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Thankful for those who protect

  • SOUTH WARD FIRE CO ARCHIVES Members of the 1935 marching unit prepare for a six-county fireman's convention at SWFC's mountaintop home. They wore red, white and blue uniforms in honor of the centennial of the town's incorporation.
    SOUTH WARD FIRE CO ARCHIVES Members of the 1935 marching unit prepare for a six-county fireman's convention at SWFC's mountaintop home. They wore red, white and blue uniforms in honor of the centennial of the town's incorporation.
Published November 29. 2013 05:00PM

At the heart of every community is a group of firefighters.

They serve and protect and give of themselves selflessly.

At this time of Thanksgiving, we express appreciation to first responders and give heartfelt thanks to fearless men and women, those brave-hearted volunteers who take a pledge to protect our lives and property.

At one such firehouse, that pledge is marking a special anniversary.

Exactly 100 years ago, high atop a hill in a local neighborhood, an idea of benevolence took hold among 20 men.

On Oct. 22, 1913, they recognized a problem and banded together to find an answer.

They saw that danger was in the air on a daily basis.

The problem was that hills of home were too steep. Horses were too slow, and house fires spread too fast.

Citizens needed fire protection located in their neighborhood.

A one-page log, official minutes of the first meeting, tells of the plight. The handwritten page serves as a reminder of pioneering life in the sprawling South Ward, the largest section of Tamaqua.

Early records reveal that the men met in the former Lynch Hotel at the northwest corner of Spruce and Hunter streets to lay out plans for the creation of South Ward Fire Company (SWFC).

At that first meeting, the men elected temporary officers: Jacob Betz, president; J.H. Derr, vice president; E.J. Davis, secretary; and Ed Lynch, treasurer. Trustees were Fred Ditchey, Henry Steinert and Jay Ulrich.

Additional meetings took place at Ditchey's residence until 1915 when the group rented office space at the Vulcan Iron Works building, Spruce and Cherry streets overlooking South Railroad.

In a sense, the creation of a fire company was long overdue. The burgeoning South Ward carried a strong individual identity. It was and is, essentially, a community within a community. The need for South Ward-based firefighters stemmed from practical ideals of safety and efficiency.

At the time, Tamaqua's two other fire companies were located downtown and response times were slow when fires broke out high atop the hills. Horses had a hard time pulling equipment up the mountainside.

SWFC's first piece of equipment was a hand-drawn chemical wagon that carried 400 feet of hose.

By 1916, the company built its first firehouse, a two-story wood frame building atop a knoll at one of the highest elevations in town. At that spot, the corner of Van Gelder and Swatara streets, Frank J. Farber of Farber Lumber erected a structure with engine room doors facing south, a feature that was reversed when a new brick building was put up in 1951.

The old wooden firehouse contained a radio and pool table on the first floor and a hall for dances and bingo on the second. The basement barroom area was so admired by members that when the old building was torn down in 1950, the bar was covered with tarpaulins and saved.

The era of Roaring 20s was golden for SWFC as the corps grew rapidly, upgrading their equipment and fielding a formidable baseball team, the South Ward Sluggers.

The company's first fire engine, a 1921 Hahn pumper, lasted 10 years, at which point SWFC bought a 1931 Buffalo 500-gallon pumper with tank, ladders, chemical tanks and equipment for 12 firefighters.

A Civil Defense 1954 Federal pumper was later added, followed by a 750-gallon Hahn in 1968, replacing the Buffalo.

Interestingly, the firehouse's elevation is so high that members were prompted to erect a 150-foot tower. That antenna enabled SWFC to become first in Tamaqua to own a newfangled device called the television. It is said the company was first to have color television as well.

All through the years, SWFC members have been recognized as dedicated men and women who put their community and the lives of its residents first.

Members always have taken pride in the facilities, equipment and property. The company has hosted fairs, block parties and special events on meticulously maintained grounds.

No South Ward story is complete without mention of the late Harry "Honey" Miller because his life is indicative of the lifetime of dedication by all SWFC members.

Miller was a young man who sustained a debilitating hip injury in a swimming accident along the Little Schuylkill River in Paradise, a swimming area north of town. The injury kept him from serving his country during the war years but Miller found another way to serve. He went on to become SWFC's club steward from 1923 to 1946. It was a position to which he devoted his life.

Company members never forgot him, creating a carved granite block dedicated to "Honey." The memorial itself bears testimony to South Ward's belief in the benevolent human spirit and the sacrifice of personal dedication.

In 1988, SWFC's original engine room was deemed too small to house equipment. The company erected a spacious, three-bay garage on the western end of the property. The new building was first occupied in 1989.

Given a decline in the social quarter business, the company decided in 2004 to sell the brick firehouse to neighbor Lehigh-Carbon Community College. Today, that site now hosts the Jane Scheller Center of LCCC, a bookstore and student center, a 2008 project.

The sale allowed SWFC to expand the engine room to six bays along with adding a day room, bunk room, communications room and office space.

SWFC has come a long way over the past century. The buildings and equipment have changed, but not the spirit and not the goal.

In the realm of human existence, it's not bricks and mortar that define our noblest contributions, but rather a God-given yearning to be of service to others.

That's why firefighting exists. And that's why we give thanks to our bravest citizens answering their neighbors' plea.

We salute all who don a helmet, born of fearless determination to protect fellow man, not only in the South Ward of Tamaqua, but at every firehouse in every town and township in the TIMES NEWS coverage area.

Today, our lives are better and safer, thanks to the sacrifice of firefighters.

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