Volunteer firefighter Ellis Cadenhead well recalls the urgency he and his Pleasant Grove neighbors felt when organizing the county’s first volunteer fire department in the fall of 1967. In the weeks before, they had watched helplessly as two homes in their south Troup County community burned to the ground. Never again, they agreed, if they could help it.
About the same time, members of the city’s Civil Defense approached Pleasant Grove residents about forming a civil defense unit. The LaGrange unit had been responsible for covering all search and rescue calls in the county and, with completion of West Point Dam and the accompanying lake not far off, the need for additional search and rescue brigades would become eminent.
Add a firefighting component, the Pleasant Grove folks said, and we’ll do it.
“They told them they’d train to do rescue work but what they needed most was a fire truck for fire protection,” said Troup County Fire Department Captain Gene Hogg, whose father, Eugene, and uncles, Alfred and Henry Hogg, attended the organizational meeting 45 years ago. “At that time, there was no fire protection in the unincorporated county. All they had was the Georgia Forestry Commission for forest fires but nothing for house fires. If a house was on fire, it burned down.”
Gene Hogg was a child at the time but already familiar with the damage a house fire could do. His Uncle Henry Hogg’s residence on Hamilton Road had been destroyed by fire in recent weeks. Less than two miles away, Douglas Railey’s house had burned to the ground as neighbors watched with no way to save the structure.
“The Forestry Commission had a tanker truck with a gasoline motor that sometimes cranked and sometimes didn’t,” Ellis Cadenhead said, recalling that the tanker, filled with water, made it to Henry Hogg’s house, but the unpredictable motor failed to crank. “If we could’ve got the water on it, we could’ve saved Henry’s house.”
The Rosemont Fire and Rescue Squad formed and its members dutifully began civil defense and firefighting training. The county commission supported their efforts by purchasing a 1947 International fire truck, the first fire truck to serve the unincorporated areas. The volunteers distributed cards with names and phone numbers of who to contact in case of fire. Pre-dating E-911, they formed a phone chain with wives calling other volunteers after their husbands raced out the door to answer calls. As the first fire unit in the rural area, the Rosemont Squad agreed to respond to emergencies throughout Troup County.
“We got the fire truck on a Friday and on Saturday morning, Richard Bryant Sr. and I answered our first call, a trash fire on Salem Road,” said Ellis Cadenhead. “The next week, Jack Starr got a call on a barn fire at Dewey Morris’ place on Old West Point Road and later the same day we got another call on Hamilton Road.”
That day, barely a week after the Rosemont Squad fought its first fire, residents in the Loyd Tatum community started forming their own volunteer group with Dewey Morris, whose barn had burned, and James Warren leading the way, according to Gene Hogg.
“The County bought Loyd Tatum a twin to Rosemont’s truck,” said Hogg. “Those were the first two fire trucks and volunteer departments and for a while they covered the whole county before other communities started forming their own squads.”
Volunteer firefighters today
With October as National Fire Prevention Month, the Troup County Board of Commissioners has designated the week of October 14-20, 2012, as Troup County Volunteer Firefighters Week.
Currently, Troup County has 59 fulltime paid employees in the fire department and about 50 volunteer firefighters, according to Troup County Fire Chief Jerry Heard. Of the county’s 11 fire stations, three are manned completely by paid personnel, including the headquarters station on Hamilton Road and stations at Long Cane and Hogansville; four are combination stations staffed by both volunteers and paid employees at Hillcrest, Mountville, Abbottsford and Oak Grove; and four are full-volunteer stations, including Rosemont, Liberty Hill, Gray Hill and Harrisonville.
“The volunteer firefighters are vital to the department,” said Chief Heard. “They are a good bunch of people who work with us and make us a stronger department.”
The presence of volunteer-manned stations reduces the distance firefighters must travel to fight blazes, thus enabling Troup County to maintain a credible ISO (Insurance Service Organization) rating, which lowers insurance premiums, according to Gene Hogg. More than that, the County relies on volunteers for manpower. “There’s no way we could afford to have all the stations manned with paid personnel,” said Hogg. “Plus, the volunteers transport water to the areas that don’t have hydrants.”
The Troup County Fire Department evolved from the volunteer units. In 1980, Tim Duffey, who had served as the County’s Civil Defense director and coordinator of the volunteer fire units, was hired as fire chief and the first paid employee of the county’s fire department, which was headquartered on Hamilton Road, and still is. Three more paid firefighters joined him that year to work daytime shifts, ensuring protection when most volunteers worked their normal jobs. Duffey previously had served as chief of the volunteer squad at Grayhill, which formed in 1969.
“We organized it from scratch,” said Duffey, recalling that the impetus for Grayhill’s volunteer squad was his neighbor’s house fire. “The house burned to the ground and late that afternoon, Jack Starr came over in Rosemont’s fire truck and that was the first knowledge I had of any fire department in the county, and I knew we needed something.”
Loyd Tatum built the county’s first fire station, located on Old West Point Road, in 1970. The Rosemont squad completed construction of its station at the corner of Smith and Priddy roads in 1971. Eventually, 13 stations were built, according to Duffey who said at the height of the volunteer department, more than 300 volunteer firefighters served.
“The county fire department started out as a small volunteer organization to meet a need for the immediate community,” said Gene Hogg, who joined the county fire department as paid personnel in 1983. “With no budget to begin with and hard work, it’s been built up to a state-of-the-art emergency response agency.”
Volunteer firefighters across the county
By 1970, most of the county’s volunteer fire departments had formed, including the one at Liberty Hill where Rob Petry has volunteered for the past 30 years.
“The volunteers are a great bunch of men and women who believe in community service and helping their neighbors,” said Petry. “Through the ups and downs we’ve always been able to keep a small core group of very dedicated volunteers. At times we’ve had to buy our own equipment, but we respond at all hours and have been able to help the community.”
To support their stations, the individual volunteer squads held fundraisers.
Greg Woody serves as chief at Liberty Hill, which has five active volunteers who, said Woody, aren’t called on often. “We’re kind of like the Maytag repairman out here, which is a good thing,” he said.
At the Hillcrest station, Ted Alford continues to volunteer, but Gene Hogg recalls when Ted and his wife, Sharon, both volunteered at the Wares Crossroad station. “He’d pick up the engine and she’d drive the tanker,” he said.
Ellis Cadenhead remembers a tragedy that occurred early in the volunteer department’s history. Rosemont squad members Gene Hogg, Guy Binion and Ellis Cadenhead were with Grayhill member Dewey White at training in Montezuma when Dewey volunteered to be strapped in a basket and lowered from a building for practice purposes, according to Ellis Cadenhead. “The stretcher basket broke, he fell and hit his head, and died the next day,” he said.
Growing up in the fire department
Gene Hogg was 10 when he started tagging along with his father to training meetings and later to fire calls.
“I’d roll hoses and wash trucks,” he said. He was about 13 when he fought his first house fire; state law now requires volunteer firefighters to be at least 18, but in the early ’70s, no such rule existed. That wasn’t all that was different, according to the longtime fireman. “Back then we had a helmet and a coat and that was about it; you sprayed fire from outside until you got it knocked out enough to go in. Now, we’re suited up in protective clothing with breathing apparatus and gear and we go in, find the fire, and put it out.”
Before stations were built, fire trucks were kept at the homes of volunteers. While ample volunteers were available for after-hours calls, fewer were able to leave work to answer daytime emergencies.
“Charles Hunt would leave his dairy to go on calls,” said Hogg. “Jack Starr had a store, James Warren had an upholstery shop, and John Bradley had a body shop; they would leave their job, get a truck and go to calls. Those were the people who probably sacrificed the most just so there was someone to go during the day.”
Ellis Cadenhead recalls loading his three older sons, under 10 and in pajamas, into the truck to respond to a fire at Day’s Inn.
“We called them junior members because they were always there,” said Cadenhead, whose older son, Roy, now serves as a battalion lieutenant with the Troup County Fire Department, and younger sons, Ken, Jim and Jason all continue to volunteer as firefighters.
“The fact that you’re helping somebody out” was, and remains, reason enough to volunteer, according to Ellis Cadenhead, who’s still active with the Rosemont group. Through the years, he’s experienced deep satisfaction in the fact that the volunteers were instrumental in saving homes of friends and even Rosemont Elementary School when it caught fire in the early 1970s.
Through volunteering, Gene Hogg discovered firefighting to be both satisfying and exciting.
“You help people in a time of need and it just kind of gets in your blood,” he said.
The need today
While the volunteer departments originated with upwards of 25 members each, today fewer than half that many serve, and there’s always a need for more volunteers, according to Jason Cadenhead, president of the Troup County Volunteer Fire Department Council.
The youngest of Ellis Cadenhead’s four sons, Jason went on fire calls with his dad when he was a boy and, as soon as he turned 18, joined the Rosemont squad as an official firefighter.
Following in his family’s footsteps? Yes, but the real reason transcends that, and Jason Cadenhead’s words echo what volunteer firefighters say when asked why they serve: “Basically,” he said, “it’s a sense of responsibility for your community.”
Jason Cadenhead recently helped coordinate a fundraiser with the local rodeo with proceeds used to buy pagers for the unpaid firefighters. But there’s a need even greater than equipment.
“We’re always looking for new members,” he said, noting that volunteers don’t have to fight fire but can help in supportive roles. “Come to a meeting and get a feel for what we do.”
Volunteer firefighters meet each second Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Troup County Fire Department Training Center, next to the fire headquarters on Hamilton Road. Call headquarters for information at 706-883-1717.