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  • Sue Tryforos, Borough Historian

Glen Rock Forms a Fire Department

For this year's Quasquicentennial Celebration, The Rock Recorder Blog will post a chronological (as much as possible) history of Glen Rock, NJ. My main source for framing this series is an unpublished manuscript in the Glen Rock Historical & Preservation Society's archive, which was written by George Hubschmitt. This is Part #11 of the series.

The newly formed Glen Rock Fire Department in front of the first fire house, 1911

Before there was a Glen Rock Fire Department, if buildings caught fire they were usually a total loss plus there was constant danger from grass and brush fires. The greatest danger was in the late spring, fall or early winter when there was little snow or rain. Each home owner was an individual “fire department” in that it was his or her responsibility to knock out any grass or brush fire in the early stages of its burning.

The biggest fire hazard was that caused by sparks from train locomotives. Engines were supposed to be furnished with spark screens however sometimes these were not effective. At times a train fireman found it expedient to climb atop the locomotive and cut or remove the screen entirely in order to increase the stack draft. With such conditions and a heavily laden freight or a fast express train coming along, there was the real possibility of a shower of sparks setting fire to dry leaves or to the woods that stretched along either side of the railroad tracks.

During the fire season, residents near the tracks always kept a pail or two of water and wet brooms handy. One fire is recalled by George Hubschmitt when, on a Sunday afternoon before 1910, it seemed that all of Glen Rock near the Bergen County Short Cut tracks was aflame. Sparks from a passing train started brush fires from the Thurston farm on Harristown Road to Ferndale Avenue to Harding Road. By herculean efforts, the fire was mostly contained along the fence beside the tracks but it ran wild over Eagan’s Lane (now Hamilton Avenue between Maple Avenue and Broad Street) and soon threatened the wooden School #1, which stood where Central School’s parking lot is today.

David A. Courter was the janitor at School #1 at the time. Together with his nephew George Hubschmitt, Courter carried pails of water up to the school’s bell tower. As George later recalled, “Here amid swirling hot ashes and embers he [Courter] stood and with expertly thrown pails of water knocked out sparks on the shingle roof. The smoke was heavy and one realized afterward the heat must have been close to the igniting point for the building.” Luckily, the fire did not jump Maple Avenue but it took all of the residents in the area to beat back the fire successfully.

By the fall of 1910, several meetings had been held about the need for an organized fire department and soon the Glen Rock Fire Department was formed with a full complement of twelve company and line officers. John R. Garrabrant, Jr. was elected Fire Chief. Garrabrant owned a very popular hotel near the corner of Maple Avenue and Rock Road; this hotel, the Old Half-Way House (later just called Garrabrant’s) was known far and wide for its excellent chicken dinners. Garrabrant served as Mayor of Glen Rock twice, from 1910-1913 and again from 1920-1921.

The Old Half-Way House, later known as Garrabrant's Hotel, circa 1900

The new Glen Rock Fire Department thus had a Chief but no funds or equipment. It was decided to hold a town-wide Fireman’s Fair in School #1 to remedy this situation. The Fireman’s Fair was a three-day affair held in December 1910 with games, vaudevillian entertainment and a country store, among other attractions. Full-course dinners (provided by Garrabrant’s hotel) were served each night for 35¢ - roast on Thursday, oysters on Friday and chicken on Saturday. The Fair’s brochure states this about the food: “Everyone knows what this means, so bring your appetite and your pocketbook.” The Fair was a success, raising $1,100.00 for the new fire department.

Using $1,050.00 of this money, the GRFD purchased a horse-drawn triple combination ladder, hose and chemical truck. This truck was placed in operation on the night of July 3, 1911 when 1,000 feet of 2 ½” hose was neatly stowed on board and the chemical tanks were charged. The next day, the Glen Rock Fire Department, dapper in new uniforms that each member paid for out of his own pocket, proudly participated in the Ridgewood Independence Day Parade.

During the spring, the GRFD secured permission from the Board of Education to build a 16 foot by 32 foot fire house on the grounds of School #1 for a rental fee of $1.00 per year. It was located where Van Allen Road meets Maple Avenue. The firemen paid ten cents per month dues into their treasury and from this small sum they purchased needed supplies for a number of years.

Although they now owned a state-of-the-art fire wagon, the department did not have horses to pull it. Once the alarm went out, the race was on for local teamsters to bring two horses to the fire house; the first to arrive (usually Barney van der Weert or Isaac Paxton) hitched his team to the fire wagon and off they went. The original alarms were made from steel locomotive tires (there were four of these located around the borough); these were replaced in 1919 with a siren placed in the bell tower of School #1. In 1917, the fire department had raised enough funds to motorize the original fire wagon and horses were no longer needed.

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