In 1921, fire broke out in a candy store in the heart of Rockville. A bucket brigade fought valiantly to douse the flames that threatened many adjoining stores along the city's main street. Credit for saving Rockville went to a District fire department with "more modern equipment."
The fire, and its potentially devastating effects, stirred the community into action. The outcome: the birth of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.
Sixty years later, Marbery F. Gates, now 80, is the only living member of the original crew of 51 men who protected the lazy resort town of Rockville and its 1,100 citizens with two hand-drawn hose reels and one hand-drawn ladder trucks.
Gates was guest of honor at a banquet last Saturday in celebration of the department's 60th anniversary. About 500 firefighters, their spouses and friends attended the dinner and dance at the Washingtonian County Club in Gaithersburg.
Gates said that 60 years ago tickets to the fireman's ball, including a buffet dinner, cost 75 cents.
He recalled that in 1921, firefighters equipment sat unguarded in the center of town. It was a year in which $25 bought 200 feet of hose, a fire truck cost $3,425 and a Charlie Chaplin movie benefit raised the remarkable sum of $293.71 -- money needed to buy the department's first siren. Before that, Gates remembered, volunteers were summoned by a pistol fired into the air.
Gates beamed as he recalled his early years fighting fires.
"I joined because I wanted to do something for someone when they needed help," Gates said. "You could say I'm just patriotic," He now is the department's honorary president.
County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist congratulated Gates and other fire department members, adding that Gates' "young and vigorous" appearance was a testament to his "dedication in serving the public safety."
Gates was presented with a plaque and a large trophy to be known as the Marbery F. Gates Fire Service Cup. The trophy will be presented each year to a firefighter with 50 or more years' continuous service in any Maryland fire department.
Guest speaker Louis L. Goldstein, comptroller of the Maryland state treasury, told the gathering that firefighters "represent the best in America," bringing to their work "a tremendous amount of dedication and enthusiasm."
The Rockville volunteer fire department now has 145 volunteers and 65 paid firefighters, all trained in handling medical emergencies. The department has four fire stations and a $2.2 million budget, and is responsible for protecting 104 county miles, according to Chief Woodward Mossburg.
Mossburg, who called volunteer firefighting the "most dangerous part-time occupation in the world," said he joined the department 17 years ago because he wanted to "serve his community." He has been chief for the past seven years.
Echoing the desire to serve the community as the reason for joining the fire department were Michael Bloom and Dr. Norman Forster, who volunteer at Rockville's fire station on Falls Road in Potomac.
"It's a little bit of 'love thy neighbor,'" Forster said.
"There's a real sense of satisfaction involved," added Bloom, the department's treasurer.
For eight years, Mark Stull has been a paid firefighter at the Falls Road station.He, too, calls his work "rewarding," so much so that on his time off, he serves as a volunteer fighter in Frederick County.
Volunteer firefighting is a commitment on the part of the firefighter's family as well, many volunteers said. Lois Forster said she once walked home after midnight in a formal gown after her husband had been alerted about a fire as they were returning from an evening out.
Mathilda (Teddy) Fallon, 24, was one of the first female volunteer firefighters in the Rockville department. She encounters little discrimination, she says, adding: "Sometimes the men offer to do things for me, but my physical strength is never question." Fallon now is training to become a paramedic.
Presented at Saturday's event with plaques for 15 or more years of service to the department were: J. Hutchinson, F.C. Schneider, W.O. Best, W.F. Bond, W.K. Lowery, T.C. Melvin, C.W. Merry, C.O. Poole, W.H. Berry, J.F. Poole Fr., G.E. Wilt Jr., J.K. Nicholson, E.D. Trevey, W.D. McLaughlin, L.J. Gaddis, W.R. Wiegel, W.H. Kerns Jr., F.D. King, W.W. Mossburg Jr., E. Poole and E.E. Helbert.