South Dorchester fire companies support the communities

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Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
(l to r) B.J. Tieder, Sam Horseman, South Dorchester Folk Museum president Pat Nield, Rosemary Dean, and Lynn Mills following a presentation on the history of volunteer fire companies in south Dorchester held May 4 at the Dorchester County Historical Society.

CAMBRIDGE — The late Tom Flowers was a Dorchester County fixture who was instrumental in preserving the unique history of this diverse area. According to Pat Neild, who also plays an important role in historical preservation, Mr. Flowers organized the South Dorchester Folk Museum in 2000. Its mission is to “assure the preservation of historically significant stories, properties, and artifacts of the people of Southern Dorchester County.”  And it does just that.

Lynn Mills, the folk museum’s secretary and a trustee, spoke with the Banner at a monthly presentation held recently at the Dorchester County Historical Society (DCHS). She explained, “While we had hoped to have a physical building with a museum it never quite came to pass so we partnered with the DCHS in the sense that they give us a place to have meetings or monthly programs.”

Held the first Wednesday of every month, the programs generally focus on the south Dorchester community. Ms. Mills explained the heart-shaped county focuses on farming in the north and the bounties of the Chesapeake Bay in the south. Oysters and crabs were the big products, she said. “In the late 1800s the oystering boom came and it was just unreal. People even came from other locations to build boats to catch the oysters.”

A Folk Museum founder and president since 2002, Mr. Neild said the group was formed originally in the Blackwater Refuge. Membership is about 100 people with several charter members still involved. The majority of the 136 monthly programs presented since 2001 spotlight south Dorchester history. In its efforts to recognize events and people of historical significance in the area the organization has placed flags or markers on the graves of War of 1812 veterans in eight or 1- cemeteries. “More recently,” said Mr. Neild, “we had the war of 1812 re-enactment on Taylors Island.”  Old Trinity Church and Taylors Island joined in that.

The membership is primarily older people with a sprinkling of some in their 40s. “We don’t have school kids (as members),” said Mr. Neild, but there is a $1,000 scholarship available for youngsters who graduate from the South Dorchester Pre-K-8 School (in Golden Hill), continue to reside in south Dorchester, plan to attend college, and complete the application process.

Mr. Neild explained, “We’ve talked about merging with DCHS but I think we have enough reason for being that we’re going to keep our own identity.” Membership dues and DVD sales fund the treasury. The disks are archived in the DCHS’s library and in the Nabb Research Center in Salisbury.

On May 4 four speakers presented the history of four volunteer fire companies (VFC) in south Dorchester. First on the agenda was Lynn Mills who discussed the Lakes and Straits VFC. She used recollections of 88-year-old Mary Parks Harding, daughter of well-known local boatbuilder Bronza Parks, who helped form the fire company in 1951.

Ms. Mills explained, “A worker was injured in a construction mishap in the Lakes & Straits area in the early 1950s. Without any medical aid available and any ambulance to transport him, the man died.” To fight fires, the community relied on bucket brigades and “water bushes.”

Bronza Parks led the drive to fund an ambulance by joining others in a door-to-door effort to raise money. The fledgling fire companies knew that only support from every community, no matter how small, would ensure success.

With one of the few telephones in the area Bronza Parks received the fire calls.  Whoever answered ran to his boathouse to crank up the siren. To obtain insurance coverage on his boathouse, he hung large buckets at 10-12’ intervals along the sides of the building. Just in case. A firehouse constructed in the early 1950s hosted Boy Scout meetings, church groups, entertainment, and fundraising suppers featuring clams, oysters, crab cakes, ham and sides and advertised as “All you can eat for $1.”

Representing Hoopers Island Volunteer Fire Co., Rosemary Dean is part of a quintessential volunteer firefighter family. She, her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter are volunteers. In February, 1953 35 people attended an organizational meeting. Within two months Hooper Island VFC incorporated. Land was donated, a building committee formed, and construction began. And, of course, the fundraisers! Oyster roasts, box socials, dances, crab feast dinners, and raffles. Ms. Dean noted, “This was the beginning of our famous oyster and chicken dinners.”

Within two years the building was up. A crab truck hauled cement blocks from Glen Burnie and 10 members contributed no-interest loans to buy cement for the floor. By 1985 a new addition housed the fire and ambulance equipment. Raising the floor 12” following a flood in the 90s did not stop the onslaught of Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  The tide brought in a foot of water.

Ms. Dean said, “There are many challenges today to recruit new firefighters and EMTs.”  In addition to training requirements, fundraising is an issue that all the volunteer companies face. The biggest one for this company is the Watermen’s Rodeo boat docking held at Taylors Island Marina in concert with the Taylors Island VFC.

Representing the Madison VFC, Sam Horseman noted he joined the company in 1958 and has served as president for the past 35+ years. He recounted that Church Creek had one truck and the rest came from Cambridge on emergency calls. A building was needed.  Fifteen members each donated $100 to purchase building materials and in 1955 the 30’x60’structure was complete. The first piece of equipment was a donated 1942 Cadillac ambulance.

When Isabel brought 2’ of water to the firehouse, flood insurance saved the day. “I think we had it (insurance) for around 30 days when the flood hit. We were lucky. The insurance paid for all the damages, about $80,000.” The first Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulance in south Dorchester arrived in 1991. In 2006 the group sold the equipment to the county’s Emergency Management Services who continued to station the ALS equipment and personnel in Madison.

Taylors Island Chief J.B. Tieder is a big guy whose enthusiasm for his volunteer calling is boundless. He joined the Taylors Island VFC in 1982 and has been chief for about 10 years.

In the mid-1950s Cambridge dispatched help but by the time it arrived to fight fires most of the structures were severely damaged or burned to the ground. The response time had to improve. A 1956 meeting got the ball rolling and a company was formed. Members from stations 36 and 56 mentored the charter members in forming the fire company.  Stations 51 and 46 also helped and continue to work with them hand in hand.

Funding was vital. Members asked for donations, sold new memberships, and held oyster and ham dinners. The Nield family donated property for the fire station and since most of the homes were located within 5 miles of the station insurance was cheaper. “This saved residents thousands of dollars,” said Mr. Tieder.

Women were not allowed to join. But the very active ladies auxiliary supported their men’s fire company. Mr. Tieder chuckled, “Those men really had it made, didn’t they?”  He added, “the fire company would have failed were it not for the women of the island … Now we’re all one organization. Today, women are vital firefighters and EMTs.” The current president is his wife – Patty Carpenter Tieder.

“In 2003 our worst nightmare occurred – Hurricane Isabel.”  The tide was over 3’ in the firehouse with damage over $100,000. The repaired building serves as a rallying point for a great deal of local activity. But as Mr. Tieder noted, “Our primary job is community safety and to help the residents of Taylors Island sleep soundly at night.”

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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