The Brisbane Volunteer Fire Department

BY: Dolores Gomez, Brisbane historian, brischic@sonic.net

They were from every walk of life; working men who rushed to the fire house at any hour, night or day, when the wailing siren sounded, signaling a fire or someone in need of help. “The government was the Fire Department,” was a quote from fireman Fred Schmidt. They were a league of their own, true leaders of Brisbane in the 1930’s. They built their own fire truck by cutting apart a car, added a tank, hoses and a siren in 1932. By 1934 trucks were purchased and housed behind Heywood’s Hardware store at Mendocino and Visitacion Streets. Wool sweaters and leather jackets were replaced with uniforms purchased from the Salvation Army.
Master carpenter, Felix Schwenderlauf drew plans for a firehouse. Construction began in 1936 at Glen Park Way and San Bruno Avenue. It was a multipurpose building; the fire district rented from the Firemen’s Social Club for $30 a month and Catholic masses were held there. The Brisbane Women’s Fire Department Auxiliary was formed by wives of the firemen. They wore white dresses, caps and red capes in parades. They served coffee and cake to firemen at a big fire and refreshments at dances.
Just about everyone in town went to the popular Social Club dances, no need for baby sitters as the kids went too. Dances, bake sales, and other events were held to raise money for the firehouse. By the early 1940’s the firehouse housed four fire trucks to fight fires in town, especially the yearly fires on San Bruno Mountain. We kids would hike to the mountain or run to a lot on fire when we saw the smoke. The firemen gave us wet sacks to beat the flames. We loved doing that and were proud to help. I remember a siren would sound at ten o’clock on Sunday morning, a reminder for the volunteers to meet at the firehouse. They would train and learn fire science from visiting instructors.
One of my greatest memories is having fun at the fireman’s Thanksgiving dinners. Before the dinner, the men would set up the chairs and a long table, covered with white paper. I still remember the smell of delicious food women cooked when I entered the old pool hall at the corner of Mariposa and Visitacion. A feast of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings were on the table to enjoy. After dinner, chairs were lined along the wall, the table taken down; it was time for Arlie Morgan’s band to liven up the old building. Adults and children filled the wooden floor to dance to the fun music. Arlie played a mean accordion and there was also a saxophone and drums. The music was loud along with the guests who may have had some Thanksgiving cheer! The younger children eventually tired and despite the noise, would fall asleep, on the mounds of coats piled on the floor.
Children that were raised in Brisbane, all own sweet memories of Santa riding on the old Indiana fire truck and the volunteer firemen handing out a small bag with an apple and some hard Christmas candies. One year my dad was Santa and two of my young daughters got up onto the truck, and said “hi grandpa.” He never let me forget that they gave away his cover.
I will always remember the Brisbane Volunteer Firemen; a great group of residents, devoted to keeping town safe from fires. The contributions they made to Brisbane are now history.
The volunteer fire department is documented in “BORN OF FIRE; in praise of Brisbane volunteers.” Please check it out at the library for more information or in the History section of the City’s website: www.brisbaneca.org/history.