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Henry Gerdes

Combating fires in Huntington has progressed a long way from the use of leather buckets and wooden ladders over the last 175 years.

The Huntington Fire Department will be celebrating the 175th anniversary of its volunteer fire company’s formation July 28 with a parade kicking off at 4 p.m. from town hall to its Leverich Place station. The department’s oldest active living member, Henry Gerdes, has been selected as the parade’s grand marshal.

“Huntington has grown tremendously and so has the fire department,” he said, since its founding in 1843. “You have to grow with them.”

“Huntington has grown tremendously and so has the fire department.”
– Henry Gerdes

Gerdes, 98, has volunteered his time to help the Huntington Fire Department since he was a boy working in his family-run ice cream and candy shop on Main Street. He recalled pouring cups of coffee for volunteer firemen heading on their way to work only to learn they couldn’t always hear the firehouse’s siren.

“If the wind blew the wrong way, they couldn’t hear it,” said Gerdes, who worked down the street from the Main Street station. “I would have to call them up, having to use a nickel at my payphone.”

He alerted volunteers of fires using payphone No. 28 in his family’s shop. After a few months, the process improved when telephone operators learned of what he was doing and stepped in to help direct firefighters directly to the site of the fire to meet the trucks there.

Gerdes officially joined the Huntington Fire Department in December 1939 and upon returning from serving during World War II he rose to the rank of captain. The 1950s and 60s were a busy time for the firehouse, he said, as the town was rapidly expanding and changing.

“We had no masks, no tanks and you walked into a fire as you were, you were lucky if you had a raincoat.”
– Henry Gerdes

“Daytime fires would be brush fires or nothing,” Gerdes said. “But come night or the winter, everyone had coal stoves and fireplaces. There were a lot of chimney fires.”

In 1959, the fire station was relocated from Main Street to its current spot on Leverich Place.

“There used to be no traffic to worry about,” Gerdes said. “They had to move the Main Street firehouse because it was impossible to get to with trucks and cars.”

Firefighting methods and the department’s equipment have drastically improved since the early 1900s, according to Gerdes, who emphasized that while the department purchased top-of-the-line trucks the volunteer’s safety was treated very differently.

“We had no masks, no tanks and you walked into a fire as you were, you were lucky if you had a raincoat,” he said. “The first one on the truck gets first selection.”

While Huntington’s Main Street and New York Avenue business district had fire hydrants installed in the late 1800s, Gerdes said firefighters often had to go looking for a wrench to open it up. For residential fires, volunteers had to locate the nearest well or pond to drain water to extinguish the flames.

“When I first joined, they didn’t have 50 fires a year,” he said. “Now, they have more than 600.”

“Recruitment is a constant issue. We were always looking for volunteers. Today they are still looking for volunteers.
– Henry Gerdes

In 2017, Huntington Fire Department volunteers responded to 655 calls including emergencies, car crashes, fires and automated alarms with October being the busiest month. The department has grown to consist of three companies: The engine, hose, and hook and ladder units.

One thing that’s remained unchanged over the years, according to Gerdes, has been the need to ensure there are enough active volunteer firefighters, and now, first responders, to ensure residents’ safety.

“Recruitment is a constant issue,” he said. “We were always looking for volunteers. Today they are still looking for volunteers.”

The lifelong firefighter warned that it’s not all “fun and games” but a work that requires significant training and irregular hours, including late nights and holidays. Yet, he has taken pride in serving the department and being part of its history.

“The fire department I belong to is the best,” Gerdes said. “They do a good job, they work hard, and they do the right thing. I’m very proud of them and anything I did to help them along the way.”

Residents are invited to join the firefighters in their 175th anniversary gala celebration from 5 to 11 p.m. following the parade at the Leverich Place fire station featuring complimentary bounce houses and slides for kids, pony rides, a dunk tank and other carnival-like activities. Entertainment will be provided by the Little Wilson Band and free refreshments will be served.

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