Fire Department History
The fire department is the oldest continuous civic organization in the city. Prior to 1904, there was no chartered organization, but there was a fire department with Fred Block, a harness maker, as the Chief. Everyone in the community was pressed into service during a fire. The equipment consisted of one two-wheeled hose cart which was pulled by hand.
Eventually a formal fire department was organized and chartered in 1905. Gene Hackett was the first Fire Chief; his term lasted from 1905 to 1910. Joe Hilgenberg followed him from 1910 to 1912; Arthur Sack from 1912 to 1913; George Sohr from 1913 to 1915; William Ehlers from 1915 to 1917; George Sohr from 1917 to 1919; Lawrence Stuelke from 1919 to 1921; George Sohr from 1921 to 1927; Joe Hilgenberg from 1927 to 1959 (over 30 years as Chief); Herman Krueger from 1959 to 1961; Rudy Wagner from 1961 to 1976; Jim Henkel from 1976 to 1982; Tom Wolfgram 1983; Jim Henkel 1984; Tom Wolfgram from 1985 to 1988; Tom Lietz from 1989 to 1990; Ron Lambrecht 1991; Kevin Rudie from 1992 to 1994; Curt Runge from 1994 to 1995; Tom Lietz from 1996 to 1997; Jeff Warrichiet 1997; Scott Hamilton 1998 to 1999; Tom Wolfgram
In the past, tournaments were held in various communities every summer, and the teams of fire fighters engaged in contests to sharpen their fire fighting abilities. Gillett belonged to the tournament area that included Oconto Falls, Cecil, Clintonville, Shawano, Marion, and Tigerton.
The chartered department acquired a second two-wheeler hose cart, hand-propelled, and took a great step forward when Emil Thibedeau made a hook and ladder outfit for them, also hand propelled.
There were three sources of water for the firemen to use: The old pail factory had a pump, a water tank at the depot, and water could be pumped from the grist mill on the shore of Savage Lake. After a hot day, the firemen would test their equipment by wetting down the dusty streets.
The first fire alarm was nothing more than the sounding of a locomotive whistle. The first fire alarm system was placed on the Municipal Building, consisting of a siren and bell. All calls were received by telephone or call boxes. The present alarm system is a 7 1/2 horsepower 220-440 volt, 3 phase siren purchased on August 8, 1966, coupled with a 911 paging system through the Oconto County Sheriff’s department.
At the present time, there are 114 fire hydrants and two pumping stations. The city has three water wells, a 300,000 gallon water tower and two water reservoirs which gives the city a total of 475,000 gallons of water to use at any given time. The Fire Department is currently housed at the new fire station located in the industrial park.(see photograph).
The department currently operates with a 1982 Ford 8000 series diesel 1250 gpm pumper, a 1966 H-R72 Howe International, 750 gpm waterous pumper, both fully equipped, and a refurbished 1955 incident command/ equipment van. The department still maintains the 1925 fire truck and original hose cart which is used during the Fourth of July parade. We recently purchased a 1982 Pierce 65 foot Snorkel that was completely refurbished and UL tested in 1996.
The current roster for the department is comprised of 25 volunteer members. The fire department has four organized companies: Hose, Hook & Ladder, S.C.B.A. and Snorkel. Training includes mandatory State of Wisconsin firefighter classes along with monthly drills. The department meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month.
Largest Fires Fought
Among the biggest fires fought by the Gillett Fire Department are:
- In 1913, the Gillett Woodenware Co. was destroyed. The Holm and Kroner Opera House, which included a bowling alley, dance hall and bar, located on the northwest corner of Richmond and Main burned down. On the same day L. H. Newald’s Sale Barn located one block south burned along with William Kerkhoff’s house.
- The most stubborn fire occurred at the old music hall which was located where the Legion Hall now stands. Clothing was stored there and it smoldered for days.
- On August 27, 1929, a complete loss of the barn was the result of the fire of a tavern and bar belonging to Mr. Alma Zemke. Zahn’s Garage is now located at this spot.
- On January 19, 1937, the Evangelical Church located on East Washington Street was totally destroyed by fire.
- The Catholic Parsonage was severely destroyed by fire on March 16, 1937.
- The warehouse and refrigerator room of the Straubel Cheese House incurred a great loss in the fire of April 14, 1944.
- The Gillett Methodist Church was completely destroyed by the fire of November 21, 1966.
- The building owned by Dr. Donald Miller, located at 119 Main Street, was completely lost to fire on November 11, 1967. This is where the old Gem Theater used to be located. The front of the building was used as office area, the rear of the building was used for storage.
- A complete loss resulted from the fire of August 4, 1967, at Warvel Products, Inc., 111 Franklin Street. This was formerly Norcon Mfg. Co. and before this it was the old grist and flour mill.
- The home of Mrs. Muriel Hicks was completely lost to fire on February 2, 1972.
- A complete loss resulted from the fire on May 9, 1989 of TMJ’s grocery store at 204 East Main Street.
- One of Gillett’s Historic buildings, that housed offices for Wagner Gas and Mueller Insurance Agency, was a total loss beginning in the early morning hours of November 2003. Thanks to the quick thinking and action on the part of the Wagner Gas employees and Gillett Fire Department further catastrophy was averted by the removal of full propane tanks before an explosion could occur. No other buildings were damaged in the blaze, and only minor injuries were received by one of the firefighters.