Longtime fireman reflects on the past and present (pg. 9)

Princeton Packet

10 May, 1988

It would probably by impossible to draw a portrait of the average member of the Princeton Volunteer Fire Department, at least one that would be accurate in all respects and cover all of the nearly 150 men in service.

Each is, of course, an individual with his or, in one case, her own reasons for serving in the department.

But if one were to pick a typical volunteer, J.V. Skillman of Patton Avenue would be a good choice. A lifelong resident of either the borough or the township, “Skilly” or “Junior” as he was called in his younger days, felt that he would always join the department sooner or later. His uncle and grandfather had been members. That is customary with a large majority of the group.

“I actually spent seven or eight years in the auxiliary before I went to full membership.” said the 33-year veteran of the department. In those days we had a long waiting list, not like it is today.” He went on to explain that in his opinion television has made it more difficult for the three companies in town to recruit.

“In the old days we spent much more time at the firehouse. We would play cards or just swap talk. Christmas weekends, New Year’s, didn’t make any difference, most of us would be at the house.”

He spent his time in the auxiliary training as is the custom even today. Asked his reasons for joining, he answered in the same way as most would. “Community service. Why, do you realize how much we save the taxpayers? Think what your taxes would be if you had to pay for a fire department along with everything else.”

Like many of his colleagues, Skilly is in the construction business, in his case as a painter, although he has combined those talents with the retail business. “Yeah, I guess most of us work right here in town,” he said. “We really have to. It wouldn’t do us much good with all the daytime alarms to have a whole bunch of the men working in New York.

And like many of the oldtimers in the department, Skilly said, he feels a slight disgust at the lack of participation of Princeton University in the fire department’s activities. “They used w give each company $500 a year for their outings as a contribution. No more. Nothing now.”

Skilly’s company (# 1) still has outings, the only company that still does. “It used to be that each company had one every year and they were big things. We sell raffle tickets and raise money all year long for ours.” It costs about $3300 now for the day’s activities to which all companies are invited plus the Police and both Township and Borough council. “We are assessed $25 each and that means we can have two guests. Extra guests cost $5.

“I’m the cook,” Skilly said with considerable pride in his voice. “I’m a darn good cook,” he added. “Still, its a lot of money; I guess that’s why the others cut their outings.”

Skilly is at the moment the ninth oldest member of his company. He expects and would like to hang on a bit longer. “We’re a darn good group you know,” he said, “well trained and full of intestinal fortitude. I think we have a right to be proud.”

Still he misses the old days just a little. “We used to sit around the firehouse on Monday nights watching football. Now the set is on, but all the guys go home.” He paused. “Heck — even I go home.”

In fact…

• You can volunteer for the Fire Department as young as 16 years old.

• There is only one woman currently on regular fire duty. She is with The Hook & Ladder Company. There used to be three women; one resigned, one moved out of town.

• The youngest fireman in Princeton is 18; the oldest is 92.

• Local firemen receive $60 per year as an allowance for purchasing uniforms. Most return the money to the firehouse to cover the costs of meetings.

• Woodrow Wilson was once a member of Mercer Engine Company No.3. He was President of Princeton University at the time. He continued his interest and support after he became president of the United States.

• A large dollar bill sent by President Wilson hangs on the wall of the Mercer Engine Company No. 3 as does a letter from his widow.

• Each fire company is supposed to have a complement of 50 men. At this time No.3 has only 40 to 41 members.

• Members come from all professions: legal, retail, banking, but many work in construction-related businesses.

• Members spend a minimum of 10 hours a month at meetings and practice runs.

• The oldest member lived to 100 years? His name was Dean M. Green and his father had been a member as well.

• For Many years the three companies held an annual target shoot at “Squatter’s Grove.” Originally large guns were used, later 22’s and still later special permission had to be obtained when firearms were banned by town councils.

• Ernest F. Drake was a member of No.3 for 71 years. He was also the treasurer of many other organizations in town — a selfless individual.

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