History of GFD


One of the cornerstones, indeed the fabric, of small communities is it’s volunteer fire department. The community of Garrison, if judged by history, was a little late in establishing this important entity. The City of Garrison was founded in 1873, but it was not until October of 1936 that a volunteer fire department was formally organized. In the time period in between, Garrison rose to become an important trade and mercantile center only to have three entire blocks (nearly the entire business district) burn to the ground on September 11, 1911¾“Black Monday” as it is called. Even that incident and a devastating house fire in the 1920’s in which two family members lost their lives was not enough to spur the community to muster a fire department in spite of the fact that all of its neighboring communities had. The reason¾cost. Even after the devastating fires of 1911 and 1930 firefighting continued to be handled by the familiar bucket brigade method with water hand-pumped from three wells located in the east, west, and downtown area of Garrison. There was also a bell downtown that was tolled to notify citizens that there was a fire somewhere in the community and they needed to turn out en masse, fire buckets in hand. Following one of these bucket brigade excursions in 1936 a conversation arose between the town plumber Harry Nigg, who had been a volunteer firefighter in Keystone, and Ely Grimm. As a result of that conversation, the Garrison Volunteer Fire Department was officially organized and the first meeting held on October 30, 1936. At that meeting Nigg was elected Chief and Grimm was elected Asst. Chief. Five other men, C. M. Kruger, Wallace Neve, W. T. Flickinger, Glenn Bechtold, and W. W. “Bud” Froning were charter members of the department.

Original equipment of the Garrison Fire Department was a 1927 Dodge chemical fire engine purchased used from another fire department in Illinois and a hose cart. This equipment was housed in what was then the city jail. The Dodge, or “Old Lula Bell” as it was called by the firemen, was sold to the Luzerne Fire Department in 1952 and the hose cart was donated to the war effort for brass during World War II. At this time the notification of a fire alarm was transmitted via the party line by the local telephone operator who would give a long and continuous ring across the community telephone system. Eventually this would be replaced by the fire phone or fire bar system that first placed ten special fire phones in firefighter’s homes and business’s in Garrison. Every firefighter’s wife in a home having a fire phone had a list of other firefighters they were to call when there was an alarm. In the 1970’s this was upgraded to 20 phones, and in 1987 the department converted to the paging system by purchasing used pagers from the Vinton Fire Department.

It is always interesting to look back at the minutes of fire department meetings from years past to see what the members did. There were a few meetings over the years where the meeting was called to order, and there being no business, the motion was made to adjourn and a subsequent motion made for “refreshments to be served”¾one of the many good times all Garrison firefighters have fond memories of. That aside, there were innumerable other significant events. During World War II a representative from the military came to the department and the department was taken up to the park where hand grenade practice was held. The department also monitored and scheduled black-out drills for the community during World War II. During the annual community celebration “Watermelon Day,” Garrison volunteer firefighters manned the station around the clock and helped to police the town. During one of these celebrations, only a year or two after the department was organized, Garrison Brick and Tile, one of the town’s major industries, burned to the ground. The business was rebuilt. Training in equipment use and firefighting tactics was not as intensive and not as easy to get in years past as it is today. During the 1950’s the department received training from a friend of Chief Wallace Neve, Cap. Hunter. Hunter was a Captain on the Cedar Rapids Fire Department and went on to become Chief of the Department. A community project that was undertaken by the Garrison Fire Department in the 1950’s was construction of the ball field and park on the north side of town. On several occasions over the years, Garrison firefighters have sponsored or have been a part of fundraising efforts to assist some needy family or person in the community. Some activities that have been a mainstay of the department since 1970 have been waterball and the annual Iowa Fireman’s Association convention. In 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1974, Garrison was State Waterball Champions. In 1970, Garrison’s first trip to the convention, Garrison Waterball Teams 1 and 2, after working though a field of over one hundred teams, squared off against each other for the championship. In 1983 firefighters Kevin Doud and Steve Meyer were state champions in the two-man hose coupling contest. In recent years GFD waterball teams have finished second in the state on three occasions and one year had all three teams finish in the top eight. In 2003 the Garrison and Vinton Fire Department hosted the Iowa Firemen’s Association Convention.
Equipment and stations are always a source of discussion of any volunteer fire department’s service. Within a few years of the Garrison Fire Departments origin, the department moved from the city jail to new quarters in the back of Oran’s Place Tavern on Main Street. In 1939 after an extended fundraising effort by Garrison volunteer firefighters, the community’s first new fire truck was purchased, a 1939 International pumper. The town turned out in colors the day the truck arrived, and after only three days the department answered the first alarm to a hog house fire with the new truck. This truck is still in the department’s possession, and has been restored for use as a parade truck. 1952 was a big year for the Garrison Fire Department. In that year the department moved into a new station that had been constructed on top of the old community dance hall in the town square, and it received another new truck, a 1952 International. The next new trucks came with the purchase of a 1967 GMC “Engine 67,” through the old Farm Fire Protection System, “Engine 81,” a 1981 GMC purchased by the Garrison Fire Protection Agency and “Engine 97” a 1997 Ford purchased by the Garrison Fire Protection Agency with the help of a Martha Ellen Tye Foundation Grant and fundraising by Garrison firefighters. In 1989 the Garrison Firefighters secured a military surplus 1978 step van which they converted into an equipment and personnel carrier with money derived from fundraising by the Garrison firefighters. The van was given to the Lincoln Fire Department in 2005 when the GFD put its 2005 four-wheel drive quick attack in service. A combination of grants, fundraising and proceeds from hosting the 2003 IFA convention was used to finance the truck. Perhaps the most momentous project ever endeavored by the Garrison Fire Department was construction of its new Emergency Services Building in 1994. The building had been in planning for several years, and the department had begun an in-earnest fund raising effort for the structure in 1993. Fundraising for the new building would continue through 1995, when the entire $74,000 cost of the building was paid off. The building was constructed in the spring and summer of 1994 using all volunteer labor from Garrison firefighters, citizens of the community, and the help of the Naval Reserves, NM SEA BEE 25 from Waterloo, Iowa. The official dedication and open house for the building was held on October 15, 1994. It was, without a doubt the most gala celebration this community had seen in years. Following the ribbon cutting, in a special “housing” ceremony, the trucks were rolled into their new quarters. Garrison firefighters provided all of the labor and one third of the funding for an addition to the station that was completed over the years 2007-2010. The addition included a larger meeting room area, more room in the apparatus bay, a fitness center and generator room.

Until 1976 financial support for the Garrison Fire Department came from the City of Garrison, fundraising by the Garrison volunteer firefighters, and what was know as Garrison Farm Fire Protection. With the Garrison Farm Fire Protection plan farmers in the area “contracted” the Garrison Fire Department for fire protection by paying a flat fee for ten years of fire protection services. In 1976 the Garrison Fire Department went to taxation as a means of funding and the Garrison Fire Protection Agency was formed to administer tax dollars from the City of Garrison plus Big Grove, Jackson, Monroe and Homer Townships. Fundraising still remains a major contributor to fire protection improvements for the department.
Through the years the Garrison fire Department has had an Auxiliary off and on. The Auxiliary consists of firefighters wives and other concerned citizens who are intent upon helping the firefighters do their job and maintain the department. Our current Auxiliary was formed in the late 1980’s. Today, our auxiliary provides welcome assistance with hot and cold drinks to fire and emergency personnel at incidents and they are the fulcrum of support for many of the departments fundraising activities and special events.

Men who have served as Chief of the Garrison Fire Department are: Harry Nigg, 1936-1938; W. T. Flickinger, 1939-1942; Wallace Neve, 1943-1962 and 1976-1978; Kenneth Kruger, 1963-1969 and 1973; Don Schellhase, 1970-1972; Phillip Barkdoll, 1975-1976; Richard Grimm, 1979-1984; and Steve Meyer, 1985 to present. Those who have served as President or EMS Crew Chief of the First Responders are Doug Peterson, Steve Meyer, Steve Fisher, Steve Young, Teresa Meyer, Cindy Pattee, Vanessa Abrams and Amanda Henkle.

Nearly 150 men and women have answered the alarm for fire and emergencies as members of the Garrison Volunteer Fire Department in its 75 years of service. In the early years of the department the roster included fifteen to twenty members. In the 1960’s, and until 1985, the roster was expanded to thirty-two. Now, the department is staffed with twenty-five volunteer firefighters and up to twenty volunteer First Responders. The addition of the First Responders to the fire departments was a big step forward in community service in 1981. Previous to that time the fire department’s response to emergency medical calls was four members of the department responding to what were then referred to as “oxygen calls” to administer oxygen. First Responders are first on the scene at any medical related incident in the Garrison Fire District. From time-to-time they have also provided first responder service to the Mt. Auburn Fire District. They provide professional emergency medical care until the arrival of either the North Benton, Dysart, or La Porte City Ambulance. Initial training received by the First Responders varies from fifty to over one hundred hours depending upon the level of certification they desire to achieve. In addition, the first responders are required to achieve annual re-certification training requirements. The first vehicle used by the Garrison First Responders was the old city maintenance truck, a 1967 GMC pickup which gained the title “Rocket One” in reference to the Garrison Rockets athletic teams from the Garrison School which was consolidated with Vinton in 1969. “Rocket One” was replaced in 1987 with a 1978 GMC four-wheel-drive pickup that was subsequently replaced by a used ambulance in 1997. In 2006 with the help of a USDA Community Facilities Grant the First Responders secured their first totally new vehicle.

Were the men who had the foresight and initiative to start our fire department to come back today, they would find that some things remain the same, yet some things have changed dramatically. The Garrison Fire Department like all small town volunteer fire departments has always had a social aspect to its membership, and it always will. In the 1940’s members of the fire department purchased a building downtown on Birch Street which became known as “The Fireman’s Hall.” The hall was used for social activities of the department, meetings, fund raising activities and various private parties and functions. Over the years it served its purpose well, but became a victim of the times. The Hall was sold in 1992 to Gale Barkdoll for $5,000 and the proceeds were used to initiate fundraising for the new Emergency Service Building. Ironically, in the 1950’s the department had purchased a Wurlitzer Model 1040 Jukebox. It had not been operational for years, and had been shoved into a corner and all but forgotten. It was sold, and that particular model being in particular high demand brought in $7,500, more money than did the sale of the hall.

We still fight fire with water, just like they did in 1936, but tactics, equipment, and policies of the department have changed dramatically since that time. Volunteer firefighters must now comply with standards and regulations that dictate to a certain degree the way we do things, and how we train and prepare ourselves. Firefighters of old were accustomed to fighting fires and fighting fires only. Today, volunteer firefighters must contend not only with firefighting, but also hazardous material incident response, rescue and medical incidents, confined space incidents, and natural or man-made disasters. The time a Garrison volunteer firefighter spends in training and at meeting to learn how to safely manage all of these types of emergencies outweighs the time spent at emergency incidents by a ratio of ten to one. As of July, 2010, Iowa law requires all firefighters to have Firefighter I or equivalent training. Today’s firefighters have various advances in firefighting equipment to help us contend with fires and emergencies. The old CHEMOX gas masks familiar to firefighters in the early years of our department have been replaced by Self Contained Breathing Equipment which allow firefighters to work inside the smoke and heat of a burning building for 45 minutes or more. The old rubber coats and rubber gloves are long gone and have been replaced by firefighting gear that fully encapsulates a firefighter and provides protection from extreme heat for extended periods of time. And, of course, our trucks have gotten bigger, they pump more water, carry more water, are faster, and more expensive than fire trucks of old. For funding, fire departments of today have a huge resource available with FEMA Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) grants. As of 2010 the GFD has received 4 such grants totaling around $160,000.
The one thing that must be said in closing is that nothing the Garrison Fire Department has ever done could have been done without the support of our community and the camaraderie of our department members working together. It is the dedicated volunteers of the Garrison fire Department that I dedicate this glimpse into the history of our department.

Steve Meyer, Retired Garrison Fire Chief