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February 28, 2003

When last we met, we were recalling some of the earlier days in the life of the Perry fire department. I can remember back to the early 1930's when Fire Chief L.O. Winters Sr. headed that important service. The department, however, goes back to the era of the Cherokee Strip run on September 16, 1893, when the city of Perry was created on the prairie. A cloud of dust, kicked up by men and their horses, was a perpetual problem on the local landscape for weeks after the run. Fire also was an ever-present threat. Fire fighting was pretty much the responsibility of individual effort. Protection from fires was deposited on the shoulders of those who came here to start a new life.

The earliest city directory available to me is for the year 1910-11. It shows that the city fire station then was at 408 Seventh Street, which would place it close to the present location of the Dollar General Store. Firemen made their runs on horse-drawn wagons. The first mobilized fire unit was not acquired until 1916. The local museum has a photo of that fire truck parked on the north side of the square, with the sandstone Perry post office in the background. Seated in the foreground are ten Perry firemen, but no names are given. The 1910-11 directory did not show a phone number for the department.

For accurate details about that period of time in our town's history, I recommend the account provided by Judge Ernie Jones. He was an authentic Perry pioneer, and he edited The Perry Republican, one of the city's most reliable and well-written newspapers. In 1931 he compiled and issued an "Early Day History of Perry, Oklahoma." It is an invaluable resource today. I'll have some of his recollections in another column.

Most of us have our own stories about the Perry fire department because it has always been an important part of our life. We grew up knowing that our firemen were dedicated to selfless service and that they were dedicated to saving lives and extinguishing dangerous fires.

For years in my family I have heard the story of a fire in 1907 that destroyed my Dad's first drug store on the west side of the square. His building, its entire inventory of merchandise and all of its fixtures were consumed by the fire, despite the close proximity to that horse-drawn wagon. With no hydrants to provide a steady stream of water on the blaze, the total loss was inevitable. The only items saved, I'm told, were an iron mortar and a glass pestle which are now on display in our household. Dad compounded physician's prescriptions in those old relics. The story in our family history goes on to say that before the embers of that fire were extinguished, Dad was on a Santa Fe train bound for Kansas City, Missouri, to purchase new fixtures and merchandise. He bought the two-story Palmer and Smelser block on the north side of the square and was back in business fairly soon. I have no authentication of any of this, but it makes a good story all the same. Incidentally, the building that formerly housed the City Drug Store is now the home of Georgia Curtis' Fine Furniture. More about the early Perry Fire Departments will be forthcoming in another Northwest Corner.