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Volunteers mark 50 years at Fireman's Cabin
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Participating in a meeting that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first meeting of the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Co. in the Fireman's Cabin are from left; Bob Sizemore, retired fire chief Lloyd Gregory, Shelton Scales, Boyd Gray, Warren Robertson, Tommy Childress; and current President Leon Reed.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

By SHAWN HOPKINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

If there is one thing that speaks more to the longevity and success of Martinsville's Volunteer Fire Company than its 50-year-old Fireman's Cabin, it is the group of nine surviving company members who joined before the cabin was completed.

The company included both in a celebration of the cabin's 50th anniversary held there Wednesday night.

Five of the former pre-1957 members attended and shared hot dogs, hamburgers, cake and ice cream and reminiscing, including charter member Shelton Scales, one of the first 35 charter members of the company when it was organized in 1949. J. Lloyd Gregory, who served with the city's professional fire department for 40 years - including serving as chief from 1969 until his retirement in 1988 - also attended.

"It means a lot to us, you all being here," said Leon Reed, current president of the volunteers.

Page Brockenbrough, company treasurer, said the first meeting at the cabin was held in 1957. It was built for $5,500 at the city reservoir on land donated by the city. The money was raised by the volunteers.

For five decades, Brockenbrough said, the cabin has been a place for the volunteer company to have meetings and for both career and volunteer firefighters to have parties, dances, meals and other social events - even weddings. As it grew, the volunteer organization became like another civic organization, holding events such as the carnival-like Fireman's Bazaar and raising funds to help the career (paid) department buy equipment.

Some of the old-timers also remember the occasional card game.

"You don't play nickel poker anymore?" joked Boyd Gray, who joined around 1956, during the current volunteers' business meeting.

T.J. Childress, who joined in 1953, said the lodge was a good place to release tension that had built up fighting fires. It also was good "to get to know each other" when not fighting fires, he said.

"There was a lot of good times had over here," he said.

Being at the cabin brought back memories for the older volunteer firefighters as they talked. Scales, who was president of the Jaycees and worked in the insurance business at the time, remembers being recruited by then-city manager Kent Mathewson for the original group of 35 fire company volunteers.

Mathewson added volunteers as a cost-saving measure in September 1949. He hired a fire marshal, Clay Easterly, to train them and to set up a fire prevention program.

Scales said Mathewson specifically approached leaders of civic groups and businessmen who would have an interest in the community. The first president, Horace G. Dyer, was president of the Lions Club. Dyer is the other surviving original volunteer, but could not make it to the dinner.

"Hardly any of us had any experience as a firefighter," Scales said. But they were trained and when they heard the fire alarm go off uptown, they would call to find out where the fire was, grab the helmets and firefighters' coats they kept at home, and rush to the scene.

Scales said he does not remember his first fire call, but he vividly remembers a major warehouse fire in 1951. He and Gregory said the fire blazed so large that one airplane pilot who spotted it reported that all of Martinsville was burning.

"I couldn't lift my arms I was so tired (the next day)," Scales said.

Pre-1957 volunteers Warren B. Robertson, Boyd and Childress had memories of "a lot of training," teaching fire prevention to children and some major fire calls they answered as volunteers. They agreed that Martinsville was much more prone to fires in those days because there were so many frame buildings and working furniture factories.

Boyd said he still remembers the radios they kept in their houses to listen for calls and the message that would come over when there was a fire.

"It used to say, "˜KII408,' alerting all volunteers," he said.

Scales said he was glad to see that something he helped start more than 50 years ago is still going strong.

The career firefighters appreciated the volunteer help, retired chief Gregory said.

"They gave us more manpower," he said, which was important at a time in when the Martinsville career department was the only department in the area. After the Martinsville volunteer department started, the fire marshal's office started helping other communities set up volunteer departments.

Brockenbrough said there have been more than 400 volunteers over the years.

Reed, who retired as a career firefighter in late 1998 and became a volunteer on Jan. 1, 1999, said there is also a financial benefit to having volunteers.

"It saves the city a lot of money," he said.

Robertson, a Dupont employee who became a volunteer in 1953, said he felt such service met a civic obligation, not only in helping save people's lives and property but also in saving the city money.

"We thought we were doing our duty as a citizen of the city of Martinsville," said Robertson. "I always felt like I was doing some good."

Another pre-1957 volunteer, Bob Sizemore, also was honored at the meeting. The other four surviving pre-1957 volunteers are Tommy Leath, Doug Gravely, Ben Winn and Dyer, according to Brockenbough.


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