Long before October 1929, the inception of the Brighton Fire District was planned. However, no one knows the exact number of years, days, and hours of labor, dreaming, and planning that were involved prior to that. It required countless hours of arranging the proper district boundaries and tireless interviews with the few farmers, and even far fewer other homeowners, than any modern day resident could possibly imagine. After this canvas of favorable people was ascertained, multiple legal petitions had to be created, and a preliminary establishment of the proposed district had to be outlined. The Board of Supervisors of Erie County was the legislative body empowered by law to authorize the formation of a new fire district, and once the above steps were complete, preliminary conferences had to be scheduled with the board in order to gain their approval and make the fire district official.
Quite a few houses were located in the territory between Ellicott Creek and the New York Barge Canal, the latter being the northern boundary line of the Town of Tonawanda. The real estate promoter and a single resident of this area, which at the time was known as Ellicott Creek Estates, were both stubbornly opposed to being included in the proposed fire district. Walter M. Kenney, who is beyond dispute the sire of the Brighton Fire District, begged, explained, and pleaded to the residents of Ellicott Creek Estates to joint the new district. However, his persuasion didn’t work.
Why am I going into such detail? Well, because these residents opposed joining the cause. The new northern boundary of the Brighton Fire District isolated the Ellicott Creek Estates area from fire protection by the Town of Tonawanda firemen, making it the only area in the Town not protected. Frequently, newcomers discovering this situation would surmise someone blundered or rendered an injustice. But, in my opinion, the blame rests solely on the shoulders of those few opposing residents.
Of course, our gain at that time would be to obtain the support of a good sized group of houses already built for which we would receive a fire tax. Visualizing the acres of fields that comprised the district, you could clearly see that this was a reasonable asset to us. At that time, the fire insurance rate was fairly good if a person lived within a three mile radius of the fire hall, giving the residents of Ellicott Creek Estates a lower rate whether they joined our fire district or not, since they were technically situated beyond that three mile radius. To this last fact, the residents of Ellicott Creek Estates tenaciously clung, believing that there was no advantage in joining the district. The more Walter tried to explain, the more these shortsighted homeowners thought he was trying to sell them a gold brick.
Walter M. Kenney, like many others, desperately wanted Ellicott Creek Estates in our fire district. It was part of the Town, and obviously, if it was not located within our district, it would be isolated from our fire protection. Its geographical position at the northern limits, with no adjacent town other than that of our proposed district, made it indicative of its own isolation, only to the detriment of those residents there.
For the first few years of the life of the fire company, we protected that northern area in response to calls by the Town police. Consequently, we fought a few house fires in that area for free. At that point, other homeowners finally ruled that we were prohibited from protecting Ellicott Creek Estates. So let it never be said that Walter M. Kenney, the original fire board, or anyone else in the district could have done more to protect the northern line.
Into a little one room schoolhouse, which is now the Brighton Library, Walter gathered the farmers and the newly arrived city chaps. Many of the latter never knew what a volunteer fireman looked like. The writer is very proud now of being one of those city chaps that was present at that first and many later meetings, which began in the spring of 1930. When I was still in knee pants (an old fashioned saying), I lived in a city bordering a small town where I witnessed the local volunteer firemen playing baseball. They seemed spavined, awkward, and blundering, and they appeared to me to be the weirdest things on legs that I had ever seen. I believe I developed a scoffing attitude toward them from then on. How times have changed. It takes courage on my part to even admit that I ever had such an attitude.
I hazily remember some of those meetings where I cramped my legs under one of those old school desks. At one early meeting, an old, gray-bearded farmer leaned over and told me that he used to go to school in that very room. These meetings were always arranged by Walter. He had to do it legally, armed with petitions to be signed and legal forms prepared by and sworn to by Walter himself. Walter was a notary, and he was careful not to notarize anything in which he was personally interested. Everything was done with extreme care. The most important and vital meeting was when we assembled at the little old school after the company was formed. We had a member from the Erie County Board of Supervisors present because of all the legal papers floating around. I won’t attempt to mention any of the legal phraseology, but basically it was comprised of a lot of words stating that the people in Brighton, the resident owners, wanted to have a fire district – and they had the manpower to handle it. Of course, preceding this meeting, Walter had a lot of behind the scenes work to do such as publicity and posting. This was necessary because any slip up might cause a wrench in the works, and everything would have to start again from scratch. Walter held this hearing on a night other than our normal meeting night of the company because some could have inferred that it was not a fair representation of the residents. I put this all down because it explains, to a mild degree, the work and thought put into the fire district by Walter Kenney. It was he that consulted the town attorney, the county attorney, the board of supervisors, and many others. Neither he nor I can remember all of the people included, but believe me, working with everyone took time and effort. That’s where his indefatigableness comes in. (He’s still got it, but for now, he’s doctoring it.)
The Erie County Supervisor arrived at the little one room schoolhouse and questioned the residents. Even though it was not on a regular fire company meeting night, all the firemen were there – not as firemen, but as full-fledged resident homeowners. There were a few non-firemen there as well. When the vote was taken to form the district, none of them cast dissenting votes. Back to the county board went the supervisors with a favorable report, which subsequently received approval from the full board, and the Brighton Fire District was launched.
By the spring of 1930, the initial steps in establishing our fire district by Walter were complete. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning. Logically, the next step was to form a fire board. After all, you couldn’t have a fire district without five fire commissioners, a secretary, and a body of firemen – and needless to say, no one applied for any of those functions. Walter had to buttonhole us certain individuals in his own indefatigable way. The formation of the fire commissioners had to have the same meticulous legal prowess as the formation of the company as a whole – legally, painstakingly and properly devised in every detail. A meeting was presided over by the “talkative” Walter where five firemen were elected as fire commissioners and one as secretary of the Brighton Fire District #5. I was elected as one of these first fire commissioners. My first reaction was to be extremely proud, but the truth is, I had no idea what it was all about, and I don’t think the rest of the board did either.
Now back to Walter. His work was not complete, but at least he had the new fire commissioners to help share in some of the misery. At this point, the fire district was in place, but there was no fire hall, no fire trucks, no equipment, and…no money. The notice of a petition for a bond issue to purchase this necessary equipment became another legal mess. Eventually, $30,000 worth of bonds were floated, purchased, and sold from New York City to pay for our necessities. The new fire district did, however, have fire hydrants. Some were situated on the ball field before the fire company was formed, and others were spread throughout the district in fields and on the paved streets. I can remember the tall grass covering many of them in the summer and in the winter. They could only be seen with minimal snow.
Walter Kennedy worked tireless hours from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Sundays and throughout the summertime in his trade of real estate. His office, a little building located on the corner of Brighton and Eggert Roads, became a meeting house for the commissioners. At first, the meetings were held once a month. Later, they were held once a week, and eventually every night – even on Sundays. At this time, Walter was officially only a volunteer fireman. He had no legal status or voice as far as the pioneer board of commissioners was concerned. But that did not stop him from being on the floor. I bet in those first meetings, he talked more than any of the elected fire commissioners put together. Walter would make the suggestions, and the board would make it legal. It seems funny, but a duly elected commissioner would make a motion based on Walter’s idea. Then the board would duly pass it, but not in Walter’s name. Walter, in his long-winded style, would raise an idea, and an elected commissioner would say, “I make this motion on what Walter just said.” It would pass every time. The board created a good legal record without Walter actually getting the credit for it.
When I think of the initial fire hall and look at the present building, I smile. Deep down in the foundation, you can see Walter’s ideas standing out tried and true, as good today as the day they were built. (On the same note, I do not wish to detract any credit from those later fire commissioners who did such a fine job of enlarging and modernizing the current fire hall. These men richly deserve high praise for their beautiful job of modernization). However, work on the original hall was problematic, principally due to lack of finances. I personally inspected many other fire halls around the area that were built around the same time as ours, and they were all in terrible condition. I was convinced that ours would turn out the same if our unofficial fifth wheel, Walter, was not involved, giving his unstinting time and advice to that first board.
The first ideas, although never put on paper, were to construct a wooden building and get a Ford truck, Model T0 with a pump on the front. This was our first choice because we figured most taxpayers would not be able to bare the burden of anything more elaborate. We found some pretty old trucks on their last legs in some fairly large communities. They looked like dilapidated old peanut roasters. The firemen told us that they started their companies on the low cost idea, but when their old peanut roasters became obsolete, they couldn’t get further appropriation from taxpayers for new and badly needed trucks. We were starting to catch on and become wiser by the day.
We had to get a state licensed architect to draw the plans for the new hall in order to gain the approval of New York State. We found one architect whose plans were good enough for this approval. Unfortunately, he had no imagination for the detailed plans we wished to incorporate into the building. So, between selling houses and taking his wife Mabel out to shows and night clubs, not to mention all the other work he had already done for the new fire company, Walter himself sketched the detailed drawings and finished off the specifications.
We wanted, among other things, heating, plumbing, and brick walls in the new fire hall – all of which had to be agreed upon by the board. Changing plans takes a great deal of visualization, patience, and yes, unfortunately, arguments. We had our fair share of the latter. We did, however, travel to other fire halls to see their floor plans. This was the first time that some members of the board had ever been in an actual fire hall.
In the original plans, our architect had not drawn a full cellar. A small excavation room was designed to house a boiler room and a tiny kitchen. Full excavation for a basement was not planned in order to save money for the taxpayers. Upstairs, a dance hall was built into the plans to use as a dining room. However, the biggest headache of the entire design centered around the dumbwaiter that was to be placed between the kitchen and the dance hall. Meaning…no bar in the dance hall. All the beer had to be passed up the dumbwaiter. It ended up being quite a task taking out the dumbwaiter and creating a full cellar on just pieces of paper.
Discussion would arise around every aspect of the new hall. When the cost of a full cellar was mentioned, Walter took out his pencil and figured. If he estimated the cost to be roughly $600, a quick discussion would ensue, and the board would end up saying, “What’s another $600 when we are already spending thousands on the total? And besides, it is what we want.” So, it would be figured into the plans. In the same fashion, that was how the dumbwaiter issue was eliminated and the cream brick walls were added (which still look nice to this day). For this decision, the group traveled to Williamsville to look at the cream brick walls in the gymnasium and a few other surrounding buildings. We wanted these walls instead of the ordinary somber walls that were part of the original plans. Again, Walter took out his pencil and figured that it wasn’t much more compared to the total cost.
Obtaining estimates from the various contractors was interesting. Walter was involved in this process as well. Remember, officially it was not his business, but what commissioner would complain about a crutch if he needed it to navigate? We needed zealous Walter, and although we might not have come right out and said it, I think our attitudes of reliance and confidence toward him made it self evident. With The Great Depression getting stronger, every contractor in the vicinity was hungry for work, not only for himself, but also for his idle crew. We had contractors from as far as Rochester and salesmen from all over New York State buzzing around. They freely gave us estimates to appraise the final costs, with some later trying to purport them as bids. When we finally got our appraisal of the final cost, some of the golden ideas we had planned went right out the window. We whittled and whittled. We had a total of $30,000 to spend – wisely. More meetings took place with Walter (and his pencil) and the commissioners in the little house on the corner. Figures and talks were not going anywhere. It looked pretty grim for a few nights, but then, luckily, we all saw a rainbow in the sky.
The late George F. Wallace was the president of a contracting firm bearing the same name. He ventured to pioneer the building of our very first fire hall. As a town resident and local businessman, George quickly built a fine reputation for himself in the community. His heart seemed to always be in the right place, and a warm respect for the work of the Brighton firemen was always held to his highest standard. He shunned the limelight and notoriety. Instead, he was always found helping behind the scenes. He was continually willing to lend a quiet helping hand and shunned any advertising of his good will. He, of course, realized that the fire hall and the fire company would in turn help his business, even though his company built relatively conservatively. Even still, in my opinion, I believe his kindness and willingness to help us out of our dilemma far outweighed his desire for any personal gain. His cooperation, help, and sympathy toward us were always in the background. His generous offer was never in the headlines. The George F. Wallace Company offered to build our fire hall at cost, plus $1,000. In addition, they gave our district the advantage of the cash discount on paid bills on materials.
Obviously, the George F. Wallace Company got the contract. Some of the unsuccessful contractors alleged their estimates as bids. One irate contractor waved his finger under my nose and threatened to put me in jail if we did not open the job for bidding, which he said, was required by law. This problem had been anticipated. We called on the advice of the town attorney, who declared that the amount of money involved did not require the alleged sealed bidding. Another disappointed contractor turned to me with real venom and asked, “How in the world did they ever elect a guy like you as chairman?” He indicated I was incapable of my office and insisted on an answer. Who knows, the man could have very well been right about my being incapable. I mean, the board often turned down my ideas on the drop of a dime. Sometimes the vote was as bad as 4 to 1. However, I told the contractor the only reason I could think of as to why I was elected chairman…all the other commissioners had only one child, while I had two. That was the only distinctive reason I could think of.
We scrimped and saved and shopped for ideas and materials, with meetings being held almost every night in that little real estate office to discuss the decisions around the building of the new fire hall. There are still many men in this world endowed with an abundance of common sense and schooled in the college of hard knocks that can match their wits with a formally educated brain, and one such man was on our first fire board. He was named Archie Nadon. Many a time when the chips were down and we did not know which direction to turn, Archie would come up with a brilliant idea to get us out of trouble. For instance, we were backed into a corner to get bricklayers. Archie asked his brother-in-law and some other fellow bricklayers to lay the brick. They agreed, but they couldn’t figure in a cost for the job. They wanted to take the job on a day work basis. It looked like a good chance to get hooked. Remember, we were responsible representatives of the taxpayers and were liable for misfeasance, malfeasance, derelict of duty and all sorts of things. If they laid the brick like they said they would, with Archie’s assurance, we would end up saving the district money. Archie gave the board his personal guarantee that the bricklayers were reliable and honest. Unanimously, the board voted that they get the job. It was a gamble, but they completed the job as fast as a motion picture movie, with a nose for quality workmanship as well.
Our firemen were loafing. Depression began to set in with lack of available work, continuing bills, and no welfare relief in sight. They were more than happy to work on the new fire hall as laborers. Both Mr. Kenney and Mr. Wallace, because of the economic situation, gave preference to every fireman that wanted to work on the fire hall.
As commissioners, we wore a path to the Kenmore District, as well as to the North Tonawanda District, to consult with Ray Kirsch on the many features of equipment we needed. Fire hydrants, hose threads, sizes, standards, measurements, and adapters for other districts were all discussed, although in those days, there was not much standardization. When Kenmore started, there were practically no standards. They had to scrap their first fire alarm system very early on and change the threads on their hydrants and hose couplings to the new standard as theirs became obsolete. Many of these things we learned early as they ended up costing other districts more money to update after-the-fact. The other companies gave us the benefit of their experiences freely. Ray Kirsch’s valuable knowledge, experience, and advice saved the Brighton Fire District a great deal of money and helped save the commissioners a lot of blunders that could have unwittingly been made.
Most other companies had American-LaFrance equipment. We seemed to disappoint them when we purchased a left-hand drive Mack truck. We first fire commissioners fell in love with that Mack, and we still love it to this day. Even when it finally broke down and became too antiquated, our opinion of it never waned. Maybe because it bears our names and recalls not only our hardships and headaches, but also our fond memories of our pioneer days of utmost comradeship, cooperation of dual personalities, loyalty, and trustworthiness of us fire commissioners. I firmly believe that everyone on that first board recognized the fact that they represented the taxpayers of the district and were responsible to the offices which they held. We were also active firemen as well as fire officers. We rendered our services to both groups and gave a true account of our stewardship to all.
Walter Kenney was never president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, or sergeant of arms of the fire company – nor was he ever chief. He was, for a short time, a fire commissioner, but his duties as a town councilman prevented him from mixing these two services together. It was with deep regret by the first board that after striving to make him official at the meetings that he had to resign. As an active fireman, he was still valuable, but to that first board and many that know of his involvement, he is the unofficial, unrewarded founder. He was always recognized as the chief advisor to the board and gave the district his unstinted time and help. Still on the active rolls of the company, his fervor has never waned. Although he is a little mature to handle a roll of wet hose, he is still valuable to us in the Brighton District.
As for the rest of us, the first board of fire commissioners was made up of the following: myself, W. Stephen Murdock (I insisted I be made chairman.), Archie Nadon, Alvin Love, John Faulahaber, and Charles H. Murphy.
Archie Nadon (previously referred to as principle bricklayer) was, in his early youth, a lumber camp cook in the frozen lands of Northern Canada, a “special dispenser” of mixed drinks in a swank Canadian hotel, and later, a bricklayer in a steel mill upon arriving to this country. This was all before he became a life insurance salesman. There hasn’t been a year go by that I haven’t learned of some other work that Archie had been involved in. All this vast experience, gleaning from all his previous occupations and his wealth of common sense, deeply rooted itself in the first fire hall of Brighton. Many a time we would be stumped on how or what to do, and it would be good old Archie that would come up with the right answer. As chairman of the board, it was my job to throw the snowballs or explain our position to the salesmen, contractors, and taxpayers. The words I threw and the arguments I had were mine, but time and time again, Archie had given me his thoughts on loan. Archie may not be able to race to the fire hall and drive the truck like he once did, but he can easily rest on his laurels. He gave the district all he had and is still a loyal old fire horse, even if he is only waiting out in the pasture.
Alvin Love was an electrician by trade. He knew his craft well and did a good deal of work in that new fire hall. He had been involved with a fire hall before and was ever willing to promote any project we were working on or face any problem that was standing in our way. Alvin has since moved out of our district.
Johnny Faulahaber is still around the fire hall from time to time and would still be an active fireman if he were still living in our district. He was always very quiet, causing it to be very hard for him to get a chance on the floor with the rest of us spellbinders on the board. When he was given a chance, he would always come through with wonderful help. The formal opening of the fire hall was on our very first field day. John obtained the renowned Moose Legion Band from Lancaster. It was his idea, and it turned out to be the frosting on the cake that day. He could also make better wine that any Neapolitan I had ever met. For extra special occasions he would trot it out. Congenial and cooperative, he truly belonged on that first board.
Charles H. Murphy lived on Eggert Road until his job as city salesman for Socony Vacuum made it necessary for him to move to the southern part of the city. Perhaps it is his untimely death that is responsible for me completing all this writing. I am a firm believer of saying good things to the living and not delaying them until they are gone. In this instance, I am sorry to say that this tiny blur is a bit too little, a bit too late. I claim Charlie as my bosom pal. He was my friend until he died at the age of 51 in January of 1955. The moral of this is – if you like someone or appreciate his deeds, say so before it’s too late.
Charlie was the spark plug of the Board. He was the most energetic of us all. He used his brains and his brawn in the interest of the board and the fire company. He had the business acumen to balance the board and the pep to carry out many splendid ideas as a commissioner. He was the perfect type to act as a delegate for a convention and a good press agent to advertise for Brighton. He also had the ability to make countless friends. I think he was the brainiest man on the board, and I say this with the rest of us still alive (Thank God) to dispute me. He served many times as entertainment chairman for the company and made for us in the first years what we needed the most…money. One card party and dance alone made a clear profit of over $300, which was astounding in these parts during The Great Depression years. When he left this district, the company spontaneously voted him in as an honorary member. He was forever planning to visit the fire hall, but the daily operation of his gas station occupied most of his time. He fought his last fire one night when he actually paid me a visit and, ironically, our very own fire hall had started to burn. The hall was full of smoke, so he went up there with the booster line to save our home. He was a real asset to that first board – a good fireman and a true friend. He died before our tribute was ever put down in black and white. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Brighton Exempts Association.
Albert J. Taylor, secretary and treasurer, is now living on Grand Island and, until recently, ran a hardware store on Bailey Avenue. He, like the rest of us, never realized what a huge job he walked into, but Al did it well. Back then, it was tough to keep good records. There was much anxiety when the State Comptroller’s Office made the first customary audit. Afterwards, the auditor furnished us with a written report, giving Al a clean bill on his book work – a perfect example of his precision. He was eventually hit hard by The Depression. Fortunately, he later started a coal dealers’ business named the Brighton Fuel Company. He left Brighton to further his coal business, but he remained long enough to hold to his duties as secretary and treasurer.
That was our first team, and this is our story of the beginnings of our district, our company, our fire hall, and our family. This report seems to be too long as it is, so I will spare you some of the details of our many other wonderful adventures. From our very first field day, to the time when the county held up our tax money and we mortgaged our homes (What fools we were!), to our first dance at Ellwood, to the Brighton Louisiana Purchase, to the new territory when we brought in the boys across the tracks, to…well you get the picture. These and many other glorious memories will live on in the hearts and minds of all of us men and women who have been proud to be called Brighton firemen.