ELLAMORE — From those early years in a converted bus shed, to a larger facility that flooded to its current home in a new station on Route 151, the Ellamore Volunteer Fire Department has overcome a lot to serve its community.
On Sunday, as the fire department celebrated its 40th anniversary several longtime members were recognized for their contributions to the department as well.
Burton Booth, a former fire chief and still active firefighter, has been a member of the Ellamore Volunteer Fire Department for 37 years.
“He is an accomplished pump operator who has consistently showed up whenever there was a fire call or emergency,” former Ellamore fire chief Mike Higham said. “Burton continues to respond today as our department’s longest serving active firefighter.”
Booth said it was his desire to help other people that made him join the department and said he plans to continue being active as long as he is able.
“The worst call I can remember was when Ricotelli’s lumber mill burned up out here, we had a couple firefighters injured during that call,” he said. “We had an explosion. Luckily, they weren’t serious.”
That fire occurred in the late 1980s.
A lot has changed in Booth’s 37-year history with the department.
“Looking at the board over there today, we have had 170-some calls so far this year,” he said. “When I first joined if we had 15 to 20 calls a year, we said we were busy. There are a lot more calls, a lot more training involved. It is good that we have better trained volunteers than we ever did but at the same time it stops a lot of people from volunteering their time because they can’t complete the training.”
Fire chief Jamie Pugh said there are no original members of the department still in the area but having those long-time members of the fire department still active and sharing the history is nice for the younger members to hear from.
“We’ve got a few that have been here – not right from the beginning but a couple years after it started,” he said. “Two of them have been in the department for 36-37 years and they are still active.”
Community support has also been a major factor in the fire department’s growth over the years.
“We appreciate all the support from the community,” he said. “We have been trying to do more things with the community as well.”
A recent example of this is the Get Alarmed WV initiative in conjunction with the American Red Cross and West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s office to install smoke detectors in homes.
So far, 78 have been installed in the Ellamore community.
“It surprised me the people that you thought would have smoke detectors that didn’t,” he said.
Ken Johnston has served as fire chief, president and treasurer and has been department chaplain for as long as anyone can remember, according to Higham.
“In that capacity, he has compassionately presented the Holy Bible to families when someone in the department or community loses a family member,” he said. “In addition, Ken heads up the Upshur County Christmas Store and the Ellamore Adopt a Highway Program. Ken’s selfless service to others, over many years, is truly heroic.”
Johnston recalled joining the department after it had already been founded.
“We had an old FWD that was an all-wheel drive from government surplus,” he said. ”It was kind of rough. At first, we didn’t have anything. It was a good while before we got money to get turnout gear.”
Community and auxiliary members held numerous fundraisers to equip the department.
“We played bingo for years to get stuff going,” he said.
“We started out in a little bus shed right up here along the road, then we went to the one on the Randolph County side. We got it for a $1 lease per year to use it first until we bought it.”
“The first good truck we got, the county got in and gave it to us,” he said. “It was a little mini pumper.”
When Johnston was chief in the late 90s – he covered half of Ray Queen’s term and had a full term of his own — he bought a 450 rescue truck.
“Me and a bunch of the guys took it to Indianapolis, Ind., had the body taken off the old truck and refurbished and put on this new truck here,” he said.
That truck is still part of the Ellamore VFD apparatus.
The move to the current fire station has improved Ellamore VFD’s response times to 90 percent of its service are as well as allowed the department to acquire larger engines.
“It’s closer to the main part of our service area,” Johnston said. “It gives us quicker response timing.
“With the other building, we would have to measure the building to see what kind of truck we could buy,” he said. “With this building, we can buy a truck of any size, back it in here and we’ve got it.”
“Back then, you just winged it more or less,” he said. “You just did what you thought needed done more or less. I know we have had some pretty close calls a time or two. We were fighting one fire across the road from our old building and had been there for I don’t know how long. We turned around and there was an automobile gas tank right against the front wall of the house. It’s a wonder it hadn’t blew us all up.”
Johnston said he agrees more firefighter training is safer but it led to fewer volunteers who had the time to commit to the hours needed.
“It’s good to have the training but it places a burden on everyone because the state puts so much regulations on you now,” he said. “That’s why you can’t hardly get enough volunteers.”
Higham, a former firefighter in the Fire Department of New York, escaped city life in 1980 with his family and moved to West Virginia.
“A short time later, I pulled into Brownie Watts Store to get gas,” he said. “While Steve Gerlach, was filling my tank, he noticed an FDNY sticker on my vehicle. He asked if I was a fireman. I told him that I was a firefighter back in New York but not at the present time. To which, Steve proudly exclaimed, ‘We have a fire department.’
“That evening, Steve gave me a tour of the fire department and I accepted an offer to become a member.”
Gerlach was later killed in a tragic accident but Higham said he was the type of person anyone would want in their fire department and helped everyone without expecting something in return.
Higham said he learned the history of the fire department that had been established three years earlier in 1977 through the efforts of Abe Gowers and others. Gower had watched his house burn to the ground before the nearest fire department that was 10 miles away arrived.
Gower was a charter member along with the first chief Lew Goff, Brownie Watts who put up the money to get the department started, Doug and Loren Davis and Lester Booth. Booth was the second fire chief. Other of founding members were Bob Grandusky and his wife Sharon, Kenna Robertson, Linda Gower, Francis and Patty Light, Red Gower, former chief Ray Queen, Keith Norman, John Quick, Virgil and Mack Koon and Odford and Pauline Williams.
Higham and Pugh also presented certificates to former firefighter Tim Wamsley who served for many years as department president and survived a tanker roll over while responding to a fire, assistant chief Mark Howes, a 20-year-plus member of the department and former assistant chief Jerry Wamsley, a 35-year plus member of the department.
Del. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, told those gathered, “We appreciate what you do for the residents. You are always there 24/7, 365 days a year. We appreciate what you do and the sacrifices that you make.”
A representative from Rep. Alex’s Mooney (R-W.Va.) also brought congratulations from the congressman.