The St. Michael Fire Department officially turns 100 this month, and the department is commemorating the milestone with a big community event.
The 100th anniversary celebration takes place this Saturday, Sept. 23, at the Daze and Knights Festival grounds (the corner lot of Town Center Drive and Edgewood Drive, near St. Michael’s City Hall.) Music begins at 3 p.m. with a live broadcast from BOB 106 radio station. Local musician Blake Duncan takes over at 4:30 p.m., followed by Short on Cash band from 6-8 p.m. Hitchville is the event’s headliner, and they will perform from 9 p.m.-midnight. There is no admission fee to this community celebration.
In addition to the live music, the event will have a beer garden and food available for purchase from Dehmer’s Meats, Kracklin’ Rosies, Craft Catering and the Otsego Lions Popcorn Truck.
“The Fire Department is part of the community,” St. Michael fire fighter Shane Suchy said, “so we wanted to include the whole community [with] a big celebration like this instead of just doing something for ourselves.”
A Look Back
While there are no longer any fire fighters living today who were part of the original St. Michael Fire Department, there are a handful of members available from the 1950s and later who can share their early memories of how the department used to run.
Lowell Berning: served 20 years, beginning 1954
Lowell Berning is the department’s earliest firefighter who is around today. He joined the department in 1954, shortly after the department got a new 1952 fire truck. That truck rounded out their fleet, which also included a tanker truck and a 1925 truck that he said they spent a lot of time working on. At that time the fire hall was adjacent to the Gutzwiller farm property, near County Roads 119 and 35. He said they didn’t have anything for equipment in those days, instead wearing their own old clothes along with fire coats with no insulation in them.
Nevertheless, he said the intrepid 1950s firefighters still did everything today’s firefighters do today, even without the equipment or technology. Berning said they handled a lot of hay fires and barn fires back then, and they had to get in there with the smoke and dust to put them out.
Luckily, Berning said he is fortunate to have suffered no long-term health effects from his two decades fighting local fires.
“The guys on the department do a beautiful job,” Berning said. “We got along good.”
Jim Hackenmueller: served 25 years, beginning late 1960s
Fighting fire was a family effort when Jim Hackenmueller joined the department back in the late 1960s. The fire phone would ring and the Hackenmuellers would jump into action: Jim’s children would run to gather his fire outfit (one later joined the department himself,) his wife Sharon would call other firefighters on the list who didn’t have a fire phone, and Jim would quickly prepare and head out the door.
“It was a rat race,” Hackenmueller remembered.
While today’s firefighters go to a lot of schooling and training, Hackenmueller said they didn’t have training and had to rely on their common sense to fight fires. He estimates they dealt with 3-4 fires per month in his earlier days on the department.
The local fire fighters could show up directly to calls in their personal vehicles at that time, and Hackenmueller remembers many a fire that had been extinguished before the fire truck officially arrived. Today’s firefighters must show up to the station and put their gear on first.
There were times the firefighters would not have time to gather their fire gear from their homes before going out on a call, instead simply heading over in whatever they had on.
“We ruined a lot of clothes,” he said with a laugh. “We went in our dress clothes if we had to.”
One memory Hackenmueller shared is a time they went to fight a house fire and he broke a window with the nozzle of a fire hose to look for a person in the home. The glass of the window shattered all over his bare hands. It turned out he had chosen the correct window to break, but unfortunately the man inside had already passed away.
A few sad memories aside, Hackenmueller says he doesn’t remember any of his fellow firefighters being badly injured on a call. What he remembers most of all from those 25 years was the fun they had together.
“We had fun in them days, and we really enjoyed being on the fire department,” he said. “Now there is more politics involved, even toward the end of my time, and … it’s more complicated. But we still had fun.”
He said the group socialized frequently, both the fire fighters themselves and their families, and they would usually have a meal and play cards together after finishing a call. Those who are still here gather annually for a Christmas party.
Gordy Dehmer- served 1983-current
This upcoming January will mark 35 years that St. Michael fire fighter Gordy Dehmer has served on the department. He is part of a family of local fire fighters, with his father serving 34 years before him and his brother serving 22.
Dehmer said they never received more than 100 calls per year when he first got on the department. As his years of service went on they broke the 200 mark, then 300 and then 400 calls per year.
“It’s just been getting busier with the growth in the population and traffic and stuff,” Dehmer said.
He said training and equipment have both changed tremendously since the early 1980s. They train for many things he said weren’t even on the radar years ago, like active shooter situations or blood borne pathogens. Trainers come in from outside the department, and fire fighters learn how to read the smoke to tell what’s on fire, what phase the fire is in and whether to take an offensive or defensive approach, just to name a few.
For technology, Dehmer said they now have infrared cameras, better and lighter air packs and equipment.
“It’s totally changing all the time,” he said.
He said advice has also changed in nearly every area, from the use of tourniquets (the old advice was not to use them to stop bleeding because it might cause the person to lose the limb, but now the practice is recommended and used all the time) to using fans and positive pressure to ventilate during fires, which Dehmer said used to be considered a big no-no.
He also said the scope of the department’s responsibilities has grown by leaps and bounds, especially when it comes to assistance with medical events.
“It’s not a full-time job, and everybody is doing their thing until it’s 3:00 in the morning and you get a call, and you’re supposed to make a decision on different things in 30 seconds or 60 seconds,” Dehmer said. “They are just so many facets.”