Serving Lansing for 100 years

By Marlene Cook

LANSING, Ill. (October 9, 2022) – This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Lansing Fire Department, which was organized into an official fire-fighting unit on July 13, 1922. October 9–15 is Fire Prevention Week this year, and that gives us an opportunity to celebrate Lansing’s long history of fire prevention.

It began with buckets

In the beginning, before there was an organized department, the area was composed of three communities — Lansing, Bernice, and Oak Glen. In each of these locations, round-bottom buckets held water and sand and were hung in strategic locations. A two-wheel, hand-drawn cart was used to get the water to the fire. It’s been said that it took about ten guys to pull it.

Throwing water on a fire one bucket at a time wasn’t a very effective way of saving one particular house, but it could buy the occupants enough time to salvage some belongings, and it could prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings and destroying an entire neighborhood.

Causes of early fires

Lansing was mostly farm land at the time, and most fires were prairie or barn fires. During prohibition, there were about 30 stills in and around town. A number of fires were caused by those stills exploding.

Early Lansing was largely prairie, as this photo of Gerrit Eenigenburg’s farm shows, circa 1901. (Photo courtesy of Marie Eenigenburg Min)

In town, steam engines ran on the tracks through the middle of town, and sparks from the trains were another cause of fires. If you lived near the tracks and hung sheets on the line on laundry day, you might find a few burn holes in them when taking them off the line.

One fire in 1871 got so out of hand that it burned for 10 days, consuming many acres of prairie and farmland. Farmers had to plow fire breaks with their teams of horses to save homes and businesses.

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William Winterhoff (Photo taken from Lansing Bicentennial Reflections (1776-1976), courtesy of the Lansing Historical Museum)

William Winterhoff

It was July 13, 1922, when the Lansing Fire Department was formally organized by William Winterhoff, owner of Winterhoff Ford Agency. He donated a flat-bed Model T truck, and volunteers installed a water tank and a hose on it. That became Lansing’s first fire truck.

During a speech before the Lansing Historical Society in 2006, Lansing businessman John Van Ramshorst recalled, “They started out with an old Model T. It wasn’t even a fire truck. It was just a one-ton flatbed with a tank rigged on it.”

Winterhoff convinced many of the town’s businessmen to join the team. Sixty men became charter members, but within one year the number dwindled to 26. Winterhoff was chosen as Lansing’s first Fire Chief and remained so until 1929. He continued to serve on the department for 51 years until his death in 1973.

Early fire alarms

When someone reported a fire, the firemen called each other. The first one to the station would set off the siren. Later on, a telephone operator in town would call each individual home to make people aware of a fire, and someone would rush to the Indiana Avenue School to set off the siren located on top of the building. That alerted everyone that there was a fire, but they didn’t know where it was. There’s a story about the postmaster running to the fire station only to find out there was a car fire in front of the post office.

If the siren was sounded on a Sunday morning, the pastor had to stop preaching until the siren was turned off and he could be heard again.

It wasn’t until 1958 that that the telephone company upgraded the antiquated call system. The new system was a “conference system” whereby all 41 volunteer firefighters would be connected simultaneously at their homes. It would enable them to know where the fire was located, thereby freeing up the phone lines that were previously jammed by volunteers calling to find out where to go. It also eliminated the need for the siren, which by this time had been relocated to Village Hall.

The current alert method is a EMS (Emergency Medical System) pager system managed in cooperation with the Lansing Police Department.

Early wages and volunteer service

For the first six years the men received no pay. Then a wage scale was adopted, and they were paid $3 for the first hour of a call and $1 for each additional hour. In 1932, during the Great Depression era, the men realized the town was hard up for cash and decided they would voluntarily reduce their pay to $1 for the first hour and fifty cents for each additional hour. They also agreed that if their pay reached $500 before the end of a year, they’d work the balance of the year for nothing.

From buckets to pumpers

Firefighting equipment eventually evolved from buckets to pumpers, and the first real fire truck — a 1922 Commerce pumper — was purchased. It was used until 1935 when it was sold and replaced with a new 500-gallon-per-minute pumper. That pumper was sold to the department by John Van Ramshorst of Ridgeway Chevrolet, the family-owned dealership that was located on Torrence Avenue at 177th Street.

Fire Department
The men of the 1927 Lansing Fire Department pose with their first fire engine, a 1922 Commerce 250-gallon-per-minute pumper. From left: Gerald Wright, Tony Koselke, Bill Erfert, Walter Kegebein, George Dockweller, and Al Heintz. On the truck, from left: Clarence Kemp, L Heintz, George Rohda, Frank LaSalle, Paul Suss, Howard Clark, and Pete Busch. (Photo courtesy of Lansing Historical Museum)

Years later Van Ramshorst found that truck in a small town in Michigan. It was covered with hay and bird’s nests, but he bought it and brought it back to the Lansing Fire Department. Members of the department restored it, and it became the crowning glory of the department. The historic truck was a focal point in local parades and educational projects, and Lansing children were given rides in it. The truck is currently out of commission and waiting to again be restored.

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The May 5, 1955, issue of the Lansing Journal put the Lansing Fire Department’s new truck on the front page. The photo caption reads, “Shown above is the new American LeFrance fire engine delivered this week to the village of Lansing. The Lansing Fire Department will hold open house Friday and Saturday night of this week and the public is invited to view the new piece of equipment.” Clicking the image will open the scanned PDF of this issue of the Lansing Journal.

Techniques and training

As the need for advanced techniques emerged, the department in the 1940s set up special training nights, and the roster increased to 45 men. The volunteers continued to keep up with new technology, new equipment, and a better understanding of more efficient and easier ways of doing things.

The Village donated land for a training area, and with the help of the Public Works Department and a bulldozer, a huge hole was dug and an 8,000-gallon railroad tank car was put into it and made into a drafting pit. Then a 36-foot tower was built. Then a smoke building was added and an area for old cars that could be used for extrication training. The fire department also acquired the plane that crashed at Lansing Sportsmans Club killing pro golfer Tony Lema. All the work to develop the training area was done by the volunteer firemen at a great savings to taxpayers.

The training tower has since been demolished, and the entire facility has been upgraded to include live fire training that fully meets the standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 1403).

Change of clothes

In the beginning the men didn’t have protective clothing. When the siren blew, it was a come-as-you-are event. Many times their clothes were burned and had to be tossed out. When the firefighters did get leather coats and helmets, they were not fire-proof and didn’t do much to keep the water off either. Today’s firefighters have fire-resistant, water-repellent garments designed for maximum protection.

More than fire fighting

The department became much more than just a fire fighting unit. A Fire Prevention Bureau was formed in 1955, and a fire inspector appointed. Special education in the handling of hazardous material incidents was introduced in 1989. A cadet program for teens was started in 1985 as a “boot camp” for possible future firefighters. Jim O’Boyle was its first director. That program is no longer active.

Although Lansing is not a lakeshore community, the firemen saw a need for possible water rescue. A Dive Team was formed in 2001 with 10 members. Captain Mike Winters was its first coordinator. He said, ”Water sites include Knights of Columbus Lake, Lansing Country Club Lake, wetlands behind the Police Department, Luna Lake, and retention ponds that can get as deep as 15 feet.” Two years later the Lansing Lions Club donated $3,100 for the purchase of a floating rescue sled. The same year, the team converted a 1993 replaced ambulance into a “wagon” to transport both men and equipment.

A mutual aid program with surrounding communities provides an automatic “neighbors helping neighbors” response when it’s needed.

Through unbelievable foresight the Lansing Fire Department somehow in late 1972 purchased a 55-pound hydraulic rescue tool. It was so new and specialized that Lansing and Chicago had the only ones in all of Cook County. In the early morning of October 30, 1972, the tool was dispatched to aid in Chicago’s worst train wreck in its history. A collision between two Illinois Central commuter trains killed 45 and injured 332 people. Chief Ralph Schauer, Jr., James Beckman, and Vincent Crydynski saved the life of the motorman who was trapped for more than six hours in the twisted metal of the 1920 vintage car. This was the first-time use of the “Jaws of Life.”

Paramedics

The most often called group of firefighters are the paramedics — last year “med runs” made up more than 63 percent of all calls for help. Lansing’s paramedic unit became operational on December 16, 1976. Door-to-door solicitations and other community fundraisers were held to raise the $80,000 needed to train and equip a mobile intensive care unit. In less than six months they raised $104,000. Twenty-five firefighters and police officers enrolled in the 81-hour training course at St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights, graduated, and were certified.

In 1979 when they saw a need for another ambulance, the men decided to build it themselves. They purchased a stripped-down Chevrolet van for $7,000, and with their time and talents a fully equipped ambulance was constructed, saving half the cost of a new one.

Lansing’s team

Lansing has had only two women firefighters, and both have now retired. In January 1985 Beth Musser became the first woman to join the department in a part-time paid position. In 1990 she became the first full-time woman firefighter/paramedic. In 2000 she was promoted to Lieutenant, the first woman to hold such a high position.

The other woman firefighter was Marise Caruso, who retired 15 years ago.

Today the Lansing Fire Department consists of 24 full-time paid firemen/paramedics, plus Chief Chad Kooyenga and Deputy Chiefs John Grady and William Stubitsch. Lieutenant Randall Wright and Inspectors Bob Alderden and Paul Lopez are in the Fire Prevention Bureau. Tracy Hill is the executive assistant to Chief Kooyenga, bringing the total staff count to 31.

Headquarters are now located in the old Village Hall at 18200 Chicago Road (Chicago and Ridge). There are two active stations — one at 2710 170th Street that houses a ladder truck and an ambulance with two crew members, and the second at 19300 Burnham Avenue, which houses an engine and an ambulance with a crew of five.

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The Lansing Fire Department is now headquartered at the old Village Hall building, 18200 Chicago Road. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The department is looking to hire more firefighters/paramedics and urges interested men and women to apply.

100 years of service

The Fire Department posted this statement on Facebook about their 100-year anniversary:

“One hundred years. That’s how long it’s been since the Lansing Fire Department was formally organized. For us, today is another day of work, serving the Village and protecting its residents and visitors. Another day we carry out our mission. Another day we are proud to do so. The day we have today was built on a century’s worth of days like this one, all with their own challenges, their own losses, their own victories. Their own stories of hard work and dedication. Today, we honor all the firefighters who preceded us, and we carry on their work.”

A memorial on the corner of Ridge Road and Henry Street honors firefighters who have served the Village of Lansing. The Lansing Firefighter Memorial is a six-foot statue of a Lansing firefighter at work. It weighs 1,000 pounds and bears the names of the chiefs from 1922 through 2005 and names of firefighters who have died, although none died in the line of duty. The statue, costing $52,000, was paid for through fundraisers and boot drives.

A plaque at the base of the Lansing Firefighter Memorial posts a quote from Peter Hoffman: “Since the beginning of time man has never engaged in a more noble purpose than that of protecting, prolonging, and rescuing the lives of his fellow man.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Although a version of the Lansing Fire Department’s mission statement has been around for decades, it was upgraded in 2019:

“The mission of the Lansing Fire Department is to protect the lives and property of the people of Lansing; to save lives by providing emergency medical services; to prevent fires through prevention and education programs; and to provide a work environment that values cultural diversity and is free of harassment and discrimination”.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article by Mrs. Cook. I hope everyone clicked on the newspaper to read the news from May, 1955, and see the prices in the ads!

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