12 February, 1988
A 200th birthday, for fire department, kindles memories
By Wendy Plump
On Saturday nights four decades ago the firemen in, Princeton gussied, shedding their workday garb for black ties, white gloves and the ultra formal uniform. It was a ritual of pride, according to one longtime member of the Princeton Fire Department.
And the firemen did it, Robert Mooney said, simply because the were volunteers.
That was back when the members followed their fathers and uncles and brothers into the department’s ranks, when volunteering was a social obligation and a sign of adulthood, Mr.Mooney reminisced. Back then, he added, you were considered socially remiss of you did not join the fire department.
“Princeton then was more socially lopsided that it is now. There were the rich and the poor, and the poor joined the fire department, ” the 45 – year member added. “Once you turned 21, you were expected to join. Boys didn’t go off to college like they do now. They came right out of high school, started to work and joined the fire department.”
Today, the community obligation has faded.
As opposed to the ponderous waiting list volunteers faced before joining the department in the 1940s — which frequently had prospective members on hold for three and four years — the Princeton Fire Department’s membership now is down to 140 and waiting lists are unheard of. Many of those members, fire officials said, are not as active as they used to be.
Yet despite the slow going during the membership drive a couple of months back, volunteers convened at the Nassau Inn Thursday evening in full regalia and full cheer.
They were there to celebrate 200 years of volunteerism in the Princeton Fire Department.
“I feel proud to have been a volunteer for all these year. It’s important,” said James Pace, who at age 90 has logged more volunteer time than any other living member of the department. “Sixty years I’ve been a member,” he said. “I joined when I was 33. Back then we had the Hook and Ladder on Witherspoon Street, and the firehouse was 16 feet wide and 135 deep.”
Although no questions Mr. Pace’s devotion to the cause now, he joined the department in a slightly roundabout way, the uniformed fireman said Thursday night. “It’s a funny thing about that. We had a 1914 model (truck), and I was working on it. Put a new motor on it.
“I had just finished it one day when they had a fire call,” Mr. Pace continued in a steady, worn voice, “and two men came running in. They said, ‘Jim, get on the truck.’ And they said,’you are now.’
Two hundred years ago this week —Monday night as the official bicentennial several citizens met at the old Nassau Inn and drew up a preamble establishing Princeton’s first fire company, according to Julia Holofcener, who is handling Public relations for the department’s celebration. Since that date, the department has filled itself strictly with volunteers. Fire officials estimates this saves taxpayers from shouldering the burden of a paid company, at an estimated $1.6 million per year now. “The people of Princeton over the years have been very to have a fire department made up of volunteers of the quality of people serving them,” said Mr. Mooney. “And it seems like it has largely gone unnoticed.”
When Mr. Mooney first joined, as he recalled, “women wouldn’t have even been given an application. Since then, there have been a couple here and there; now there is one woman firefighter and a prospective, female member, according to Rim Chief Richard McKee.
The department held a fund drive since the Civil War said Ms. Holofcener, and to date is the only department of 17 joint borough and township entities that actually requested less money this year than last year.
Kicked off at the Nassau Inn Thursday night amid century-old clocks, dusty member rosters and foe, buckets, the bicentennial celebration will last three months. It will culminate in an all-day May 14 parade, featuring over 120 fire companies, first aid squads, marching bands, antique car clubs and other entertainment.
Sitting in the living room of his Cedar Lane home this week, Mr. Mooney pointed out they newly hung plaque on the wall which honors his 45 years with the department.
“I joined when the war was on, in the summer of ’42,” explained Mr.Mooney, who served as the department’s chief in 1964. “My father had been in before me — he was chief — and my older brother, John A. Mooney, Jr. He was killed in Germany at the end of the war. We were all in the same company, up on Chambers Street. We lived on Bank Street then, so it was right on our back doorstep.”
Over the years, his recollection of the department have distilled into a couple of general categories. The worst times, he explained, involve pulling victims out of the remains of a fire. “I’ve seen a lot of houses leveled by fire. I’ve seen a lot of deaths.”
For example, two little girls were playing alone with matches several years back in their home on Princeton Avenue, Mr.Mooney said. When the fire erupted, the two little girls were asphyxiated. “We found them all curled up under a bed. I don’t even think that room burned,” the firemen said someberly.
But the best times are marked by a deep camaraderie between the people who fight together to save the people who fight together to save homes, buildings and lives, Mr. Mooney added. “You become attached to what you’re doing there and the friendships. These guys are risking their lives next to you. You go into a smoky house, and you just never know….
“Most of my best friends were in the fire department,” he said.
The majority of members who gathered Thursday night to press hands and clap shoulders agreed that the spirit of friendship is what has kept them coming back year after year. This was true at least for James Pace, in his well-pressed blue-on-blue uniform and polished hat, surrounded as he stood in the middle of the Prince William Room, shaking the hands of old friends.