Rescuing The Fire Department: Jerome AZ 1970’s

By the early nineteen seventies, many of Jerome’s residences and commercial business had badly deteriorated and fear of fire was constant. The condition of abandoned wooden houses made them fire hazards and continued to be an invitation to vandalism and pilfering, The fifteen Victorian-looking homes up on the hill and across from the Catholic Church were particularly vulnerable because they were unoccupied and no one lived in them.

In the early seventies, there was a rash of fires; an old grocery store in Deception Gulch caught fire; a house on School Street burned down to the foundation; another on 4th or 5th Street. Rumors were high that there was an arsonist running around. Two houses burned in Deception Gulch, largely attributed to a hippie woman’s carelessness with candles. Another fire flared in the candle maker’s shop up on Main Street.

“The rash of fires were the turnaround that made younger people like me feel we had to get in there and participate,” said Dave Hall. “I said to myself, If I’m going to live in a town this hazardous, I should be willing to join the fire department and help put out fires. And I have to tell you this: I was afraid of fire. Fire scared the hell out of me.” [1]

When Hall and some of his hippie peers started showing up at fire department meetings that were held at the bar, the old-timers met them with antipathy.

“They weren’t too happy with the hippies joining up or criticizing them for not being progressive or safety-oriented enough,” said Hall. They’d say, ‘We fought fires in t-shirts. What’s wrong with that?’”

Sometimes tensions ran high. Frank Ferrell, one of the old-timers and a big wig at the historical society, would sit at Paul and Jerry’s bar and say, “If my house caught on fire, I wouldn’t let one of those damn hippies near it. I would let it burn.”

According to Hall, there was a real culture clash, but no physical violence. “In all fairness, those old-timers knew to get in there and use what they had,” Hall said. They kept the town from burning down in the lean years. I was told of a fire near my house several years before I moved there. The house got struck by lightning in an August monsoon storm. Robert Sandoval, one of the old-timers who was chief then, got there, took one of the hoses out of a nearby hose box, hooked one end to the hydrant and the other to a smooth bore nozzle, and put out that fire by himself.”

In 1975, Phil Tovrea was nominated for Fire Chief against Tony Lozano, one of the old-timers. Although Tovrea was a member of one of Arizona’s most illustrious cattle baron families, he was a renegade who ran away to Jerome to get away. Robert Sandoval, the fire chief up to then, moved to Cottonwood. Phil remembers that when he won the election, the old timers seemed somewhat relieved to not have the sole responsibility of protecting the town from fire. Phil instituted a policy of instructional training every week and dismissed people who didn’t show up. By 1977 there were no old-timers on the fire department.

Fighting Fires with No Water and Poor Equipment

When Tovrea took over, the town’s water system was in near collapse. A large concern was to maintain regular flow of water into Jerome was making sure there was enough of it to put out for fires. John McMillan, PD’s agent and mayor after the mines closed, remembers how fires “drain those tanks when they were plumb full of water.” There were times when water wasn’t coming into Jerome at all. “We had to have tankers of trucks bringing water up here because the lines were so holey the water wasn’t getting to town.”[2]

The second concern was having a fire department adequately equipped to put out a fire. When Tovrea took over, there were two antique 1928 and 1937 Dodge fire trucks, four sets of petrified fire coats, no radio equipment, brittle hoses from the nineteen twenties and an unregulated high pressure hydrant system with rotten pipes. There was a public phone on the outside wall of Paul and Jerry’s Saloon that rang when citizens reported a fire. Whoever was nearby would call a firemen to tell him to set off the fire alarm sirens on the roofs of Town Hall and the Hotel Jerome and alert the firemen to get the trucks. The phone also rang at the fire chiefs home, in case the fire was in the middle of night and no one was uptown.

“It was all so inadequate and scary.” said Hall. “To his credit, when Tony Lozano was fire chief, he did start some movement towards modernization. He began a fundraiser called Mining Daze, with contests and a dance afterwards, and that money got put aside to buy a new truck. By 1974, other community organizations threw in money and in 1975, when Tovrea was elected, the fire department had enough money to buy a brand new green Ford ¾ ton pickup truck. We installed a pump and tank in the bed.”

During that year, Peggy Tovrea, Jane Moore and Debbie Hall, some of the wives of the firemen, started an auxiliary to help raise money for new equipment. They started a fund-raising Halloween Dance (still a money maker for the fire department) and silk-screened t-shirts at the Tovrea house.

Carmen Kotting was one of two new firefighters that volunteered in the late seventies. “Just after I got on the department there was a fire on Diaz Street. Nobody showed up when the alarm went off, so I jumped on the ‘28 truck. It had a bent seat and I had to stand up on the pedals. Going down hill, I had to double-clutch and pray the brakes would hold. By the time I got to the fire, my knees were jelly. Then others came and we hosed the fire out.”

The antique 1928 Dodge Brothers Fire Truck was one of two antiques that were still in use in the nineteen seventies when the hippies took over the Jerome Volunteer Fire Department. The 1928 truck is still used to deliver Santa Clause at the annual Jerome Christmas party.  Photo courtesy Jerome Volunteer Fire Department

The antique 1928 Dodge Brothers Fire Truck was one of two antiques that were still in use in the nineteen seventies when the hippies took over the Jerome Volunteer Fire Department. The 1928 truck is still used to deliver Santa Clause at the annual Jerome Christmas party. Photo courtesy Jerome Volunteer Fire Department

The Fire That Could Have Spelled Disaster

The first big fire that was fought by the new department was in 1976. The fire was down at the Hostetter’s home near the Douglas Mansion. Artist Jim Rome and Jerry Vojnic, Paul and Jerry’s bar owner, who weren’t members of the fire department, were in the bar when the siren went off. They grabbed the new truck and sped down the hill. The other firemen grabbed the older trucks. Dave Hall described what happened.

“The whole place was in flames when they got there. Minnie Hostetter was leaning out the second story window and had to jump because no one could get the ladder up to her in time and she broke an ankle. The truck’s pump had lost its prime and no one knew how to re-prime it. Guy Henley burned his hand.

“Doc Moore and I grabbed a line from the small truck and Tovrea hooked it up to the hydrant only to find there was no water,” Hall said.  “The fire just kept right on burning. Two firemen almost got into the house with a hose when one of the door lintels fell in. We did manage to get several dogs out of the basement before we started hearing the pop pop pop of bullets going off from the fire’s heat and we just ran and hid in a gulley. Finally, the Cottonwood and Clarkdale fire trucks showed up. We extended some hose lines down to a hydrant by the Douglas Mansion and finally got some water. The fire burned through the night and finally went out early in the morning.

That fire was a real comedy of errors, but it served as a huge wake-up call. It  showed everyone how much we had to learn and how much our old, very substandard equipment had to be repaired or replaced. Phil was the driving force for rescuing the fire department and getting us trained up and lobbying for better equipment. He did the community a real service.”

[1] Author interview with Dave Hall, with additional interviews with Richard Martin, Mimi Currier and Jane Moore. Dave Hall served as Jerome’s Fire Chief from the early eighties until June of 2001. Under his leadership, the department evolved into a modern, well equipped, well trained unit with a selfless team spirit that allowed it to handle various structural and brush fires during the eighties and nineties that, in the past, might have burned large sections of town.

[2] Interview with John McMillan, Jerome Historical Society archives.

[3] Author’s  interview with Jane Moore, who was a member of the Town Council for 12 years, (1982-1984 and 1998-2008, which included being Mayor from 2004-2006) and member of  Planning and Zoning for ten years.  She has made pottery and worked for Made in Jerome pottery for over 33 years. The business is now housed in a handsome new building on Main Street.


1 thought on “Rescuing The Fire Department: Jerome AZ 1970’s

Comments are closed.