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March 4, 2003

Perry's fire department is embarking on a new voyage now that its members have voted to join a union, and that inspired this backward look. A unique relationship exists between the citizens of a community and its fire fighters. Likewise, the citizenry has a special bond with its police officers and other municipal workers, but for the purposes of this series we are only examining the fire department.

When Perry sprang to life on September 16, 1893, the threat of major fires was a genuine concern. On the day of the Cherokee Outlet opening, there were no telephones to summon assistance in the event of a fire. Newly established businesses in the downtown area were required to have two barrels of water in plain sight in case the wood and canvas structures caught fire. There were no phones to summon help, so the authorized way of sounding an alarm was two pistol shots aimed at the sky. The first firemen in Perry had no motorized or horse-drawn wagons. They hand-pulled their meager equipment to the scene; water was hand-pumped. All of this sounds very primitive today, but in that era it was about as good as it could be.

Judge E.W. Jones, editor of The Perry Republican newspaper, was one of the early settlers here. In 1931 he published a collection of his memories concerning the birth of this prairie town and it now provides a lucid glimpse of the way things were more than a century ago in Perry. Here's part of what he had to say about Perry's first fire department.

"No serious conflagrations occurred the first year (in Perry). Not until the spring of 1895 when with Lon Wharton's printing office on 6th (street), between 'B' and 'C' Streets, the Midland Saloon property across the street, and the Southeast corner of 6th and 'C' went up in flames. In those days the Bucket Brigade did noble service and to this day there is an ordinance of our city requiring two barrels of salt water be kept in front of each business house for use in case of fire.

"Henry Beard, later U.S. Marshal of the Eastern District, was the first appointed fire chief of Perry. Then came John Patterson. The Pabst Brewing Company presented a hose cart, hand drawn, to the City, and W. W. Keas became Fire Chief. Then came the water works and successive Chiefs of J.W. Snyder, with horse drawn truck, the team of white horses being loaned to the City by C.O. Burch, the liveryman. The Department then had moved to 7th Street, between 'B' and 'C' Streets. As Fire Chiefs there followed Ed Staggs, Art Shirley, Emmit DeLaney, E.G. Cooper, to the present Leonard Winters. The Department has developed from the salt water barrels, with no particular headquarters to a spacious and ostentatious concrete building on 'D' Street, between 7th and 8th Streets, equipped with a Studebaker truck and a high-powered pumper. The Chief is assisted with one paid assistant and a number of volunteers. The Department is now recognized as one of the most efficient in the State."

Thus endeth the history of the Perry Fire Department as handed down to us by Judge Ernie Jones. We have depended on the dedication of those men to protect our city, for more than a hundred years and they have responded to every call. We are fortunate, to have their expertise—and their equipment— available when needed.