(Above) A picture of the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine purchased by the City of Clear Lake in 1924. The $12,000 truck was considered to be the “most complete fire fighting apparatus of any town of this size in Iowa.” It was purchased from the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Clear Lake Fire Department is celebrating 150 years of service to the community in 2021. Leading up to a June 5 open house hosted by the department, the Mirror-Reporter will highlight its history with a series of articles and photos.
by Marianne Gasaway
For 150 years Clear Lake has taken pride in providing residents with a skilled fire department. Today’s firefighters have completed many hours of training and are ready with state-of-the-art equipment in case of emergency. That’s a far cry from the hose cart and buckets businessmen-turned-firemen used when the department was new.
According to department records, the only fire fighting equipment available when the town’s first significant fire broke out was buckets and long poles.
That was Jan. 4, 1871, when the Coates Bros. Furniture Store burned at a loss of $5,000 and a building near it belonging to McGrows, at a loss of $1,500. A bucket brigade was formed and long poles were used to shove the walls of the burning building in, only hoping to keep the fire from spreading. This serious destruction by fire caused immediate clamor for a fire department and immediately upon the town becoming incorporated one of the first tasks was the establishment of the fire department. This occurred on Oct. 21, 1871 by Ordinance 13.
Organization in November 1871 elected M. Tuttle, engineer; E.B. Wheeler, a blacksmith, foreman; J.T. Coates, 1st assistant; James Williams, 2nd assistant; and W.C. Tompkins, warden. It was known as Clear Lake Fire Company Number 1 and consisted of not more than 30 men, plus the officers. Warrants were issued on the town treasury for $150 for equipment. In 1872 a building occupied by the Wheeler and Gunn firm was purchased for $35 to house the department’s goods.
It was a little more than a decade later when, in March of 1883, the Council purchased the city’s first piece of fire-fighting equipment — a Bulton Hand Water Engine and one chain gear hose cart with about 300 feet of hose at a cost of $1,260. The iron cart with solid wood spoke wheels was used to transport hose to fire hydrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was first pulled by hand and later by horses. One story passed on to firemen was that that the firemen would conduct races with their teams and the first team arriving at the station would get to pull the cart and earn a dollar for its efforts.
Stored for many years in the city shed, the cart was repainted and refurbished and is kept today at the Clear Lake Fire Museum. It has become tradition that department rookies, dressed in long johns and boots, pull the cart in Clear Lake Fourth of July parade.
The department also had six Babcock extinguishers in the late 1800s and plans were made to build six large strategic points in the town.
The town’s first pumper truck, a 1924 Ahrens-Fox fire engine, was placed into service in 1925. It served until the Junior High School Fire in 1975.
“In purchasing the Ahrens-Fox Type of Motor Fire Engine, the officials of Clear Lake have purchased an Engine that will be a credit to the citizens of Clear Lake, as no other Fire Engine we believe approaches the Ahrens-Fox in points of accessibility and general convenience,” wrote the editor of the Clear Lake Mirror at the time.
Indeed, it was impressive.
The engine had a pumping capacity of 750 gallons a minute and was equipped with Pneumatic cord tires. In addition, the engine was equipped with a 60 gallon booster tank which enabled it to begin throwing water the instant the engine arrived at a fire and while the main suction line was being coupled up and line of hose laid.
Through the years the city has been dedicated to keeping its fire department well equipped.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s additional trucks were purchased, with prices starting at about $15,000 for a pumper in 1951 to an American La France No. 1 with a 300 gallon tank with hoses and auxiliary equipment acquired in 1968 at a cost of $33,000. That red and white truck was a departure from the all red color scheme the department had employed.
In the 1960s, the idea of using smaller specialized vehicles was embraced. Utility vans, golf carts and 4x4s became effective tools in transporting support equipment and fighting grass and field fires.
In addition to new, bigger trucks that today cost in the vicinity of a quarter million dollars, the department now also includes a fire boat stationed on the water for rescues and firefighting, along with ambulances.
Equipment has changed drastically through the years, allowing Clear Lake firefighters to keep the community safe.