9 September 1981
Firemen: Known by the company they keep
by Pam Hersh
Richard Stockton, Benjamin Olden, John Maclean, Samuel Snowden, Robert Voorhees, Cornelius Terhune, Samuel Bayard, Peter Stryker, David Clarke — well-known names in Princeton and American history — did not spend all their evenings mulling over the future of their new country.
According to John Hageman’s “History of Princeton.” these “prominent and substantial” citizens on many warm summer evenings in the 1790s could be found “assembled” around the fire-fighting apparatus. They often debated how best to carry out the duties if the town’s first fire-fighting organization (formed Feb. 11, 1788), exchanged amusing anecdotes and perhaps discussed which streets and buildings in Princeton would be named after whom.
Two hundred years later, Ralph Hulit Jr., Mark Freda, Walt Coan, Bill Rodweller, Larry Dupraz, Clint Groover, Eric Karch, Tom Ettinghausen, Jamie Brayshaw, Terry Davison, Mike Santoro “prominent and substantial” Princeton citizens — on many a warm summer’s evening also can be found “hanging out” (instead of assembled) at the different firehouses in Princeton. They drink beer, soda, watch TV, play pool, clean the apparatus, and talk about politics, the town’s future and their lives.
Princeton’s volunteer firemen, past and present, always have been more than a group of residents who get together to put out fires. The fire companies are spirited, proud social groups, whose members thrive on the excitement and challenge of fire-fighting, as well as the camaraderie and fun of “the best club in town.” in the words of Walt Coan.
PRINCETON HAS three volunteer fire companies, each containing 50 members: Hook and Ladder Chemical Engine Co. No. 1 (founded 1788), located on Harrison Street North: Princeton Engine Co. No. 1 (founded 1794), located on Chestnut Street: and Mercer Engine Co. No. 3 (founded 1847), located on Chambers Street.
Although the company members aspire to do the same job and share the same pride in their work, each of the companies has a special personality in the same way fraternities or eating clubs on the same campus acquire different characteristics.
Hook and Ladder, even though one of the oldest volunteer fire companies in America and the oldest company in Princeton, recently acquired a reputation for its young and modem ambiance. It is the only company which has female members (the first woman joined in 1975), and “in the past few years, we have been attracting a lot of the younger people in town.” said Mark Freda, the company’s assistant foreman.
Tom Ettinghausen is a Princeton University junior, who has been a Hook and Ladder member since July 1980.
“The job of a fireman is very demanding, but the rewards and the social aspect of the job are great I always have had a good time, coming down to the firehouse in the evenings, shooting the bull with everyone. It is good to escape from the school work and the tensions and to talk about things other then exams, papers, etc. The people here are all different from one another, therefore very interesting, but still we seem to get along really well. ” said Mr. Ettinghausen, a native of Princeton and a first generation fireman.
MR. FREDA, a seven-year veteran of the fire company but only 25 years old, also is a first generation tire company member: “The young, first generation fire-fighters seemed to be as enthusiastic about the fire company as the old-time members, whose families have been Princeton fire-fighters for decades.”
Gretchen Glas, one of the two women in the fire company, said when she joined the company she encountered no old-fashioned or male chauvinistic attitudes from the men. “Everyone was always very nice and friendly. I am treated like a professional fire-lighter when working or drilling, yet I am as much a part of the hoagie or pizza gatherings as anyone else ”
Mrs. Glas and her husband (also a Hook and Ladder member) recently moved to Plainsboro from Princeton and their move epitomizes a problem faced by all Princeton’ss volunteer fire companies The young members, who join the companies while living in Princeton with their families, are forced to move out of town when they move out of their parents’ residences.
(A person has to be a resident of Princeton in order to join a company; the membership can be retained if he or she moves away and resides within 10 miles of Princeton.)
“The young fire company members living on their own cannot afford to live in Princeton. The extra 10 or 15 minutes it takes to get to a fire is definitely a detriment to the fire-fighting. Also, the members living out of town don’t get a chance to drop in at the fire house as much.” said Mr. Freda.
The first woman to join Hook and Ladder was Hannah Rodweller, but for two generations, Rodweller men were loyal members of the Chestnut Street Engine Co. No. 1.
THE CHESTNUT STREET company, however, has an image which may not have appealed to Ms. Rodweller. It is known for its “rough and tough”, working class members. There is nothing high brow about us.” said Walt Coan, a 55-year veteran of the company. The men work hard, play hard and “tell a lot of good stories which can’t be printed in the newspaper.” according to Bill Rodweller, the driver of the pumper and a company member for 40 years.
Mr. Rodweller, whose father and grandfather preceded him as firefighters in Engine Co. No. 1. was born and brought up and still lives in the house across the street from the firehouse. “There never was any doubt in my mind that I would be a fire-fighter. I told my wife when we first got married that she was not to interfere with my fishing and my fire-fighting.
Although the fire company docs have quite a few men under the age of 35 years old, the bulk of the members are over 50. “A lot of fellows joined our company right after World War II and eagerly adopted the fire company motto of Thomas Mulvey Sr.: ‘We lead, let others follow.’ ” said Mr. Coan.
When the men drop by the firehouse in the late afternoons and early evenings, they ‘chew the fat’ and reminisce about some of the wacky fire company pranks of years past — such as stealing Mrs. Fogarty’s chickens or holding those marathon Sunday breakfasts, which went from one morning to the next.
The members are “real attached” to the fire company’s unpretentious, older Tree Street neighborhood, no “fluff, nothing fancy.” full of character, like the fire company, said Mr. Coan.
The neighborhood of the Mercer Engine Co. No. 3 is in the heart of Princeton’s Central Business District and also reflects the personality of its fire company. The Chambers Street company “always has had the reputation of attracting the traditionalist, the businessmen. Although we have members with all types of backgrounds, our traditionalist image prevails.” said Larry Dupraz, a former Princeton fire chief.
BECAUSE OF the Mercer Co.’s location and the make-up of its membership. the “hanging out” usually takes place at lunch time, rather than after hours. Between noon and 2 p.m. a half a dozen to a dozen men. including Ken and Craig Rendall, Eric Karch, Bob Bruschi, Pete Taggart, Mike Pema, Larry Dupraz and Clint Groover, assemble at the firehouse, eat a sandwich (usually from Wawa, where Eric Karch is assistant manager), polish the engine, listen to the two-way radio for activity in other parts of the county and watch the people (the girls) walk up and down Chambers Street.
“It is certainly more enjoyable than going to a noisy restaurant.” said company foreman Clint Groover. Woodrow Wilson, a member of Engine Co. No. 3 also may have lunched in the firehouse on Chambers Street. “It is a very convenient lunch spot, within walking distance to most businesses in Princeton, including the university.” said Mr. Groover.
The interior decoration of the firehouse reflects the company’s traditional image The downstairs recreation room has a big fireplace and the upstairs meeting room has carpeting, an elegantly framed picture of Gen. Mercer and Currier and Ives prints.
As different as all the companies may appear, they share a dominant characteristic: “fierce pride.” said fire chief Ralph Hulit Jr. They all want to have the best equipment and do the best possible job. They brag about their awards they have won and compete intensely for the awards they have not won. And the pride for the job they do is intermingled with love of the town for which they are doing the job
“Even though it may sound corny, every volunteer fire lighter in this town is dedicated to helping Princeton and their friends who live here.” said the chief.
WALTER COHEN takes a look at the world from the side door of Engine Co. No. 1 on Chestnut Street.
LUNCHTIME is a favorite one for gathering members of Engine Co. No. 3 at its Chambers Street house. Here Eric Karch, Clint Groover and Larry Dupraz enjoy a bite together.
BILL RODWELLER sits at the wheel of Engine Co. No. 1’s pumper at the company’s headquarters on Chestnut Street.
THE CAMARADERIE of older and younger members is often shared by Hook and Ladder members at the company’s bar. From left are Jack O’Neil, Jack Rhubart, Ralph Hulit, Al Petrella and R. Toole getting a chuckle from a story.