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History of the Austerlitz Fire Company

– as written by Richard C. Mugler Jr. August 1, 1996

The Austerlitz Village Fire Company as we know it today was organized in 1937. Prior to that date, there were some modest equivalents of a fire company. During the 20’s and 30’s, Henry McCreary garaged a vintage Chevy fire engine in a shed at his gas station near Green River. The Chevy fire engine survived to this day and is in collection somewhere in Massachusetts. This engine was privately owned by George La Branch, a wealthy New York stockbroker. It was used mainly to fight forest fires which were quite numerous prior to World War II. People say that the reason for the forest fires was the deliberate burning of upland meadows by the blueberry pickers. It was well known that the potash deposited by a forest fire produced a bumper crop of berries the following year.

George La Branch had a large estate named High Holt located on West Hill Road in the village of Austerlitz. He bought the fire engine to give his estate fire protection, but he allowed the local people to use it to fight any fire in the area. A small fire company formed around this engine and was the only company until the Austerlitz Fire Company was formed in 1937. The organizing of a fire company around a privately owned fire engine was quite unique. The great obstacle to forming any new fire company has always been the cost of acquiring the first fire engine. Thanks to George La Branch, Austerlitz had fire protection many years before the establishment of an official fire company.

During the early 30’s, the Spencertown Fire Company gave the Austerlitz firemen an old Model T fire engine. The engine was kept in Paul Eggert’s barn at the Columbia Inn, originally The Harvey Hotel on Rte 22. The fire company at the time was somewhat haphazard affair as was the reliability of the old Model T. On the days it would start and venture out from Eggert’s barn, it showed a preference for going downhill and a certain reluctance to go back up. This was a severe handicap for fighting fires in Austerlitz.

According to Alfred Williamson, the last surviving charter member of the 1937 Austerlitz Volunteer Firemen’s Association, the incident that galvanized the whole town into forming a permanent and effective fire company was a fire in the Joseph Monsey house. The house was opposite the old Woodsman Hall which is no longer standing. During the regular Saturday night square dance at the Woodsmen Hall, a fire broke out next to the chimney in the attic of the Monsey house. All the men answered the call of “Fire” but the sole means of fighting the fire was a bucket brigade from the well, up a ladder, to the roof. The Model T fire engine was indisposed that night. Amazingly the fire was put out and according to Williamson, the men ruined their best suits. He stated, “Oh yes, we always wore a suit and tie to the square dances.” This does not fit the popular conception of dress for a country square dance, but that is the way it was. To make matters worse for the firefighters, when Joseph Monsey came up from New York City to survey the damage, he turned to the firemen present and said “You should have let it burn,” and walked away without a word of thanks. It seems that Mr. Monsey wanted the insurance money more than the house. Thanks to the firemen the house still stands, and like most early houses in Austerlitz, is now restored. Louie Stone who grew up in Austerlitz was a boy at the time of the fire but he confirms all of Alfred Williamson’s recollection of the incident.

It’s been a long time coming but the people of Austerlitz do appreciate today what those dedicated firemen did over 60 years ago.

The first truck owned by the new fire company was an American La France. This truck proved to be too large and ungainly for the dirt roads of Austerlitz and was given mired in mud. Soon a truck was obtained by the Stockman family of Greenlawn, Long Island from a fire company on Long Island. At this time, the Austerlitz Fire Company did not have a permanent home and the engine was housed in the old Congregational Church, owned by James McDonogh. James McDonogh was a man of imagination and some political skills. He dabbled in many careers including real estate. I can remember McDonogh sitting on my father’s front porch trying to sell my father the land across the road from the house. Using his persuasive salesman skills he said to my father “Wouldn’t you like to tell your friends that you own all the land you can see from this porch?” My father, never an easy sell, said “I tell them that anyway.” James McDonogh never sat on that porch again. We need this little bit of background to better appreciate what happened next. McDonogh decided that the fledging fire company should pay him rent for storing the fire truck in his church. The fire company thought otherwise and a real donnybrook erupted in the peaceful Austerlitz valley. McDonogh, using the wisdom of Solomon, settled the matter by informing the company that the back rent equaled the value of the engine, therefore the fire engine was now his. To add insult to injury, McDonogh announced that he was taking the fire engine to Florida for his winter vacation. While others decided how to stop McDonogh short of shooting him, he took off for Florida with a huge load of personal belongings piled in the back of the fire engine. As he drove up the hill on Rte 203 heading west out of Austerlitz, the front wheels lifted off the ground and McDonogh lost control of the truck. With the help of a few boys standing on the front bumper, he backed the truck down the hill and cancelled his trip to Florida. As far as anyone knows, the fire engine remained in Austerlitz and may have eventually been reclaimed by the company. No one seems to recall what happened to that old engine, but a search began for a smaller engine more suitable for the hilly terrain of Austerlitz. The perfect engine found was on Fire Island in the village of Ocean Beach, NY. It was a fully equipped Ford Model A. Bob Herron and I went to Fire Island to pick it up. From Fire Island to Austerlitz was not an easy journey. The truck had to be loaded on a boat for the trip to Long Island. We then tried using the Long Island parkways but the State Police threw us off. We got as far as New York City and a valve blew. Finally, on a sunny July day in 1947, the truck arrived in Austerlitz with sirens blaring. The fire company was very excited and particularly anxious to try out the beautiful red pump mounted on the front bumper. With great anticipation the engine was taken over to the Green River. The pump was engaged and the intake hose thrown into the river. With a loud bang the pump casing shattered and with it the dreams of a working, fully equipped, fire engine. It turns out that someone had forgotten to put the screen over the end of the suction hose and the powerful pump sucked up more rocks than water. The argument over who should have put the screen on the hose was never settled. Some wanted to blame McDonogh, but he wasn’t even in town that day.

The old Model A stayed around for many more years mainly to carry men and equipment. Several larger engines followed over the years each more advanced than the last. Today the fire company is the proud owner of a 1000/1000 Class A pumper custom made in 1992 by 4 Guys Stainless Steele Tank Equipment Company of Meyersdale, PA. The tank and equipment are mounted on a GMC Top Kick Chassis. The total cost of this state of the art equipment was $125,000, paid by the “Board of Fire Commissioners Austerlitz Fire District No. 1” and includes $10,000.00 raised locally by the Austerlitz Fire Company. The fire company is now an up-to-date, well-equipped organization capable of protecting our community effectively.

Besides the constant effort to upgrade the equipment, there are other events and historical side notes worth mentioning.

During World War II, the fire company was stripped of almost all its men. The few older men left did the best they could to man the company. In so doing, they helped maintain morale and some sense of security on the home front. This was more important than the young people of today may realize. During the early days of the war, the nation was gripped with a palpable fear of what was to come. The Axis powers were winning everywhere and German submarines were sinking ships off New York harbor. The possibility of some kind of German attack on the East Coast was on everyone’s mind. A copy of “Destruction Notice” that came with a small generator unit acquired by the fire company during the War illustrates this point. The need to possibly destroy the generator was taken very seriously.

A historical note of interest was the induction of the first female firefighter into the company. On June 12, 1972, Claudia Tillet became a member and as far as we know, the first woman volunteer firefighter in Columbia County and maybe the State. She remembers the experience with mixed emotions. There was encouragement from some fire fighters and hostility from others, but Claudia Tillet was definitely a pioneer in challenging the gender barrier of her day. Claudia still lives in Austerlitz and is married to Frank MacGruer.

On the lighter side, there have been a few amusing incidents.
On September 27, 1977, the Austerlitz Fire District chastised the Austerlitz Fire Company for “hot dogging” with their fire engines. The letter read as follows:

It has come to the attention of the Board that our fire trucks have been passing each other illegally.

Fire trucks are liable to the same motor vehicle laws as civilian vehicles. Please see that they are obeyed.
Yours Truly,
Dona R. Ludington
Board of Fire Commissioners
Austerlitz, New York

The fire company has on file a letter from a former firefighter in which he signs off by saying “Keep the home fires burning.” Maybe that’s why he is a “former” firefighter.

Another letter from a fellow firefighter is signed “Firematically yours.” We need an interpreter for this one.

This informal history of the Austerlitz Volunteer Fire Company is based on the recollection of the old firemen and the few records that have survived over the years. Perhaps some readers of this history will supply new information and offer corrections.

Richard C. Mugler Jr.
August 1, 1996