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February 25, 2003

Perry's eight-man fire department is in the news these days because its members have voted to form a local union after years of operating without that kind of representation. Just what that will mean in the future to the citizens of this community is still unclear, but obviously there will be a period of adjustment for the fire fighters as well as the rest of us. All, of this creates an interest in the history of our fine fire department, so let's take a look at how this valiant band of volunteers and professionals has served the Perry area since the earliest days after the Cherokee Strip run on September 16, 1893.

In those earliest days in Perry, fire was an ever-present danger. Most business and residential construction relied on wooden frames and flammable exteriors. The first businesses in the downtown district were knocked together with 2x4s and roof coverings that burned easily once ignited. Same thing for houses in the residential area. There were no fire hydrants, no underground water delivery systems, and consequently there were none of the present-day means of putting out major fires. Downtown businesses were required by the city council to keep barrels of water in handy locations for use if fires broke out. We had a fire department, but the men who served as fire fighters had to rely on rigs pulled by horses to reach the scene of conflagrations. By today's standards, it was a primitive way to handle fires.

My personal recollections only go back to the early 1930s. I knew where the fire station was located and the names of some of the firemen, but I was only a kid. I took it for granted that when the fire whistle blew, one of those red trucks would roll down the fire station driveway on Delaware Street and head for the scene of some kind of uncontrolled fire. Our house was just a block from the fire station so from our front yard I could watch those things as they happened. I also learned how to telephone the fire station to get the location of the fire, although, that process was frowned upon because it tied up the phone lines when volunteer firemen were trying to find out where they should go to help out.

I knew the fire chief was L.O. Winters Sr., and that although he had a look that suggested a hard-boiled attitude, he was actually a very even-tempered man who liked children, even the pesky ones. In later years, as a news writer for this paper, I also learned that he was the official weather observer for this community. That meant that he was the one who recorded the high and low temperatures in Perry during each 24-hour period, and he also kept track of rainfall and (in the winter) snowfall, if there was any to record.

Chief Winters also had monthly summaries of temperature variances and comparisons of moisture conditions with previous months and years. The assistant fire chief for most of that time was Al Ritthaler. He was a very congenial and helpful man. Both Chief Winters and Assistant Chief Ritthaler were dedicated to serving this community. For example, Chief Winters was the service officer for Ellis-Jirous American Legion Post, and in that capacity he worked closely with, ex-servicemen who had problems.

We'll have more on the early days of Perry fire fighters in subsequent columns