Altamont Fire Department celebrates 125 years, faces future problems

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin

A badge of honor: This Altamont Hose Company membership badge was worn by Harry Lewis, who was chief from 1940 to 1946. This year, the department celebrates its 125th anniversary.

ALTAMONT — “A GREAT FIRE.” read the headline in the May 8, 1886 edition of the Knowersville Enterprise, the original name of The Enterprise. It had been the first fire in the village in two years. A sub-headline said that the means of fighting the fire had been inadequate.

"The fire was the most destructive that the thriving Village of Knowersville ever experienced,” read another account of the fire.

That fire set in motion the creation of what is known today as the Altamont Fire Department.

As it celebrates its 125th anniversary of putting “the wet stuff on the hot stuff,” as one current member described it, the department — as well as volunteer fire departments across the country — faces issues both new and old:

— A dearth of new volunteers in part because of the rise, and need, of two-income households means that there is no longer a stay-at-home parent to run things while the other speeds off to an emergency;

— Urbanization means fewer young people live in rural and suburban areas to replace aging firefighters;

— Training requirements keep increasing because volunteers are being called on to do more than just putting “the wet stuff on the hot stuff”; and

One study found that volunteer firefighters can spend up to half of their on-duty time fundraising.

But, in Altamont, the spirit, sense of civic duty, and love of community endures.

“My father, my uncle, my brother — my sister was in the auxiliary, answered Chief Paul Miller when asked why he volunteered; it was a family tradition.

With his 16-year-old son, Colynn, having joined last year, Captain Thomas Tubbs said that his family is now in its fourth generation of firefighting. For his part, the younger Tubbs said that having both of his parents involved in the department made him want to join.

Kelly Best is a member of the ladies’ auxiliary; she said that both of her parents were involved in the department in the 1960s and ’70s. She is stepping down from the auxiliary at the end of February.

“Back then, it was a big family organization,” Best said. “There would be picnics; everyone knew everyone.” That is why Best rejoined the auxiliary when she moved back to Altamont in the ’90s.

She said that she had friends she grew up with who were members, and that she wanted to give back. “Helping people who need help,” Best said. When one of her friends told her there was a serious need for fire police, it was that sense of civic pride, she said, that led her to become part of the fire police.  

Those without generational ties to the department choose to volunteer as well.

Michael Murphy joined in December of last year, having moved to the village five years earlier from Worcester, Massachusetts. He said that he decided to join because he loved his new community and wanted to set an example for his 4-year-old son.

Katie King said that she has no familial connection to firefighting and decided to join because it sounded interesting, and she thought that she could learn a lot through training as well as from her fellow firefighters.  

A brief, singed history

The 1866 fire described earlier had been discovered in the rear of Davenport & Frederick, a pharmacy and grocery store on what is now Maple Avenue.

“The alarm spread rapidly, the church bell rang, and soon a large crowd had gathered,” said the Knowersville Enterprise’s account of the fire. “Efforts were at first made to extinguish the fire, but the utter uselessness of this with the appliances at hand was soon apparent and some of the people endeavored to save what they could from the burning buildings, while another party endeavored to keep the flames from communicating to the adjoining houses. The fire spread rapidly and all efforts to keep it from reaching the other structures near the store proved fruitless.”

The losses were estimated between $15,000 and $20,000, which today would be between about $386,000 and $515,000.

The late Arthur B. Gregg, the former historian for Guilderland, referred to it simply as: “The Big Fire,” in his booklet about Altamont’s incorporation, “Below the Hellebergh — The Story of Altamont.”

Concerned citizens gathered quickly to look for ways to secure water and fire protection, according to “Altamont Fire Department: A History, 1893-1983,” written by the late Roger W. Keenholts, the village’s former historian, and Owen L. Murray, a lifetime member of the Altamont Fire Department, who is 88 and still attends the monthly meetings.

The problems were clear: There was a need for a hose company and there was an inadequate source of water.

The solution to both was money.

But having no legal authority to levy taxes necessary to solve both problems, Knowerville first had to incorporate as a village.

On Oct. 18, 1890 the Village of Altamont was incorporated.

The village then set about constructing a public water system, but first it had to ask residents for the money to do so.

In March 1893, a referendum was held to approve the raising of $850 for the purchase of hose and apparatus to extinguish fires — it was approved by a vote of 21 to 6, according to Keenholts and Murray.

With its trademark rhetorical flourish, The Enterprise praised the village: “Altamont will thus move yet a step closer in the furthering of adequate protection from fire, and will place herself in the front ranks with those communities which seek the best interest of the citizens. Altamont takes no step back. She does the right thing furnishing the necessary appliances for the convenience and protection of her citizens with a good water plant in operation and the organization of a hose company there need be no fear of loss by fire … NOW let us have a well-organized hose company!”

The village responded by appointing 25 residents to its first hose company.

Now, 125 years later, the men and women of the Altamont Fire Department carry on that tradition.

In what is sure to make current members chuckle while nodding their heads in agreement, the village board of 1893 did not provide enough funding for resources. That brings us to the second most common activity members of today and of 125 years ago are familiar with — fundraising.

In August 1893, the fundraising began; a fireman’s field day was held, and proceeds raised went to purchase a wagon, ladders, six leather buckets, an ax, and a crowbar.

The members of that day, it turns out, also had a flair for the dramatic, presenting plays, the first entitled “The Mountain Waif,” according to Keenholts and Murray.

On Feb. 2, 1914, the first annual fireman’s ball was held at the Hotel Altamont — each member was asked to supply 10 sandwiches.

In October 1942, after decades of playing a vital role in the activities of the department supportive women formalized their involvement.

“Attending its functions, providing food and fancy goods for the fundraising sales and fairs, taking part in the yearly dramas and, on occasion, helping to remove and care for household goods which had been relocated as a result of fire,” wrote Keenholts and Murray, the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the firefighters decided to formalize their association with the department, and organized the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Altamont Fire Department.

The members of the Ladies’ Auxiliary, wrote Keenholts and Murray, “have done dedicated and faithful service, providing food, a welcome cup of coffee, and a warm smile and an encouraging word when it was most needed and appreciated.”

Fire department economics

In New York State, if municipalities were to switch from volunteer departments to paid, it would cost taxpayers an additional $3.35 billion annually, according to a report by Economic Research Services Inc., paid for by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. In addition, there would be a one-time cost of $5.95 billion to acquire and equip stations, vehicles, and related items.  

Without volunteer firefighters, the report claims, property taxes would rise between 3.3 percent and 123 percent in counties across the state, while the statewide average tax increase (outside New York City) would be 26.5 percent. In Albany County, the report said, property taxes would increase by about 35 percent.

In Altamont, the support of the village is waning already.

The appeal for donations that were made during the annual firefighters’ ball had been decreasing, so last year the department did away with the ball. Instead, it sent an appeal letter residents of the village.

“The community is just not responding,” said President Todd Kedick.

It’s becoming clear as volunteers dwindle that the switch to a paid department isn’t far off: “Fifteen years — if not sooner,” said Miller.



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