Retired Punxsy firefighters recall days of old

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Nearly 50 years of firefighting came to a close for two members of the Lindsey Fire Company, who recently submitted their resignations for the purpose of retirement to Punxsutawney Borough Council.

Frank Davis and Don Ross have decided to call it a career as volunteer firefighters. Both were members of the original scuba team that formed in 1974.

Ross said he became a member of Lindsey in 1962, and was the first in his family to do so.

“I was influenced by a fire that destroyed my mother’s (Mary Ross) house that was located across from SS.C.D. church,” he said, adding that she lost everything in the blaze that pretty much destroyed the structure.

Ross said that as soon as he joined the department, many of his friends — including Clayton Snyder and Tony Gianvito — also joined.

Davis, who lived on Sutton Street at the time, joined Lindsey in 1963 at the encouragement of department member John Fleck.

“I joined because I was looking for something to do,” Davis said. “It’s not like it is today — it’s difficult to get the kids today to do anything.”

Ross said back then, there were no pagers to alert volunteers about potential disasters; all they had to rely on was the fire whistle.

“When we responded, we didn’t know what the emergency was or where we were going and when we might get back,” Ross said. “Today, firefighters pick and choose which emergency to respond to because they can hear it on their pagers.”

There have been many changes in the fire department from when Ross first joined, especially an increase in the amount of required training hours, and the sophistication level of the apparatus, Ross said.

He would know all about changes in equipment and apparatus, since he was one of the drivers of the 1949 American LaFrance fire engine.

“I drove trucks for PennDOT, which is why I was able to become a fire apparatus driver for Lindsey since I knew a lot about driving trucks,” he said. “The one truck I drove a lot was the old Engine 40, which was a 1949 American LaFrance pumper, which had no roof on the cab.”

Ross said driving without a roof in the wintertime was not easy.

“When it was raining or snowing, it blew into the cab over the windshield,” he said. “All the trucks had manual transmissions, and it was hard to steer since power steering hadn’t been invented yet.”

Ross said back in the 1960s, it was common for firefighters to ride standing in the back of the engine.

“We just grabbed a hold of the bar and held on for dear life,” Ross said. “One time, I remember that we almost lost a firefighter when we went around a curve, and Joey Phillips had his helmet blow off, and he reached back to grab it and he almost fell off.

“We had to reach back to grab him and hold him back,” he said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll go back and get the helmet later.’”
Reflecting on volunteer firefighting, Ross said, “I enjoy driving today’s apparatus versus the old open cab pumper.”

Ross said his first fire was at the Grace United Methodist Church on Grace Way.

“I was running the pump on the engine with Clay Snyder, and it was cold,” he said.

Davis said the first large fire he responded to was Feb. 21, 1966, at the Gutelius Service Station fire on Front Street (now Hampton Avenue, where Wendy’s is now located). It was 20 degrees below zero, and firefighters battled that blaze for more than four hours, Davis said.

The gear that volunteers wore to a fire decades ago was not like the turnout gear that firefighters wear today, he said.

“We each received rubber waders and a rain coat to wear and a round helmet, which didn’t offer much protection from the fire and sheets of water that flows down onto you,” Davis said.

The huge Christmas Eve fire Dec. 24, 1971, that destroyed five businesses in downtown along East Mahoning and North Jefferson Street and caused $431,000 damage was one of the biggest fires he’d ever fought, Ross said.

Davis said the fire lasted well into the evening the next day before firefighters were able to return to their families and celebrate Christmas.

According to The Punxsutawney Spirit’s “A History of Great Fires in Punxsutawney,” the five buildings destroyed in the huge blaze included Jordan Furniture, Freelee’s Store, Sherwin Williams Paint Store, Dinsmore Printing and Gardner Candy.

Ross said it really hits all firefighters hard when they drive up to a structure fire, knowing that someone was trapped in the blaze, as was the case with the Findley Hotel fire, in which where two people died Nov. 25, 1982, the eve of Thanksgiving.

“If we’re called early on, we can get someone with an airpack on inside to attempt a rescue, but most of the time, it’s too late,” Ross said.
Both Davis and Ross felt bad that they weren’t at the grass fire in Walston where two Punxsutawney firefighters were killed.

Robert Bowser, a member of the Lindsey Fire Company, and Joseph Ellermeyer, of the Elk Run Volunteer Fire Company, lost their lives fighting a grass fire Jan. 31, 1974, in Young Township.

The two firefighters walked into a high voltage line.

Ross said the other large fire he and Davis fought was the Pacific Formosa Restaurant fire June 15, 1988.

The fire, which began in the Chinese restaurant, caused $1 million damage to seven businesses, all located on Mahoning Street, including the National Bank of the Commonwealth building.

Ross said they were there all day on a hose line, fighting the massive blaze.

Although Davis and Ross should be the recipients of thanks for their hard work over the years, they want to extend gratitude to others.
“I want to thank all of the families of volunteer firefighters everywhere for putting up with us missing so many family functions and meals together because various fires and emergencies,” Ross said.

With such a long history as firefighters, Davis and Ross still have plenty of stories to tell. One can still catch them every morning having coffee and sometimes donuts at the Lindsey Fire Hall on West Mahoning Street.