Cold, crisp, clear December nights are not uncommon in Orange.
But the moonlit night of Dec. 30, 1925, witnessed an event that changed how things are done in this town right up until today.
The moon was just shy of being full that night and it likely reflected off the inch or so of snow that was already on the ground as the 2,000 people in this quiet farm town thought about marking the end of the year. The night’s peace was interrupted when the alarm sounded, announcing that Alton Terrell’s Derby Turnpike home was on fire.
The mansion on a hill near today’s Racebrook Country Club was fully ablaze and likely visible from a distance. There was no fire department. As word spread, men grabbed their fire buckets and drove, galloped, or ran to the scene for the Sisyphean battle.
The neighbors lost the fight. The mansion was destroyed. Historian Mary Woodruff describes the fire as the latest in a series of “disastrous fires” that had struck over the past two years. For 14 town residents, it was enough.
Almost immediately, 14 men met to discuss creating a fire department. Just 10 days after the fire – on Jan. 9, 1926 – they signed legal papers incorporating the Orange Volunteer Fire Association. The charter members were James Beebe, Benjamin T. Clark Jr., George M. Curtis Jr., John R. Demarest, John W. Gardner, Clarence L. Hall, Robert Harris, Frederick J. Hine, George J. Hine, George Johnson, William A. Knight, Chester S. Neal, Donald Page and Alton T. Terrell Jr. They chose officers, including William A. Knight as chief. He would hold that job until 1944.
The men moved quickly to get the department up and running. They purchased a Seagrave fire engine with 1,000 feet of hose. The railroad station on Orange Center Road, abandoned since passenger service was discontinued a year earlier, was converted to a firehouse. Today, a shopping center sits on the site just south of the intersection with Old Grassy Hill Road.
Paying for the continued operations and training of the department was a challenge that they met with the creation of a carnival. The first carnival was held on the Town Green on Orange Center Road in August 1927. There was dancing and prizes donated by local merchants.
The carnival has remained a town staple and the department’s primary means of funding. Even today, it underwrites a large part of the state-of-the-art department’s operations. This year, 2020, the carnival was canceled for only the third time. The first time it was canceled was in 1931 because of a polio epidemic. It was also canceled one year during World War II.
By 1935, the fire department had outgrown the old fire station. With the support of the town, land on Orange Center Road was purchased from founding member Clark’s family. With help from the Works Progress Administration, a three-bay firehouse was constructed.
The equipment was no good if people didn’t know there was a fire. The first fire alarm system required Mrs. Clara Code, chief operator of the local telephone exchange, to ring the party line 10 times and alert the firefighters of the location of the emergency.
By 1938, the Southern New England Telephone Co. had absorbed the local system and routed emergency calls to the two-person Police Department.
Humbert Savastano, owner of the Paragon Garage on the Boston Post Road, had a telephone extension installed at the garage. He and his son Arthur handled all the fire calls and activated the sirens from 1938 to 1950. They also sounded the noon siren. For this work, they received no compensation. Today, firefighters carry radio-activated pagers that are set off by the dispatcher as he or she announces the location of the emergency.
In 1960, the Boston Post Road was a major thoroughfare and the section that ran through Orange was considered particularly unsafe. Vehicle accidents and business growth along the highway made it was clear that the department needed to be closer. A two-bay firehouse was built on the Post Road. Around the same time, an additional bay was added to the Orange Center Road Station, and the upstairs meeting rooms were modernized.
Time passed, however, and the little firehouse along Route 1 became obsolete. In 1996, plans were approved for the four-bay firehouse that today sits next to the old station. It houses apparatus designed to handle the industrial and multifamily buildings in the area and heavy trucks on nearby Interstate 95. It also has offices, a meeting room, a classroom and exercise areas.
A regionally respected, innovative and aggressive fire marshal’s office, part of the Orange town government, shares the firehouse and responds with the Fire Department.
Orange has grown from an agrarian hamlet of 2,000 people to a bustling community of 14,000, intersected by major highways, railroad lines and under the approach of busy airports. The Orange Volunteer Fire Department has evolved into a state-of-the-art public safety agency offering fire suppression, light and heavy rescue, hazardous materials response, public fire education and things that don’t fall neatly into a category. Its officers and firefighters represent a diverse group whose training meets or exceeds national standards and whose expertise is second to none. An emphasis on education, fitness and training keeps members ready to go.
The department is still independent, earning most of its operating expenses from the carnival, the raffle and other fund-raisers and donations. From that first Seagrave pumper, OVFD’s fleet has grown to include three Class-A engines, a ladder truck, a heavy rescue, a “quint” (combination ladder/pumper), an all-terrain vehicle, a hazmat trailer and two incident command vehicles.
The future looks bright. The department is keeping its fleet and its skills up to date. Discussions with the town are underway for a new fire station. And young men and women continue to step up to follow in the footsteps of Clark, Knight and Terrell.
Alton Terrell’s mansion is long gone. He and the other members of the bucket brigade would be overwhelmed at how Orange and the fire department they created have grown. But those 14 men who signed that paperwork 95 years ago would approve of how things have turned out.