was installed in the firefighter's home. In 1981, Tomahawk became the first municipality in the county to adopt the 9-1-1 telephone system for handling emergency calls, taking advantage of the added speed and efficiency. Personal pagers were added in 1978, allowing the firefighters to travel and work outside of siren range and still be able to receive and respond to alarm calls.

One of the most significant advances seen by the department was the introduction of gasoline powered vehicles to replace the early years' hose carts. The development of mechanized trucks meant not only faster arrival at the fires, but also the force to run the more powerful and efficient pumps that were being  installed on the new "fire engines." It's interesting to note, however, that the department did not have a pumper until 1930. Hoselines were connected directly to the hydrants, with the water pressure regulated by the boiler tender at the waterworks.

Tomahawk's first gasoline powered truck was "Old Maude," a 1917 4-cylinder Republic ladder truck with an open cab design. This truck came with hard rubber tires designed for smooth pavement. Shortly thereafter it was taken to the Tomahawk Steel & Iron Works and converted to pneumatic tires, which were better suited to the teeth-rattling roads it was run on. The next vehicle put in service was a 1929 American-LaFrance model 91pumper (also with an open cab), with a pump capacity of 600 g.p.m., and an 80 gallon booster tank. Other additions included a 1948 Chevrolet-Wisconsin pumper with a 500 g.p.m. midship pump with a 350 gallon booster tank and a 1954 Chevrolet-American with a front-mounted pump rated at 600 g.p.m. and a 700 gallon booster tank.

Ingenuity was responsible for the next two additions. In May, 1956, a former bread truck was purchased from Bake-Rite ($50) and converted into an equipment van. The department's first tanker was put into service in July,1964. Prompted by the March, 1963, loss from lack of water of Jim's Logging Camp, a popular night club in Heafford Junction, the department purchased a 1957 Chevrolet, 1,250 gallon fuel truck from Cities Service and converted it for use as a water tanker, using proceeds from the annual candy kiss sale.
Replacing the old American-LaFrance was Engine #7, a 1967 Chevrolet-American pumper that also functions as a vehicle crash/rescue truck. In addition to providing fire suppression at the scene, #7 carries a complete set of hydraulic rescue tools and equipment. The old bread truck was retired in 1973, with the purchase of the "Paddy Wagon," an aluminum-bodied equipment/rescue vehicle designated Rescue #1. In 1978, Engine #3, a 1,000 g.p.m. pumper dedicated to fires within the city, replaced the 1948 pumper. Truck #6, a new tanker with a capacity of 1,500 gallons, replaced the old tanker that same year.

Added to the fleet next was Rescue #2, a 1978 Chevrolet "ambulance-type" rescue vehicle to provide life support for firefighters and backup to the ambulance service. Engine #8, a 1,000 g.p.m.pumper, was purchased in 1982, for service at rural and city fires. The new Rescue #1, a custom built aluminum-bodied equipment/command/rescue unit, was placed in service in 1989. In 1992 the department replaced the old Rescue #2 with a 1984 Chevrolet of the same type. Currently undergoing fabrication at Marion Bodyworks is the replacement for old Engine #4. To be delivered in 1994, it will feature a mid-ships mounted 1,250 g.p.m. pump and carry 2,500 gallons of water, making it capable of delivering everything needed for a rapid knock-down at fires.

Although the fires that are extinguished quickly usually don't make the headlines of the Tomahawk Leader, the potential for a much worse outcome is always there. Lessons are learned from considering what might have occurred had circumstances been just a little different. Sometimes those circumstances lead to disaster, and no history of the department would be complete without mentioning some of the "big ones."

The first major fire recorded happened in March, 1895. An early morning blaze destroyed three buildings, including the tailor shop where it originated, Fitzgerald's Grocery and Gus Newborg's Shoe Store. Determined not to lose his business the same way again, Gus rebuilt his store and purchased the lots on each side, keeping them vacant for many years. (Sixty-five years later, Gus' son Oscar would retire from the department as Chief, having served 31 years.) The Tomahawk Steel & Iron Works burned to the ground in April, 1921, and St. Mary's Parochial School was lost on February 21, 1926.

The Mitchell Hotel fire of March 6, 1929, was easily the worst. First notice of the fire was received shortly before 1 p.m. and in the next three hours 19 buildings burned to the ground. Requests for assistance had been quickly sent to fire departments in Wausau, Merrill and Phillips, but nearly impassable roads slowed their arrival. (A pumper was loaded on a flatcar at Wausau but was not sent) Merrill's pumper made it here at around 2 p.m. but broke down shortly after hooking up and had to be abandoned. The Phillips pumper and crew spent two hours fighting their way through snow drifts, arriving shortly after 3 p.m. Their Seagrave pumper had an unheated, open cab design which made it necessary for them to change drivers every ten minutes just to stay warm.

Splitting Merrill's crew and hose between them, the Tomahawk and Phillips firemen not only fought the fire, but also had to cope with low water pressure and the freezing of pumps, nozzles and hoses. A 6" water main feeding the Mitchell was broken when the hotel collapsed, resulting in a severe loss of water for firefighting. It was some time before a shut-off valve could be located and longer still before it could be approached. The heat from the burning hotel was so intense that the 10'x10' windows on the west side of the Standard Mercantile building (now Ben Franklin) shattered. High winds whipped the flames and glowing embers were spread onto roofs hundreds of feet away. The battle to save the Tomahawk Garage illustrates the struggle by the firefighters to hold their ground. Twelve times the roof caught fire and twelve times it was beaten back. Though the roof was lost, the building was saved and the fire was checked from spreading in that direction.

Attempting to halt the fire on the south side of Wisconsin Avenue, firefighters used dynamite to destroy the restaurant of Henry Meyer. Though the effort was not as effective as had been hoped, shortly afterwards the turning point was reached. Firefighters continued working through the night to keep the fires still burning in other buildings from spreading. By mid-morning of the following day it was over, with  the smoke and steam rising from the rubble covering the downtown like fog. Total losses were estimated at $243,500.

In the aftermath of the disastrous Mitchell fire, public debate quickly centered on the city's lack of modern firefighting equipment. The community had learned some hard lessons from its losses and with those lessons in mind, the city council moved to approve the purchase a top-of-the-line pumper. Shipped by rail from the factory in Elmira, New York, it arrived in early 1930 and remained in use for 37 years.

There were other fires that, while not as spectacular, were particularly devastating. A Christmas Eve, 1931, fire destroyed Stern's Department Store and Wallis' Jewelry Store, located where Tomahawk Realty and the Liquor Shack & Cheese Shoppe are today. The people living in the upstairs apartments were evacuated safely but lost everything. A City Hall fire on Christmas Day, 1948, destroyed the roof, library and fire siren tower, with a damage estimate of $50,000. A fire at Tomahawk Boat Manufacturing on April 15th, 1954 , resulted in losses of over $ 200,000. Nick & Sons casket factory burned November 27th, 1958, with a loss of approximately $ 200,000, and on March 8th, 1961, a fire destroyed Nelson's Super Market with losses again estimated at nearly $ 200,000.

A fire at the Washington School in the early morning of August 12th, 1978, was the city's costliest to date. The Tomahawk Fire Department, with aid from Merrill, Rhinelander and Nokomis, brought the fire under control in about 1 1/2 hours, at one point using an estimated 4,000 gallons of water per minute. The dollar loss was estimated at 1.5 million. A November 26, 1984, arson fire at the Cowboys and Indians store could easily have turned into another Mitchell Hotel-type conflagration. Housed in the landmark Nick building, the store had many false ceilings which blocked direct access to the flames. It was feared that neighboring buildings would ignite and teams of firefighters were assigned to contain it from the outside while other teams attacked it from within. Forty firefighters including twelve from Nokomis and four from Merrill, fought to contain that blaze. It took an estimated 200,000 gallons of water and six hours to extinguish, but the fire was contained to the building where it originated.

Aside from its fire and rescue role, the department has sponsored or taken part in a number of community and social events since it's beginning. From 1900 until 1939, the members of the department held an annual Masquerade Ball as a fund-raiser. It was always well attended and was regarded as one of the social highlights of the year. The department also held a dance during the Memorial Day weekend for a number of years that served to kick off the summer vacation season.
Perhaps the most enjoyable of all has been the department's feature role in the July 4th activities. In the July 2nd, 1986, Centennial Issue of the Tomahawk Leader, the late Chet Wurl of Tomahawk in recalling the 1902 parade observed, "The pride and joy of Tomahawk, the fire department...all dressed up in their nice uniforms because the firemen took over the Fourth of July at that time. That was the only day that some of those firemen would ever dress up." He also added, "...and if the firemen had any money there were fireworks in the evening."

Firefighters still give up an evening with their families to help put on the fireworks display. A traditional water fight on main street following the parade has been entertaining and drenching the crowds for over 90 years. And, while the waterfights are now staged between two squads from the Tomahawk Fire Department, there once was "spirited" competition against other fire departments in the area for possession of a traveling trophy or cash prizes. The Merrill Fire Department is well remembered for the toughness of its teams.

One other July 4th tradition is the annual candy kiss sale, which for nearly 40 years has enabled the department to purchase much needed equipment while still being able to meet its budget. Through the donations of prizes by local businesses and the support of both citizens and visitors, the department has added such equipment as hydraulic rescue system tools, a base station for radio repeater communications, a rescue boat and trailer, radios, emergency lighting, hose nozzles and protective clothing, to name only a few.

While "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff" still makes up the majority of call-outs, the department responds to and trains for an increasing number of other situations. Each September the Tomahawk Fire & Rescue School provides training in the latest fire and rescue techniques. What began as a joint training arrangement between the (then) Owens-Illinois Emergency Response Team and the Tomahawk Fire Department, has grown to include students and trainers from throughout the state and the mid-west. Sponsored by the Tomahawk and Nokomis fire departments, Packaging Corporation of America and Nicolet College, the two day event attracts an average of 600 participants each year.

In 1993, Tomahawk Fire Department members amassed over 2,000 total hours of training in subjects as diverse as ice diving and cold water rescue, arson investigation, ground operations and communications to support rescue helicopters, incident command systems, hazardous materials identification and spill response, mass casualty situations, high level rope rescue, vehicle extrication and hydraulic rescue tools, among others. Of the current roster of twenty-six men, all have achieved Firefighter certification, ten are Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technicians, six have received First Responder certification, eight are Internationally Certified divers, two are Fire Inspectors, two are Arson Investigators and three are Fire Training Instructors.

Recognized throughout the state as one of the finest all-volunteer departments, the department has achieved this recognition through the dedication of it's members, the leadership of its chief officers and the support of the community. Department training standards continue to meet or exceed State requirements, and well planned equipment purchases allow the City of Tomahawk to take advantage of the same level of protection offered by fire departments in larger cities. The city currently holds a fire insurance rating of Class 5, the best possible classification a volunteer fire department can attain. Based on a number of factors including the overall efficiency of the fire department, this rating translates into lower fire insurance premiums for property owners.

A significant decrease in the number of fire occurrences in the past few years has been noted, in part because of diligent fire inspections and the introduction of award-winning fire prevention education programs. All fire occurrences are examined for probable cause and the building codes, zoning laws and fire codes that have evolved over the years are based on the knowledge gained from this analysis.

Throughout the many changes over the past 100 years in the operation of this fire department, one thing has remained constant: The dedication of the members, who devote their time and effort to help protect their neighbors, responding at a moment's notice to do a job that is often dangerous, always dirty and sometimes heartbreaking. What motivates a person to get involved in this type of work, where the material rewards are few? One answer is that for most members it's a strong sense of duty to the community and the satisfaction that comes from doing a tough job well. For some it is also a family tradition, with three or more generations having served on the department. This sense of commitment is shared by the many volunteer organizations throughout the Tomahawk area, whose members also give freely of themselves in an effort to improve the community and the lives of their fellow citizens.

Whatever the motivation to serve may be, it is certain that in 2094, the members of the Tomahawk Fire Department will still be following the simple guidelines laid out back in 1894, whereby "men of good character...will answer all calls promptly...to protect and preserve (the) lives and property" of the citizens they serve.

---------------Retired: LT Brian Morren, Secretary TFD, June 4th, 1994