Belgrade started its own volunteer fire department in 1906.
Then, in the 1940s, the Montana State legislature authorized the creation of rural fire districts. For this part of Gallatin County, that meant that Reese Creek, Springhill and Dry Creek had their own volunteer fire departments.
In 2020, Belgrade voters agreed to merge the outlying rural fire districts with the city of Belgrade’s and the Central Valley Fire District.
It seemed a simple thing, but when the districts were folded into each other, the bad news was that the local volunteer fire districts were disbanded and a century of local “volunteer” history ended.
To honor and celebrate those volunteers, the CVFD is hosting a free dinner July 24 at the new firehouse at the airport, said Fire Chief Ron Lindroth.
The dinner is being catered by Bar 3. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the dinner starts at 7, Lindroth said. “Just RSVP on the district’s website.”
Back in 1912, “the equipment of the Belgrade Fire Department was bucket brigade, two hose carts, one Model T hook-and-ladder truck and a chemical truck,’ remembered then-fire captain Mark Jensen in a 1971 interview with the Belgrade Journal.
Lindroth remembers hearing one circa 1950 story that the Belgrade fire sirens were run out of the local phone exchange, where the Center Ice Cafe is now located.
“The phone operator would push one button and the siren would go up and down, and that meant the fire was in the city. If she pushed another button, it just blew and that meant it was a rural fire.”
In a 1993 High Country Independent Press article, retired firefighter Jim Snider elaborated on the phone system:
There were 10 phones hooked up to one line, and whoever picked up first pressed a button that made the siren go off. Six of the phone lines were in local homes and four in all-night businesses. The volunteer firefighters rushed to the firehouse, and their wives stayed on the line and found out the details on the fire. When they were ready to roll, Snider said, their wives gave them the details on the fire.
By Lindroth’s count, there have been about 675 volunteer firefighters over the century.
Skip Allen joined the Belgrade City Volunteers in 1965. He told the Belgrade News that “for years, most of our equipment came from the rural departments since they had a mill levy that could be counted on every year. The fire department was just the city’s Black Sheep. The city didn’t do much of anything to support it. The rural levy supported it.”
Allen, 76, retired as chief in 1982, “and then stuck around for another four or five years.’
One big fire he remembers: “The Yellowstone Pine Lumberyard fire in the 1970s. We sat and pumped water for a day and a half. On Jackrabbit Lane, we lined up and strung the hoses across the road for a day and a half. You couldn’t do that now.”
One controversy Allen recounted was the reality of being in a tax levy-funded fire district. If you didn’t “opt into” the district and pay the annual levy, you didn’t get any fire coverage.
“Taxpayers were covered. If you didn’t pay for it, you weren’t covered,” he said. “Some of the county officials were lax about it, told us to fight the fires anyway. People would take advantage of it, sign up after they had a fire, get entitled. ‘You have to fight this fire. I live in the county. No, we don’t.’ “
An incident that made national news was when a Bostwick Canyon family from out-of-state hadn’t paid the fire levy and the rural department declined to fight their fire.
“When I was chief, we fought that battle,” Allen continued. “The county clerk and recorder would shirk their duties. It would take them two or three years to show up on the rolls (whether someone had paid their fire levy assessment or not). So people were getting free service at the same time we were struggling for financing. Yes, we fought that battle.”
“We even had one house, we refused to fight their fire because they didn’t show up on the tax rolls. Turns out they WERE on the rolls and the county just hadn’t got around to getting them on the rolls yet. So we did fight that one.”
Allen said there are still pockets in the county where people haven’t opted in for the fire levy. “Parts of Amsterdam, north of Springhill, still pockets with no fire protection because the people don’t pay the levy.”
He remembered another fire, this one close to town. It’s a memory about how important a volunteer force used to be to a town and a tale of what a nice, close town Belgrade once was.
“If you lived in town, you knew what these fires meant. This was a grain field fire, the sirens, several of us heard the sirens and just ran out the door where we worked. Left the doors open.
“One guy came back after the fire, there was a note on his counter: ‘I took six 2x4s. Please bill me.’
“It’s not that way anymore.”
All in all?
“I had a lot of bad days; I had a lot of good days,” he concluded.
One of the worst was a 1980 car accident on the Frontage Road, close to the Bozeman City limits. “It was the Clarkin family; he was the pharmacist in town since he’d taken over from the old one. And she was a teacher at the high school. They died; the daughter survived. It was a drunk driver. That was rough.
“My wife was a supervisor at the hospital and she got home at 4 a.m. Said there’d been a bad accident – we’d worked the same one.”
Scott Wuebber had been captain with the Belgrade volunteers. He remembered moving to the Belgrade area, eventually becoming an EMT, and “Over the years, I’ve made a difference a few times. There are a few people walking around because of our responses.
“There was the little mall fire in Belgrade; the little emergencies all the time. A neighbor’s child choking, and I was the first one there.” And, the times when help wasn’t enough: “I carry those ghosts with me,” he said.
Wuebber retired two years ago, and remembers “sponsoring the pancake breakfast.”
By the way: Whatever happened to the Belgrade Fireman’s Pancake Breakfast?
“It stopped a year or two ago,” he remembered. “It was always run by the volunteers, and we used to have about 50. I think it was started in the 1900s and was originally the “’Chuckwagon Breakfast’ to thank the town, then it became a fund-raiser. Plus, we don’t have anywhere to hold it today, and I don’t think there are 50 volunteers anymore.
“There were few resources to support the fire department, to make it what it is today.”
He says they would get 2,000 calls a year, “When we were covering the whole county. I remember times starting CPR on someone by myself and hoping someone else would show up.”
Over the years, “So many people are responsible for that new, shiny firehouse by the airport.”
Skip Allen’s grandfather Sam came to Belgrade in 1912 to manage the Belgrade Mercantile. “And you were just part of the community,” he continued. “Everyone on Main Street was involved (in the fire department). Just like everybody else; it was what you did for your community. It was the thing to do.”
He remembers everyone helping everyone, and the fire district boundaries not being very strictly adhered to.
“Belgrade, Manhattan, Three Forks, Willow Creek. We all worked together, before we signed agreements. It was ‘George needs help in Willow Creek,’ and you just went.”
He remembers a fire at the Chop Dringle place on Rector Road. “They’d gone to the Denver Stock Show. There was a blizzard here, and a fire at the Dringle place. We couldn’t get over the road because of the snowdrifts; we had one tanker in the ditch. He’d always supported us, but we sure let him down. His house burned to the ground.
“It took us a day to gather our tankers out of the ditch.” (The Dringle family also owned the ranchland west of the airport, Allen added.)
Allen remembers a more casual time, too, when they fought fires that started on the railroad right-of-way. “We’d go out Old Highway 10 and just keep going until we ran into Bozeman coming the other direction.”
After all these years, though, both Allen and Lindroth have the same regret, the same Grail Quest:
Belgrade’s original 1937 Federal fire truck. According to Allen, it was auctioned off in the early 1960s because the city had run out of room to store it. “I wanted to buy it in the worst way, but I couldn’t afford it,” he said. “It auctioned off for $4,000 or $5,000 to some fellow in Churchill.”
The Belgrade News tried to chase down where the ‘37 Federal might be, but got skunked. Ron Hoekema in Churchill tried, and remembered a “fire truck with the Amsterdam Fire Department. I remember them towing it up the hill from Amsterdam because it didn’t always work that good. But my memory is that was an old International.”
Lindroth did manage to finally – kinda – find out what happened to the Belgrade Fire Department’s 1937 Federal truck.
“The Churchill guy sold it to an ag museum south of Spokane,” he said. When the guy running the museum died, it was sold to a private party. “I found that guy; he still has the title, but he sold it to someone in western Washington, and he doesn’t remember who. I asked, ‘Did you write a check? Do you remember the town? No he doesn’t.’ “
Lindroth has a second Grail Quest – to find the department’s original two 1957 Ford fire trucks. “I have no idea what happened to them; we’d like to find them, restore them and use them in town parades,” he said.
Between the 1937 Federal and the 1957 Fords, the department had a 1943 Dodge, four-wheel 500 gallon pumper, from Salt Lake City. It had been purchased after WWII from the War Assets Administration with donations from Belgrade area families. And that little final detail is also one reason Lindroth says he wanted to work for Belgrade.
“Ever since our inception, we’ve been a leader in the state,” Lindroth said of the Belgrade fire departments. “That’s what drew me to here, the community’s willingness to support us.”