150 years of heroism: Meet Illinois’ oldest volunteer fire department

A photo hanging on the on the wall of the Union Fire Company firehouse shows  two trucks near...
A photo hanging on the on the wall of the Union Fire Company firehouse shows two trucks near the turn of the century.(KMOV)
Published: Jan. 22, 2022 at 1:32 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - ...Tuesday morning, at about 4 o’clock the people were awakened by a fire alarm. As usual, they rushed to the engine house to assist in drawing the fire engine to the scene, when the fire was found to be in the southwestern part of town. On nearing the spot they found that the engine house of the Millstadt Coal & Mining Company was completely wrapped in flames and in a short time destroyed, partially damaging the boiler and engine. Loss about $300...

-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, March 27, 1885

The story begins in 1736, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire company.

By 1871, a Union Fire Company was launched in Centreville, Illinois with 32 members.

This is where the story gets a bit confusing, because the town 10 miles south of Centreville also named themselves Centreville.

Incredibly, this went on for about 50 years before the southern Centreville realized they had a problem, so in 1890 they changed their name to Millstadt, and the Centreville Fire Department eventually evolved into the Millstadt Union Fire Company.

Millstadt is a proud, historic town of German ancestry. German was taught in schools for many years. A drive through town will still take you past Wolfmeier Trucking, Reinrdhart’s Lounge, and the Muskopf garage.

As other fire departments came and went, Millstadt stayed the course.

Today, the Union Fire Company of Millstadt is the oldest continuous volunteer fire department in Illinois.

Operations began with hand-operated pumps, which the men pulled to fires, with hose reels on wheels and old leather fire buckets. And they responded to much more than fire calls.

G. W. KRAFFT paid his election bet with post-master DEHN, last Saturday, by giving him a wheel-barrow ride down Main street. In view of the fact that our P. M. tips the beam at something over 200 pounds the task was no easy one, and we would advise “Wash” to select a smaller man the next time he bets on the presidential candidate.

-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, Friday, Dec. 10, 1880

Millstadt Fire Chief Kurt Pellman oversees 32 active volunteer members, including his son. Technology has provided pagers now to alert his force in case of a fire. But back in the day, technology was a bit different.

“We would blow the town sirens three times if we had a fire,” Pellman recalled. “If it blew a fourth time, everybody came in.”

Among the Millstadt volunteers is Ralph Schaefer, whose great grandfather immigrated in the 1870s.

“My uncle died fighting a big bowling alley fire at the old Otto Speichingers Tavern,” Schaefer said. “I just felt like I had to carry the family tradition on.”

The bowling alley is gone, and the building is now called Ott’s Tavern.

Fred. MUSKOPF and Chas. GROSSMAN Jr. not feeling satisfied with the result of a trial in which they were opposed to each other, on last Monday, agreed to go outside the corporation limits and fight it out, which resulted in two badly bruised and blackened faces.

-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, Friday, June 10, 1881

Robert Stumpf’s family came from Germany in the 1840s. He has served with the unit since 1956, including time as fire chief.

“You wouldn’t believe the equipment we had back then,” Stumpf said. “Open fire cabs. I was lucky to come on right when we got a fire truck.”

Butch Hettenhausen’s family arrived in the mid-1800s, and has spent his life volunteering.

“I look back now at the equipment and smile. We just did what we had to do.” Hettenhausen said.

He had a family relative killed in a fire, “But I’ve never felt scared.”

“Old trucks used to have boots in them,” Pellman said. “You had to hope you got the final pair. Our only protection were raincoats. Nobody ever heard of a breathing apparatus.”

“We had two boots and three coats,” remembered Stumpf. “We pretty much went in without any protection.”

Several of our young business men, being dissatisfied with the present appearance of the village constable, are taking up a collection for the purpose of purchasing him a uniform.

-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, Friday, Nov. 18, 1881

The Union Fire Department covers 96 square miles, a large swath of southern Illinois rural land.

They rely on and have received tremendous support from the community over the years. Millstadt has remained a tight-knit town.

In the past, there were no ambulances. Hearses from the town funeral home had to suffice.

There were big fires, like the Columbia quarry fire in 1947, and small ones like the dog house in the park in 1958.

Through all the years, all the fires, and all the volunteers, what stands the test of time is the men who braved it all. Firefighters who didn’t show up for community events back in the day were fined 50 cents. Don’t even consider missing a funeral procession.

Today Millstadt has a Circle K and a China King. But at Ott’s Tavern, you can still choose from Warsteiner Premium Verum or Original Muncher Marzen. And while the fire sirens won’t be sounding four times again, 32 volunteers are on stand by, waiting for the call, as they have been for nearly 150 years.

An insane man who came here from St. Louis, created an excitement at the depot last Friday by trying to take forcible possession of the locomotive, claiming that he had been sent out to take charge of it. Fireman STRAUSS overpowered him and turned him over to the officers who took him to the county farm. We have heard since that his craze was the result of a big drunk and that he had been sent home by the county farm officials.

Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, March 11, 1887