Volunteer firehall with storied past continues to help Wheatfield community
By David Yarger
On March 20, 1918, a group of Wheatfield residents met and formed the First Volunteer Chemical Fire Co. of Bergholz. 100 years later, first Chief Julius Stoelting and first President Henry Voelker's volunteer company is still running strong along Niagara Road.
Last Tuesday, the Bergholz Fire Co. celebrated its 100th anniversary in service. For current Chief Brian Kroening, whose father, Arthur, was also a past chief, eclipsing 100 years was an incredible feat.
"My father has been a member for over 40 years. I grew up down here. I've been coming here since he could bring me here. My grandfather was also an honorary member here from Sanborn, so if I wasn't here, I was hanging out with my grandfather at Sanborn. I was stuck in the fire service since day one.
"The time and amount of people it took over the years to get us to where we are ... you can say it's the 50 members here now, but if it wasn't for the 400-500 members doing their little parts to make this company what it is ... they did all the work, we're the ones celebrating now and trying to continue what they started. I'm honored to be chief on the 100th year. ... It's cool to think 100 years from now people will be like, 'He was chief at the 100th year,' so it's just an honor," Kroening said.
Kroening, in his 25th year with the company, added he's the 100-year committee chairman, which looked for interesting ways to celebrate the century mark.
The company has definitely evolved in 100 years, as the first "fire truck" was a two-wheel cart equipped with a double barrel soda and acid extinguisher and a hose reel with a 3/4 inch hose and nozzle. The wagon was hand drawn, horse drawn and could also be pulled via automobile. Along with the cart, the garage to the firehall was the Holy Ghost teacher's residence and two church bells, as well as school bells made up the hall's alarm system.
Many Wheatfield residents are aware nowadays of the Bergholz Fire Co.'s monthly chowder sales. Undoubtedly, those same sales date back to 1919, where the company held its first parade and made $255.15.
In 1923 the company outgrew the school and built a two-story building on the north side of Niagara Road, which opened in 1924.
That same year, the company purchased a Ford Model T chassis and craftsmen of the company turned it into a fire truck - the first in the Town of Wheatfield.
A year later, First Volunteer Fire Co. of Bergholz Inc. was established.
In 1936, the company purchased a building to the east of the hall and incorporated a restaurant and bar. All funds from the space went to building construction and company operations. The building was dedicated in January 1937, but due to arson the building burned in August that year.
One year later, the company continued its restaurant operation in the basement of the hall.
Over the years, the company went through various vehicle purchases, which helped the hall evolve with the times.
In 1959, the company approved the formation of a ladies auxiliary. Arlene Fuerch was named the first president of the auxiliary.
In 1975, the hall expanded, adding three front bays, which gave the company room to store equipment, as well as the Tri-Community Ambulance. The area also contained a kitchen, lounge and meeting room, which are still in use today and were recently remodeled in 2017.
By 1979, the company sold its restaurant on the north side of Niagara Road. The restaurant, in operation since 1936, played a large role in the company's fundraising efforts.
In 1985, the company assisted the United States Air Force Fire Department and Frontier Volunteer Fire Co. following a mid-air collision at the 1985 Niagara Falls Air Show.
Over the years, the company conducted field days for the community on July 4. Due to costs, time and an increased call volume, the company ended field days in 2003.
By 2014-15, Niagara County received a grant, which allowed members to receive dispatch and mapping information to their personal phones to help the firefighter communicate they are responding and see who else responded, as well.
Fast forward to 2018, the company created "new" patches with their signature steam engine and horses, along with a blue ribbon on the bottom stating "100 years of service." Kroening, on the patches, said the company "couldn't get away from its roots."
Along with the patches, all active members received class A uniforms, something they never had before.
The company also had their 100th installation dinner this past February and Kroening said it lived up to its billing. Also, Kroening said members received the opportunity to meet Randy Mantooth, who played the character of Johnny Gage in the show Emergency!
A big project the company took forth was a 100-year anniversary book, containing information back to the beginning in 1918. The book on Page 3 thanks historian and past Chief Roland E. Camann for "the important work of compiling five large binders of our history, which are currently in the care of the Niagara County Historian Office. ... Without his efforts we would not have had nearly as much to share, so we are forever grateful."
Kroening added that, without Camann, there was no way the committee could've put together such a historic book. He also said there was around 700 pages of history. The book was also the main source of the information used by this writer.
Next up for the company, they'll hold an open house in conjunction with Recruit NY, which highlights the duties and rewards that come along with being a volunteer firefighter. The open house runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 28 at the firehall, 2470 Niagara Road.
With already 50 active members, the goal for the open house isn't as much about recruiting as it is getting the public out to the firehall to celebrate the anniversary, Kroening said.
On hand will be Mercy Flight, Sanborn ladder rides, the Niagara County Sheriff driving simulator, an auto extrication demonstration at 1 p.m., a blood drive, fire truck rides, the Niagara Falls Air Force crash and Niagara County Haz-Mat trucks, the Tri-Community ambulance, refreshments and much more.
After parting ways with July field days in 2003, Kroening said the event will make its return Friday and Saturday, July 20 and 21. Friday, food trucks will be on hand starting at 5 p.m. and at 8 p.m. live music will be performed by "Nerds Gone Wild." On Saturday, the company is holding its famous chowder sale at 11 a.m., followed by food trucks at 3 p.m., fireman's parade at 4 p.m. and the night rounds out with music from "90 West" at 8 p.m.
Interestingly enough, Kroening said the route for the fireman's parade will be the same as it was 100 years ago for the inaugural parade - starting on Niagara Road, making a right on to Hunt Street, a left on Washington Street, another left on to Rohr Street and then another left back onto Niagara Road, finishing at the firehall.
To wrap up the celebratory year, Kroening said members will take a trip to the 9/11 memorial in New York City in September, and then a possible family Christmas party.
Bergholz Fire Co. is one of five volunteer companies in the Town of Wheatfield. Being 100 percent a volunteer job, members do not receive any pay for fighting fires.
Due to its membership numbers Kroening said the company has a very good response time and he added the company went on 1,013 calls last year, which he believed was in the top-three amongst volunteer fire companies.
"Because we are so close and like brothers and sisters ... I think that's what makes us, if not, better than most. ... It's a family environment. Even new members, we tell them in the interviews ... 'You come around and you'll fit right in.' Next thing you know, you'll think they're down here for 10 years.
"What makes me proud is the turnouts for calls and drills and training. It's just the dedication in all the members. ... On drill nights we have 20 members show up, which some companies have five or six. ... We have that membership that wants to be here. I hear from other companies, 'How do you guys do it?' and it's the group we have now. ... When I sit back and see that many it's just amazing where we're going.
"When you're a volunteer firefighter something is in you to do it, because you don't get paid for fighting fires. They join because they wanna help. They're not joining to have a blue light or a retirement fund," Kroening said.
Kroening also praised support from the Wheatfield community and talked about how the company sells out nearly every chowder sale each month and how they receive letters, messages and donations from grateful residents.
"The response from the citizens is just overwhelming," Kroening said. "There's tons of letters we get. Our Facebook page constantly gets feedback from residents - 'Thanks for our firefighters.' We'll go on a call, and we go on a lot, so we see a lot of our residents. We get to meet them all; we know a lot of them ... going on 1,000 calls you're bound to hit a lot of people. The thank-yous are there and then a week later we'll get a letter. ... It's these little things; they all add up."
Kroening invited the public to come out and celebrate the 100th anniversary events listed earlier. For more information on the firehall or the celebratory events, visit the Bergholz Volunteer Fire Department on Facebook or call Kroening at 716-731-4848.