During the last seventy-five years, the area surrounding East Millstone has undergone a dramatic transformation. In the 1920s when the Millstone Valley Fire Department was founded, East Millstone was a quiet rural village built around the Delaware and Raritan canal. In the 1960s and ‘70s, suburbanization began to sweep through central New Jersey as homes and businesses were being built on previously undeveloped land. Then in the 1980s, large corporate and industrial parks started to appear. The central New Jersey of 2005 bears little resemblance to the way it looked when the fire company was created in 1929. The population of the area has grown quickly, and with this growth in population has come increased construction and development. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of fire calls, thus making the volunteer fire companies in the area busier and more important than ever. However, an effect of the transition from rural village to sprawling suburbia is that people are working farther away from home, and they have less time available to volunteer. While the growth of the area has made volunteerism more important, that same growth has altered many people’s life-styles in such a way that makes volunteerism more difficult than ever to balance with the demands of a family and career.
Among the things that too many of us tend to take for granted these days are our modern means of fire protection. Franklin Township is now served by a number of excellent volunteer fire companies that can have men and equipment at the scene of a blaze at almost a moment’s notice. Before the First World War the only immediate way of fighting a fire in most rural areas was with a hastily assembled bucket brigade.
About 2 o’clock in the morning of October 23, 1912, the sounding of the factory whistle at the Somerset Rubber Company awakened the entire town of East Millstone. Two years previously, this concern had moved into the buildings along the canal formerly belonging to Gaff, Fleischman & Company. A fire, which had been discovered by the night watchman in the drying room, had spread out of control into the warehouse and the unused part of the old distillery.
A fire brigade was quickly formed but the heat had become too intense to prevent the fire from spreading north across Livington Avenue to Pace’s Hotel and a barn that stood next to it. From the hotel the flames moved on to the house and the store of Mr. Gerhart. By this time two vacant houses on the east side of Market Street had also been consumed.
The first outside assistance to arrive was the wreck train of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The fire hose from the engine was thrown on the houses east of Market Street belonging to the Ross and Tappen families. Both of these houses were on fire at one time and had they not been saved, the late Rev. Henry Lockwood, who witnessed the conflagration, believed the whole Village south of the railroad might have been destroyed.
The first actual fire engine to arrive was a horse drawn pumper from Somerville that pulled in at about 4 o’clock. This was followed by one from New Brunswick which made it by 4:30 a.m. All during the rest of the morning many small fires caused by sparks landing on the roofs of buildings had to be extinguished.
Fortunately no lives were lost. The property damage was extensive being at least $75,000 at the factory alone. Had there been a strong wind there is no question but that much more would have been lost. It was incidents of this kind that give rise to our present volunteer companies.
After a series of disastrous fires in the village and nearby communities, several meetings were held in Voorhees Hall, the object being to organize a fire company. These meetings brought results; a company being organized on the evening of April 17, 1928. Mr. J.H. Bennett, a firm believer in adequate fire protection, was unanimously elected president, an office he held until his death in 1937. He was also elected the first chief of the company.
A Childs Fire Truck was purchased in the fall of that year and Mr. Bennett graciously allowed the truck to be housed in his garage. In April 1929 the company was incorporated under the laws of the State as the Millstone Valley Fire Department. At that time it was the only company that boasted a pumping engine in the vicinity.
After operating thirteen years without a firehouse the members undertook the problem of obtaining a suitable building. In October 1942 the new firehouse was dedicated. At that time it was one of the finest firehouses in the county. The meeting room was open to any community organization, free of charge. The fire department, the Ladies’ Auxiliary, the First Aid Squad, the Boy Scouts of America and the Athletic Club made use of the meeting rooms. During the war years the firehouse was used as the local headquarters for Civilian Defense.
We are proud of our members who served our country during the war. We were just as proud of our newer members who were too young join the department when they went into the service and joined our organization after their discharge. Our newer members were just what was needed to put new life into the department.
In 1948, the fire department consisted of a Childs Pumper and an auxiliary 500-gallon pumper purchased from government surplus. Maintenance costs were running high on the Childs Pumper, which was by then almost 20 years old, and in 1949 the department purchased a new 750 GPM Ford Pumper. Later, a 1946 Dodge war surplus ambulance was purchased and reconverted to a field truck. This truck was retired in the fall of 1978.
In 1972, a 1000 GPM Ford Pumper was put into service; and in 1978 a new Dodge Field Truck was added. These two pieces of equipment along with the 1949 Ford Pumper comprised the firefighting apparatus in 1979.
In 1976, Rose Mary Masiello broke an important barrier when she became the first female member of the Millstone Valley Fire Department. She was a dedicated member of the fire company for over two years when tragedy struck. On the way back to the fire station in a field truck in October 1978, the truck swerved off the road and flipped over. Rose Rary was badly injured in the crash and spent nearly three weeks in intensive care. The injuries from the crash were extremely serious. The members of the fire company banded together to organize fundraisers to support Rose Mary. A pancake breakfast was held on January 28, 1979, whose proceeds were given to the Rose Mary Masiello Fund. Rose Mary continues to attend meetings from time to time at the firehouse, but she is no longer an active member. She will always have the distinction and honor of being the first woman to become a member of the Millstone Valley Fire Department. Her bravery ad dedication will always be remembered.
In 1979, construction of the new firehouse on Amwell Road was completed. The new building was a significant upgrade over the old one, which had become small and outdated as the area grew up around it. A great deal of effort went into raising funds throughout the community to facilitate the construction of the new firehouse. In addition, without the generosity of Bob Metlar, who donated the land on which the building sits, it would have been much more difficult to acquire a suitable plot of land. A dedication ceremony for the new firehouse was held on September 6, 1980. John Tamburini, the chairman of the building committee, wrote the following letter of thanks to everyone that participated in the construction of the firehouse.
We, the members of the Millstone Valley Fire Department, wish to thank the many supporters, contributors, and benefactors for helping make this building a reality.
The construction of the new firehouse, along with new membership in the Franklin Township fire district, brought a variety of changes to the Millstone Valley Fire Department. As a result of membership in the district, which was founded in 1973, the company was able to receive a large portion of its funding through taxes levied by the district on homeowners for fire protection. Previously, many of the funds that the company had were earned through donations and fund raising. Under the new arrangement, the district purchased the fire trucks from the company, and then began paying the company to keep them in the firehouse. Along with the increase in funds came an increase in responsibility. The fire company began to answer more calls because of the need to help other members of the fire district. Even though the area of coverage for the Millstone Valley Fire Department has stayed the same, there have been an increasing number of calls every year. The needs to respond to calls throughout development in the area have simply created a larger area where calls can occur.
The firehouse has continued to serve as a center for the community. Elections are held in the firehouse on a yearly basis, and the public can rent the firehouse’s halls for private functions. In 1993, an addition was built on to the firehouse’s halls for the benefit of the members. A new weight room, office, bar area, and lounge were constructed. These beautiful modern facilities provide the fire fighters with both a place to work and relax. Meetings continue to be held in the older section of the building. These meetings are held at 8:00 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month. The meetings consist of taking attendance, reviewing old business, reviewing the monthly budget, and voting on new business and issues of importance.
In the early morning hours of July 6, 1983, a serious fire ignited at Weston’s Mill in Franklin. The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m., and the Millstone Valley Fire Department responded to the scene along with other area fire companies. The mill was engulfed in flames as the firefighters battled the blaze throughout the night. The ladies auxiliary was also on hand providing refreshments for the weary firefighters. Despite their best efforts, the firemen were unable to prevent the destruction of the decrepit remains of the old mill.
Another serious fire that occurred during the 1980s was a fire at the Cloverleaf Industrial Park that started around nine o’clock in the evening on December 14, 1989. This fire was ignited when some forklift propane tanks exploded. The resulting blaze consumed five buildings in the industrial park and threatened to spread to some nearby homes. About twenty people were forced to evacuate their homes for the duration of the blaze, which lasted until the next morning. Fifteen fire companies, including Millstone Valley, responded to the fire alarm. The fire was contained in the industrial park by about one o’clock in the morning, but was not finally put out until later on in the day.
In 1994, the fire company took another important step when it began to participate in district response. District response is a district wide system of answering fire calls. The various fire companies in the district provide support and back-up for fire calls in the areas of other companies. District response has resulted in the fire company being involved in far more calls than ever before. Before district response, the fire department was involved in about a hundred calls or less a year, almost all in East Millstone and Millstone Borough. Since the company began district response, the number of calls responded to have increased every year, with the total for 2004 projected to top four hundred.
During the 1990s, a series of plans, known as five-year plans, were implemented to address the purchase of new equipment for the fire company. These plans were designed to set aside funds for the purchase of needed items, and the phasing out of membership in the fire district, because more tax money had become available. Previously, the fire company had been limited in its funds, and all of the equipment and trucks that were purchased were second hand. However, many of the vehicles in the fire department’s fleet were becoming seriously outdated by the 1980s. Some of the trucks were left over from the 1940s and 1950s. Membership in the fire district and a series of five-year plans allowed the fire department to acquire new trucks were that would allow it to better serve the community. Despite the fact that the fire company’s budget is nearly three times what it was twenty years ago, the burden on homeowners has stayed about the same. The increase in commercial building has allowed more revenue to be brought in through higher commercial taxes, thereby allowing the people in the community to receive top-flight fire protection without having to pay an exorbitant tax for it.
In the past six years, there have been a number of significant events in the Central Jersey area that have involved the Millstone Valley Fire Department. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd struck New Jersey and caused serious flooding in Central New Jersey, particularly in Bound Brook. The Millstone Valley Fire Department spent four days responding to calls helping people deal with the intense storm and its aftermath. The firefighter pumped water out of people’s basements, moved people’s possessions out of harms way and kept citizens of the area informed about possible plans for evacuation. The firefighters worked non-stop for days, they had many sleepless nights, and often did not even go home from the fire station. The dedication shown by those who participated in these acts of heroism is a true testament to the nature of the members of the Millstone Valley Fire Department. In the aftermath of the storm the members of the Millstone Valley Fire Department organized an enormously successful fundraiser to show support for the beleaguered people of Bound Brook, who had suffered greatly at the hands of the storm.
Another significant event in the recent history of the fire company was the tower dispute that occurred in 2000. The fire company received a request to allow construction of a tower on its property. If the construction had been completed, it would have provided the fire company with rental revenue, and also use of the equipment provided the fire company with rental revenue, and also use of the equipment provided by the cell tower for its radios. However, the people of East Millstone decided that the historic status of the town would be violated by the construction of the cell tower. A group of townspeople fought the construction of the tower, and were successful in preventing it from being built.
On September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were destroyed in the worst foreign attack on American soil in history. The terrorist attacks and the subsequent sacrifice made by many New York Firefighters, brought fire departments across the nation together to provide assistance to the New York firefighters. As a show of their appreciation for their sacrifice that many made, and as a pledge of support to the New York fire departments, the Millstone Valley Fire Department held a breakfast, the proceeds of which were sent to aid the firemen in New York.
During 2002 there were two important events that exemplified the importance of brotherhood to firefighters. Early in February, two local firefighters, Assistant Chief Brian Hoiberg of East Franklin and Lou Pinella of Community Fire Department, suffered third degree burns on their bodies fighting a fire. The Millstone Valley Fire Department organized and hosted an extremely effective benefit breakfast for the two firefighters. The community and fellow firefighters combined their efforts to raise over 18,000 dollars for the injured men. Despite short notice, the event was able to be a success thanks to advertisements in the newspapers and on NJ 101.5 radio station, and thanks to word of mouth. Another benefit was geld later in 2002 after Mark Hall; a longtime member of the Manville Fire Department suffered a heart attack and passed away during a softball game between the Manville and Millstone Valley fire departments. A breakfast was held in Mark’s memory, the proceeds of which, over 9,000 dollars, were donated to help Mark’s son with his college education.
In remembrance of the history of our own fire company, a memorial walkway was installed in 2004 to honor the deceased former members of the Millstone Valley Fire Department and the Ladies Auxiliary. The walkway has been constructed as part of the seventy-fifth anniversary ceremonies as a celebration of the fire company.
During the last twenty-five years, there have been a number of changes to the way in which the Millstone Valley Fire Company operates. However, at the same time, little has changed in some aspects of volunteer fire fighting. One fact that has not changed is the fire company’s need to hold fundraisers. There is an annual schedule to the fundraisers that is similar, although not necessarily identical from year to year. A pancake breakfast is usually held in February. Another common event is a spaghetti dinner. The ladies auxiliary holds a geranium sale in the spring and a poinsettia sale in the winter. During the summer, picnics, car washes, and pig roasts are all possible fundraisers. Special holiday events include an Easter egg hunt in the spring, and a Christmas tree lighting and Santa tour in December. Finally, the Millstone Valley Fire Department earns money year round by renting tents for outdoor functions. The firemen are in charge of setting up and taking down the tents. The reason for these fundraisers is to provide the firefighters with the money for recreational expenses. Tax money covers the basic operating expenses for the fire station, but refreshments and activities need to be financed by money acquired elsewhere. One of the main functions of the Ladies Auxiliary is to help the firefighters raise money.
One aspect of volunteer fire fighting that has changed greatly over the past twenty-five years is the amount and nature of the training that is required. The training regimen for volunteer firefighters is much more professional and regulated than it was in the past. More than one hundred hours of training are required to become a firefighter. Firefighters must attend a certain number of training sessions each year to remain a member in good standing. The township and county run these training sessions. At the local level, the fire company holds exercises once a month, but there is also required training at the state and federal level. A new and challenging aspect of firefighting is dealing with the generally weaker construction in new buildings and a variety of new synthetic materials that burn faster than traditional building materials. A focus of the training is to develop techniques for fighting fires that are burning faster and hotter than ever before. In addition to basic firefighter training, there is separate training for driving the fire trucks and operating the pumper. Also, since September 11, 2001, firefighters have been trained as first responders for terrorist attacks. Along with undergoing the specialized training that is necessary, it is important for the firefighters to remain in good physical shape. There is more stringent requirements for firefighters fitness now than there were in the past. Each member of the fire company is required to visit a doctor yearly for a mask fitting. In addition, older members of the fire company must have a physical examination every year, while younger members are required to receive one every one or two years. All of the training and physical fitness requirements that have changed over the years have made the job of firefighting more demanding, but they have surely helped to improve the skills and abilities of the firefighters.
As well as physical training, there are firefighter conventions held every year, and some members of the Millstone Valley Fire Department attend these. Conventions are held in Wildwood, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland. These conventions bring together fire companies from throughout the East coast to discuss techniques, new equipment and other developments in the world of firefighting. Conventions provide members of the various fire companies with an opportunity to meet with their colleagues to discuss business, but also to socialize.
In addition to the required training and mandatory physical exams, there is a lighter side to the benefit of staying in shape for many firefighters. The Millstone Valley Fire Department is involved in various recreational sports. During the spring and summer, the fire company fields a softball team that competes against other fire stations in a schedule of games, and in special tournaments. The friendly competitions between fire stations provides fun and exercise, and for the best team in the league a sense of pride upon receiving a trophy in recognition of its efforts. In addition to softball, the fire company has a bowling team and participates in golf outings. Besides traditional sporting competition, there is also judged competition between the fire stations in fire engine maintenance and detailing. All of the trophies earned in these intra-station competitions are proudly displayed in a trophy case in the bar area of the fire station.
The Millstone Valley Fire Department is carefully organized and regimented. There is two separate chains of command: line officers and administrative officers. The line officers consist of the chief, the deputy chief, the captain, first lieutenant, and second lieutenant. On the administrative side, are the president, vice-president, secretary, financial secretary and treasurer. Line officers are responsible for training and exercises, and for leading the firefighter in the field when actually fighting a fire. The administrative officers are concerned with financial issues, dealing with the community, and maintaining records of meetings. Elections are held on a yearly basis for the officers. Line officers usually work their way up the ranks, spending one, or ideally two years at each rank before ascending to the next rank. Being an officer in a volunteer fire company is extremely demanding. It is akin to having a full time job, but not getting paid for it. An enormous amount of dedication is required to be an officer and fulfill the responsibilities associated with the post.
There are a variety of traditions among firefighters that have been established throughout history. One tradition is the “wetdown”. When a fire company receives a new truck, a ceremony is held, usually during the summer to celebrate the new machine. Refreshments and entertainment are present and the ceremonial wetting of the fire truck and everyone present occurs. These occasions are often commemorated with mugs that are given out to the firemen. Another more somber tradition is the firefighter funeral. If the family of the deceased wishes, a firefighter funeral may be held for a departed member of the company. Firefighters in dress uniform attend the wake, and the casket is taken to the graveyard atop a fire engine. Following the ceremony, a reception is usually held at the firehouse. The firehouse is draped with a black cloth to show respect for the deceased. Finally, there is great deal of tradition present in the rank insignias worn by officers in the fire company. The number of bugles and their position designate the rank of officers. More bugles designate a higher rank, with the chief having five bugles present on his insignia. These traditions, not specific to the Millstone Valley Fire Department, are associated with fire companies in general and are practiced in some way nearly everywhere.
Throughout its history, the Millstone Valley Fire Department has always been dependent on the sense of duty and civic responsibility of its members. However, it is becoming harder and harder to find people who are willing to devote themselves, and likely the majority of their free time to volunteer firefighting. Although the number of members in the Millstone Valley Fire Company has stayed about the same (around forty) over the last twenty-five years, the number of truly active members that attend the majority of fire alarms, has fallen to between fifteen and eighteen. One reason for this is that people are not available during the day when many calls occur. In the past, when members of the fire company worked right in town, they would be able to respond to calls during the workday, because they would not need to travel far. However, the many people who commute a great distance to their jobs find it impossible to answer fire calls during the day. Recruitment and retention is definitely a major challenge facing fire companies. It is simply difficult to get people to commit a serious block of their time to volunteering, when they need to work a full day and also spend time with their families.
The landscape of Central Jersey has changed greatly in the last twenty-five years. Development has brought many new homes and businesses into the area, and the population density has risen greatly. The infrastructure of the area is constantly under stress as there are more cars on the road than ever before. New businesses mean more places where fire alarms can possibly go off. A great many calls that require response are false alarms, or carbon dioxide sensors. Firemen must report to the scene, and the amount of time spent responding to the call and filing the necessary paper work afterwards is staggering. The Millstone Valley Fire Department is entering an era in which it will be averaging more than one call a day throughout the year, many of them false alarms in commercial and industrial complexes.
If the trends of development and expansion continue in Central Jersey, it is hard to imagine volunteer fire companies being able to keep up with the burden of providing adequate fire coverage. Membership is shrinking as the number of calls is increasing. At some point, it may become physically impossible for the members of the fire company to support themselves with a full time job and also devote the necessary attention to being a firefighter. The cultural character of America has changed in the last seventy-five years. People are less community-oriented; they are more focused on their own families and careers. There are more households with two parents working out of the home, or with single parents. These households have less time to devote to the community because by the time they are through with work and family obligations, there is just no time left to volunteer. It seems that there is an irreversible trend in Central Jersey that will ultimately result in the need for paid, professional firefighters. The reality of the situation is simply that there are not enough people with enough time.
The last twenty-five years have been a time of enormous change for the Millstone Valley Fire Department and Central Jersey in general. Recent events have drastically altered the nature of the area, and the world as a whole. The Millstone Valley Fire Department has been involved in these occurrences, lending support to the community and providing aid to those in need. The members of the Millstone Valley Fire Department have shown themselves to truly be heroes and guardians of the community throughout the history of the company.