In March of 1923, a strong, cold wind blew through the valley. In the local blacksmith shop, a pot of shellac was put on a pot belly stove to soften and was forgotten. After time, the shellac exploded and the smithy shop was on fire. Fanned by the winds, the fire spread from house to house and the tragic fire wiped out the village of Martinsville. The nearest aid was in Bound Brook, but they carried little water. Aid also came from Somerville but the fire raced well ahead of the firefighters.
Shortly thereafter, a group of local residents met and formed the Martinsville Engine Company No. 1. From the ashes of this disaster, the community began a tradition of volunteer service to the Martinsville community. Thirteen men attended that first meeting, stepping forward to face a challenge that had devastated their community. There is no smithy shop in Martinsville today, but the need for fire protection and volunteers is as great today as it was in 1923.
The Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department has grown since its founding in 1923. There are now two fire stations and seven pieces of apparatus of various description. The one constant throughout its history is the steady support of volunteers who man the trucks and respond to their neighbor's call. Members donate their time maintaining equipment, honing their firefighting skills through training, and standing ready days, nights, holidays, and weekends to answer the call.
1923-1927: The Beginning
March 23, 1923 was a typical windy day in the Martinsville valley with northwest winds blowing up to sixty miles per hour. On that morning in the garage adjourned to Fred Bartle's blacksmith shop, a can of thick varnish was being warmed over a fire in a pot-bellied stove in order to thin the varnish for use on an automotive body. The varnish caught fire, exploded and soon the entire shop was ablaze.
The fire quickly spread from the blacksmith shop to the row of houses lining both sides of Washington Valley Road. The homes were destroyed along with the personal belongings of the residents who tried to save what they could by carrying their possessions into the street. The high winds ripped burning shingles off roofs and the fire spread down both sides of the street.
Eleven dwellings, the Presbyterian chapel, several barns and garages were destroyed despite valiant efforts of the local residents who formed a bucket brigade to fight the fire. Martinsville did not have a fire department and help had to be called from Somerville. Chief Charles Mathews and members of the Lincoln Chemical Company responded to the call. Also, fire apparatus from Bound Brook, Plainfield, Watchung, and Liberty Corner pumped water from the local wells and used their chemical type apparatus in an effort to extinguish the fire. New York newspapers featured the fire in Martinsville on their front pages the following day.
As the community began to rebuild, local residents met to form a fire company in an effort to avoid another disaster. The Martinsville Engine Company No. 1 was incorporated on December 23, 1923. Some of the first volunteer members were William Lyng, Art Waldron, Leon Abbott, Will Van Nest, John Thum, John Neiss, Edwin Smalley, John Masterpeter, Joe Seunderhaft, Grayland Penny, Chick Bartle, Stanley Bartle, and Robert Doty. Mr. Lyng was elected chief and his first order of business was to obtain a fire truck.
A large group of shipping crates arrived in Martinsville in 1924 and the members unpacked the fire department's new fire truck, which was shipped unassembled! Fortunately, some members were mechanically inclined and the unit was soon operating efficiently. It was a Model T chemical truck, which was operated by adding sulfuric acid to the water in the two 30-gallon storage tanks.
The truck was housed in a garage behind Chief Lyng's store at the intersection of Chimney Rock Road and Washington Valley. The steep driveway proved a very convenient location for the Model T, which was often hard to start.
1928-1945: First Firehouse, Depression, and the War Years
The members constructed Martinsville's first firehouse in 1928 on land donated by the Community Club located on Washington Valley Road. In 1934, the firehouse was moved further west on Washington Valley Road in order to accommodate additions to the then two room Martinsville Elementary School. The Martinsville Branch of Somerset County Library is now housed in the building.
During this time, the Fire Department bought a 1930 Model A truck chassis and transferred to it all of the equipment from the Model T. Water pressure was still obtained by a chemical means.
In a continuing effort to provide good fire protection to the people of the Martinsville Community, the Department signed notes to purchase a Sanford Fire Truck in 1935. The truck had newer and better equipment including a 350-gallon per minute pump with a 300-gallon booster tank. This was the pride of the Department throughout the years of World War II.
During the depression and World War II, the Fire Department struggled to make payments on the loan for the Sanford. The Board of Fire Commissioners was chartered by township ordinance with the purpose of establishing a budget that would be approved by taxpayers in order to set the rate for the District Fire Tax. The first Commissioners were Ralph Reill, Grayland Perry, Stan Mynton, and John Papen. They met, were organized, and duly elected, but it took about three years before the people voted in their first budget (about $500).
1946-1959: Early Expansion
The United States Army has hundreds of surplus fire trucks for sale in 1946, so arrangements were made to acquire a 1944 Chevy fire truck with a 500-gallon front-mounted pump and a 300 gallon booster tank. The company was an efficient organization with two pieces of operating equipment.
After World War II, the needs of the fire company outgrew the small firehouse and the purchase of land for a new firehouse in the center of Martinsville was authorized in October 1947. The new building was dedicated as Station 1. The Fire Company donated the old firehouse to the library organization.
The Sanford fire truck, in operation since 1935, was replaced in 1955 by a new Ward LaFrance, a 750-gallon per minute pumper with a 1000 gallon booster tank.
Firefighters were alerted to a call when a local resident, Mrs. Clifford Hall, activated the firehouse siren via a special phone line between her home and the firehouse. The volunteers responded to the firehouse to learn the location of the fire call.
During the 1950's, the Martinsville Engine Company became one of the first fire companies in New Jersey to have its own radio and alerting system. It had a system of having two-way radios in all vehicles, walkie-talkies, and "bay" stations and receiving radios. The radios were tone alerted in each one of the firefighter's homes.
In the 1960's, Mrs. Mary Kozic, a local public-spirited citizen, who was confined to a wheel chair, activated the sirens and used the radios in the homes of the firefighters to alert them. In an effort to upgrade the existing system, the Fire Department purchased a new radio and alerting system and by 1966, more than $10,000 was invested in the system. In the late 1960's, Bridgewater Township established a central dispatching system for all township fire companies and rescue squads and by 1971, The Martinsville Engine Company had shifted completely to the township's system.
1960-1973: Development of the Valley and the End of the First Fifty Years
As the valley began to develop, the fire company anticipated the future growth of the western end of the Fire District. In 1960, land was purchased near the intersection of Brown and Washington Valley Roads from Public Service Electric and Gas Company. Construction of Fire Station 2 was begun in 1967 and dedicated in 1969. Chief Wilfred [Wolfie] Frazer chaired the construction committee. As a child, Chief Frazer had witnessed the fiery destruction of much of the town of Martinsville.
As the area grew, it became apparent that additional fire trucks were needed. In 1967, Mr. Roque Dameo, a local resident, donated a 1957 Brockway tractor and 5000-gallon trailer. The firefighters spent many hours putting this piece of equipment into service. The tanker was used in areas where there were no fire hydrants which encompassed most of the valley. It became apparent in 1972 that major expenditures would be needed to keep the tanker in operation, so the fire company sold the apparatus. By that time, fire hydrants had been installed in much of the community, especially those at greatest risk.
In 1969, a Mack 1000-gallon per minute triple combination diesel pumper with a 1000-gallon booster tank was purchased. This vehicle was sold to Somerset County for training use at the Somerset County Emergency Services Training Academy in 1999.
Brush fires plagued the Fire Company particularly during the dry years of the 1960's. In order to provide the volunteers with the necessary equipment to fight brush fires, a four wheel drive Dodge power wagon was purchased in 1970. The truck was converted to a brush truck after the firefighters outfitted it with a 17-gallon per minute pump, a 150-gallon tank and other gear needed to fight fires deep in the woods and on the mountainsides surrounding the valley. The 1944 Chevy was sold in 1969 to a local resident who used it to work on his farm.
The Fire Department experienced an equipment crisis in 1969 when both the Ward LaFrance and the new Mack pumper were out of service. The LaFrance truck was not available because it required extensive pump repair work. The new Mack pumper had been involved in an accident returning from a fire call when a newly filled culvert collapsed under the apparatus. The Fire Company learned of an old 1955 Maxim 750-gallon per minute pumper for sale from a fire department for sale in south Jersey and this truck was purchased. The Maxim filled in until both the LaFrance and the Mack were returned to service. After several years of standby duty, the Maxim was taken out of service in 1973 and sold for scrap a year later.
Fire Station 1 was completely renovated in the 1960's and early 1970's. A third bay was added upstairs, eliminating the meeting room. Thereafter, meetings were held downstairs. In preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration in 1973, the downstairs meeting area was completely paneled by the firefighters. The Martinsville Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary donated a completely new kitchen.
In 1973, the Fire Company celebrated 50 years of dedicated service to the community with a large parade featuring many fire trucks and members from local fire departments and rescue squads as well as municipal governing officials. Well over 1000 people attended the festivities.
As the first 50 years of service drew to a close, the 1955 Ward LaFrance was scheduled for replacement. A new fire truck, a 1250-gallon per minute Hahn triple combination diesel pumper with automatic drive and a 1000-gallon booster tank, was ordered in 1973 and received in mid 1974.
In December 1973, the Fire Company had to be re-incorporated and the name was changed from the Martinsville Engine Company No. 1 to The Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department. It was felt that this name better described the fire fighting nature of the organization and the volunteer firefighters who served the community by protecting it and its residents from fire.
1974-2005: The Next 30 Years
GROWTH, CHANGES-TODAY AND TOMORROW
During the 32 years from 1973 to 2005, the addition of new businesses, homes, and traffic patterns transformed a sleepy hamlet into a bustling community that struggled to maintain its historical character.
Old homes on Washington Valley Road were demolished to make way for two new strip malls, the Old Martinsville School was renovated, and office buildings were constructed on Route 22 and in Martinsville. Vast stretches of the valley and the surrounding hillsides became dotted with new homes. The increase in population brought a traffic crisis to downtown Martinsville, resulting in installation of two traffic lights.
In an effort to meet new demands on fire protection, the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department also expanded and became more professional in its training, equipment, and general way of "doing things" while at the same time preserving its rich heritage.
2006: Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department: Looking Ahead
The Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department is eighty two years old in its service to the community and rich in its eighty three year history as a volunteer fire company. On the other hand, the Department is young as indicated above due to its willingness to change and grow with the times. New demands on the department have required it to adopt new tactics. As the area has changed, what once was a fire department that primarily fought brush fires is now a department that has a majority of its alarms in the homes, businesses, and roadways in the Fire District.
If there is one thing that the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department can be proud of, it is its willingness to be innovative. It has been a smooth transition from one era to another, building the current fire department by utilizing the contributions from past and current members. The Department is fortunate to have a good working relationship with the Board of Fire Commissioners of Fire District 1 who represent the taxpayers of the fire district in governing the operations of the fire department and providing the fire equipment. The Department is also fortunate to have the encouragement and support of the residents of Fire District 1 and is appreciative of all the contributions given to the Fire Department for so many years. The residents and the Fire Department can be proud of all the accomplishments this partnership has achieved in 83 years. The Fire Department looks forward to continuing to meet the fire and emergency needs of Martinsville and the Washington Valley, protecting the residents and businesses in the rich tradition of a volunteer fire company.