Black Mountain Fire Department to celebrate 100 years of service with parade and festival
The town of Black Mountain had not been in existence for 20 years when the fire of Nov. 24, 1912, forever altered its landscape.
Bright red flames began consuming a stable along present-day Sutton Avenue before engulfing the surrounding structures, destroying nearly every building north of the train tracks in the burgeoning town. The blaze illuminated the need for brick structures, which give the downtown historic district its distinctive look today, to supplant their wooden predecessors.
The fire of 1912 also created a pressing need for a fire department to protect the town against future catastrophes, and while small fire companies emerged in the years after, a dedicated fire department was established seven years later.
The Black Mountain Fire Department will celebrate 100 years of service on Saturday, Oct. 12 with a festival that will feature a parade, flag ceremony, guest speakers and detailed presentation of the organization’s history.
The festivities will begin at 10 a.m. with the unveiling of a display that looks back at the department's first century. The parade, which will feature fire engines from departments throughout the state, will follow at 11 a.m.
“We have a lot planned,” said Deputy Chief John Wilson, a member of the eight-person committee responsible for organizing the event. “We’ll have face painting, bounce houses and other activities for the community to enjoy.”
Today, the department responds to an average of 225 calls per month and holds a Class 3 rating from the Insurance Service Office. It operates two manned stations and an unmanned facility within the town limits and is staffed by 19 full-time and seven part-time employees as well as 25 volunteers. But the early days of the Black Mountain Fire Department were much more humble.
"Fundraising for a fire department started not long after the fire," said Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center Director Anne Chesky Smith. "In 1919 the department was in a wooden structure near the intersection of what are now Broadway and Sutton (avenues), and that was kind of a temporary location."
Three years later, the department moved into the space that would not only serve as its home for the next 65 years, but set the standard for many of the historic buildings still standing in downtown Black Mountain.
"In the minutes of the department's 1919 meetings they discuss looking for an architect to design the fire station," Chesky Smith said. "They talked about people donating time, labor, materials and money."
The department contracted Asheville architectural firm Smith and Carrier, founded by Richard Sharp Smith and Albert Carrier in 1906. Smith, an English-born architect who came to Asheville in 1889 as the supervising architect of the Biltmore House, was one of the best-known architects in the area at the time.
The building, which was constructed on what is now West State Street, was named Currier Hall, in honor the department's first chief. The structure would serve as the department's home until it moved to its current location in 1987.
Home to the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center since 1989, the old firehouse is a contributing building on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum completed renovations to restore the structure to its original condition in 2016 and considers the building its most important artifact.
Sterling Poe walked through the doors of the station as a volunteer firefighter for the first time in 1965, after being hired by Chief Jack Leatherwood.
"We had two bays, three trucks and one ambulance," said Poe, who would spend 12 years as the department's training officer, six months in the late 1970s as its chief and remains an active volunteer to this day. "We had a business meeting the first Monday of every month and the other Mondays we trained. Back then there was only a day shift because we only had one paid firefighter."
Calls were received much differently than the modern dispatch system in use today.
"You'd answer a call when it came in, there was a phone system and you were recorded on the call," Poe said. "You'd set the siren off and the volunteers would phone into the station and the recording would let you know where to respond."
As the needs of the community grew, the department slowly added paid staff to keep pace.
"I was the third man they put on," said Poe, who has served under seven fire chiefs during his career with the department. "I became a paid firefighter in 1972. Before that, there were just two and they worked 24 (hours) on and 24 off. When I started we were able to go to 24 (hours) on and 48 off."
Poe became the assistant chief under Mack Kirkpatrick, and was asked to step into the chief's role when Kirkpatrick resigned to become the town manager. He quickly discovered that he preferred his previous role.
"Before I was chief I was the training officer," Poe said. "When I became chief it was more paperwork, and it wasn't for me. I told Mack Kirkpatrick that I wanted to step back and I thought Gary Bartlett should be the chief."
Poe's instincts proved sound as his successor would go on to be the longest-serving chief in the department's history and guide it into the future.
"I started at the department in 1974," Bartlett said. "At the age of 24, I became one of the youngest chiefs in the state. I actually got my education while working by going to fire science classes on nights and weekends."
Like many firefighters, Bartlett was drawn to certain aspects of the job.
"You kind of had to be a jack-of-all-trades," he said. "Each firefighter has something about the job they're most interested in, and mine was fire investigation. I investigated thousands of fires during my career, and I was really drawn to that part of my job. If you know what causes fires, you can prevent them."
While running a growing department, Bartlett was tasked with moving the operation to the current building in the late 1980s.
"We were so tight and crowded in the old station, we had two main Class A engines up front, and they were inches apart," he said. "We just outgrew it."
The move to the station on Montreat Road represented the department's transition to the modern era of firefighting. The bell that used to sit atop the old station was moved to the entrance of the current one.
Bartlett was the chief of the department when the East Buncombe Rural Fire Protection District, which provides services for surrounding areas outside of the town limits, was established.
"That was established in 1981 and it assessed a tax, which is collected through property taxes, that is dispersed to the town of Black Mountain," he said. "The sole purpose of that is for the town's fire department to provide fire protection outside of town limits."
Bartlett also set out to improve his department's ISO rating, which was 7/9 when he took over the job. The system rates departments on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the lowest rating. The ISO scores help determine insurance rates for homeowners in the area.
"That rating is a measurable way to determine how a fire department is doing," he said. "I was able to bring it down to a 4 before I retired and the department is at a Class 3 now."
The chief who guided the department to its current ISO rating was brought on as a junior firefighter in 1980 before being hired by Bartlett as a volunteer in 1987.
"All I did was continue what I was taught," said Steve Jones, who was the chief of the department for 11 years until his retirement in November 2018.
"Gary took a chance on me, and my mother gave the department credit for getting me on the right track until the day she died," he said.
Jones, like many of his fellow firefighters, discovered his calling at the department.
"This was our life," he said. "I always felt like I was lucky to be living the dream."
Bartlett and Jones have been invited to speak at the upcoming 100th anniversary celebration.
"Pride is the first thing that comes to my mind," Bartlett said. "We were always a team. 'I' didn't do this or that, 'we' did it. I feel like that's a big part of why the department is what it is today. That feeling of team has always been a big part of it."
Wilson, who was hired by Bartlett in 1984, was eager to research the department's history for the celebration. With assistance from Poe, he's spent hours digging through archives uncovering stories from the organization's past.
"I want to be able to pass this information onto the next generation," he said. "I've personally learned a lot about the history of the department through this process, and it's important to recognize the people who were here before us."
The experience has brought back memories of Poe's 54 years on the job.
"We'll look through old newspapers and I'll see a name that I haven't thought of in years," he said. "That's helped me remember other stories that I've forgotten over time."
Under the guidance of current chief, Scottie Harris, who was took over in May, the bond between Black Mountain firefighters remains strong, according to Poe.
"It's always been a tight-knit group," he said. "We've always looked out for each other and a lot of us retirees still look out for each other. We all spend so much time working together and training together we really get to know each other."
It's the relationships forged by a mutual love for firefighting that Bartlett misses most about his time with the department.
"I still serve on the Firefighter's Relief Fund board and I do that just to have an association with them," he said. "There's not one retired firefighter alive who wouldn't answer this question the same way: 'What part of the job do you miss?'
"It's the people," Bartlett continued. "And that bond that comes from knowing my actions will be directly related to your safety and mine."
Want to celebrate 100 years of service with the Black Mountain Fire Department?
When: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Black Mountain Fire Station, 106 Montreat Road
10 a.m. - History display
11 a.m. -Parade
1 p.m. - Flag ceremony
1:30 p.m. - Station activities, including fire engine rides and displays
5 p.m. - Closing ceremony
The event is free and open to the public