“Back in 1947,” reminisces Rusty Teets, “if you had a fire, you had to run into Salem, with $45, hand it to the fire department and they would send out a fire truck. Of course, your house would be burned down by that time.”
Rusty Teets, Walt Robinson, owner of the lumber yard; Olin Brown who had the feed store; and John Coomler, who operated a hardware store, were among those who were concerned about the lack of fire protection for the Keizer area. An addition had been made to the Keizer School, and the community as a whole was experiencing a growth spurt after the close of World War II.
A meeting was called and enough interest was indicated to warrant circulation of petitions to form a Keizer fire district. After a concentrated effort, enough signatures were obtained, but when the time came to file them, Rusty found that there was a $30 filing fee. Six public-spirited Keizerites: Walter Adams, Paul Guile, Sonny Benson, Walt Robinson, and Rusty, each put in $5. That was the first of many, many $5 contributions.
During a door-to-door solicitation, people gave what they could, average donations being $5. By July 13, 1948, there was $192.50 in the kitty, and by the time the department was organized in November there was a total of $1,052.75.
This was enough to purchase from Onas and Helen Olson a half-acre lot for $800 on which to build a firehouse.
On July 7, 1948, the first board of directors for the Keizer Rural Fire Protection District was elected: H.P. (Rusty) Teets (president); Oscar Noren; Ray H. Lafky; Norman Brusven; and J. Calvin Mount, Secretary-Treasurer.
Rusty comments that, for some reason the new district’s credit was good, so the board ordered a Ford 500-gallon pumper from Nelson Equipment Co. of Portland.
On August 6 Walter Nystrom’s bid of $8,000 was accepted by the board for a 40′ x 60′ building. Nystrom was willing to wait for his money but his low bid did not include inside sealing, cabinets, or electrical wiring.
On November 29 the volunteer fire department was organized with 26 active firemen. Bill Johnson was selected by the board as fire chief and John Mekkers, assistant chief. Their salary was to be $50 a month, split equally, commencing when the department became active.
In a special election Keizer residents approved the issuance of 10-year bonds for $20,000 for building and equipment. The bonds were sold February 18, 1949, at 3% interest.
The first alarm came that month for a fire at McDermot’s variety store near Keizer Corners.
When asked about the department’s early equipment, Rusty laughs and says, “You grabbed up your garden hose and ran like hell. Only five firemen had telephones then so when the siren blew, they spread the alarm. Didn’t have to worry about the fire spreading to the neighbor’s house though; in those days it was too far away.”
Rusty and Cal Mount drove the first truck down from Portland, and until the firehouse was built, it was housed under a lean-to at Bill Drakeley’s Keizer Lockers.
The Fire Belles, the firemen’s auxiliary, was formed that year with Mrs. Nellie Yung as president; Sally Orcutt, vice president; and Mrs. Olive Snook as secretary-treasurer Correspondent was Mrs. Charlotte Mekker. Red caps and red shoulder bands identified the group which completed many community projects in its 30 years of existence. it was the Fire Belles who did the actual telephoning when the siren blew, and during major alarms, made coffee and sandwiches for the men. hey helped however and when ever they could.
During the 1964 flood the National Board, sheriff’;s office, and state police used the firehall as headquarters for their rescue operation. Helicopters brought flood victims to the open field across from the hall (now the Safeway parking lot). The Fire Belles put in long hours keeping people warm, dry, and fed during their stay.
Rules and regulations, and ordinances regarding officers, duties of the chief and members, equipment, special officers, and policies, were adopted on March 17, 1949.
The building, which was large enough to house three pieces of equipment was ready about April 1. Money from the bond sale to pay for it and the truck arrived on October 24.
At that time the volunteers received 25 cents for every practice session they attended and $1 for each fire call. According to Rusty, the department had no protective clothing then, so if a fireman tore his pants while out on a call, he had to attend many practice sessions or fires to recoup his loss.
The first annual firemen’s ball was held November 18, 1949. Paying $1.25 to attend the dance at the North Salem Rollerdrome were 103 couples. Proceeds from that event helped pay for helmets, raincoats, and oxygen masks, besides some of the work on finishing the interior of the firehall. The volunteers and board members received the going rate of $2 an hour for insulating, sealing and finishing the interior.
On December 29, 1949 Sam Orcutt was elected president of the volunteer fire department; Red Farmer, vice president; Kenney Hill, secretary-treasurer; A Company captain was Olin Brown; lieutenant, Paul Yung; B Company captain, Cor Burnett; lieutenant, Otis Anderson.
At that meeting the assistant fire chief, Bernard Snook, reported 56 alarms, of which 21 were fires. HE estimated that the department had saved property totaling $70,000, against a loss of $18,000.
About that time the Keizer School district acquired a war surplus 1942 International military tanker – a 1500-gallon pumper. An agreement was made with the fire district for the advancement of the $600 to procure the truck, and another $600 to repair it. The school district would retain ownership of the vehicle, although it would be stored at the firehouse.
Duane Sanford, not yet a member of the fire department, was delegated to drive the truck from the naval base at Farragut, Idaho, because he was familiar with that area. He well remembers that drive through the icy, windy Columbia Gorge in the wintry February weather. That was the department’s second truck. When the school district consolidated with Salem 24-CJ about four years later, KFD received title to the pumper.
In 1948 the total assessed taxable valuation of Keizer was $1,578,393. In 1980 it is approximately $4,950,000. The department now has at its disposal four pumpers, one aerial ladder combination pumper, on 1400-gallon tanker, two vans, a first aid rescue vehicle and about $300,000 in equipment. On September 23 the board approved purchase of a new 1000-gallon pumper which will cost $99,000.
The district sells its used trucks as it acquires new ones. They are so well maintained that the district always gets as much for them as it paid. The catch is that the new ones always go up in price.
In 1950 the fledgling district spearheaded the organization of a statewide organization of rural fire protection district directors. That year the meeting was held in conjunction with the state fire chief’s convention. Rusty Teets of Keizer was elected first president of the state group.
The fire department is one of the reasons Keizer is a good place to live in. Cal Mount, who was the board’s long time secretary-treasurer, said firmly, “The Keizer fire service is second to none in the state. It is comparable to paid districts. The Keizer group has the best rating of any volunteer department in the state of Oregon.”
Reprinted with permission of Ann Lossner from her book, “Looking Back – People and Places in the Early Keizer Area.” The book may be bought at the Keizer Heritage Museum, 980 Chemawa Road NE, Keizer.