The Merrill Fire Company was founded in 1888, when its constitution and bylaws were written. At that time, Merrill’s lumber boom was in full swing and mill fires were a common occurrence. The owners of local mills were looking for better fire protection and helped to organize a fire department.
The Merrill Fire Department can actually trace its roots back a few more years to 1883, when a volunteer crew was established under chief H.W. Wright, a Merrill lumber mill owner. He was succeeded by a second volunteer chief, Fred Stroud, in 1884.
The history of the Merrill Fire Department has been well-documented in a binder started by Adlord Talbot, who served as fire chief from 1939-1941. Talbot gathered together all the rosters and activities of the department going back to the beginning. That binder has been kept, and added to each year up to the present.
In 1888, Julius Thielman became the first full-time fire chief and the department also had paid drivers, while the firefighters continued to be volunteers. In 1899, the Merrill Fire Department became a paid department, with 21 men on the roster. The fire chief, Owen Love at the time, was paid $50 a month, the head driver was paid $45 a month and the other drivers $40 each. Part-time firefighters received $60 per year, paid quarterly in $15 installments. By 1917, the department consisted of eight men and the full-time firemen received $60 per month.
The number of firefighters grew slowly over the next few decades, while their pay gradually increased (although temporarily reduced during the Great Depression of the 1930s). By 1956, the department was staffed by 15 men, which grew to 19 by 1969.
In 1970, when the Merrill Fire Department took over the ambulance service for the southern half of Lincoln County (previously provided by the local funeral homes), positions were added to the department, bringing the full complement to 22 men. In 1970, the chief was paid a $9,000 annual salary, while firefighters were paid $6,800. The Merrill Fire Department continues to operate the ambulance service under a contract with the county. Merrill fire personnel are required to have Emergency Medical Service training, with all new hires required to have paramedic level certification.
The staffing level of the fire department was at 25 from 1974-2008, and now sits at 23. Firefighters currently work a “California” shift, working 24 hours every other day for five days, followed by 96 hours off.
The firefighting equipment has changed drastically over the years. Starting with hose carts pulled by men or horses, the department progressed to steam engines and got their first gasoline powered fire truck around 1918.
The department’s current fleet of vehicles includes three ambulances, a ladder truck, two engines, a tender, a rescue truck, a brush truck, a six-wheel ATV and a Rapid Deployment Craft for water rescue.
The job of a firefighter has always been a dangerous one and Chief Talbot’s binder notes many injuries to firefighters over the years. The Merrill Fire Department has only lost one man in the line of duty over the years. Lt. Tom Beckman collapsed and died while battling a fire on Mill Street on Jan. 3, 1978.
The Merrill Fire Department has responded to some major fires over the years, including the Cosmo Theatre fire of 1928, the JC Penney’s explosion of 1960, and the Badger Hotel fire of 1967.
The stated mission of the Merrill Fire Department is to “prevent harm, preserve life, and property. Utilizing a team of compassionate, highly trained individuals.”
Today’s Merrill Fire Department responds to nearly 2,000 incidents annually, including structural fires, medical emergencies, car accidents, vehicle fires, hazardous materials releases, and wildland fires. The fire station serves as a community safety resource and is available for blood pressure checks, CPR training, first aid training and firehouse tours.
Fire personnel provide extensive fire prevention and safety education programs in Merrill schools, beginning in pre-school and continuing through fourth grade. Business inspections and other safety programs encompass the entire community.
The department expects to move into a brand new, state-of-the-art fire station by the end of 2013.
Currently under construction at Pier and First streets, the new station will be the fifth building to house the Merrill Fire Department. The new fire station will be a four-bay, 20,000 square foot station and will house fire trucks, ambulances, and hazmat unit; with adjacent operations support areas, administrative offices, training space and living quarters.
Merrill’s first fire station was located at Center Avenue and East First Street, now the parking lot of the Lincoln County Jail. The second station was built at the corner of Wright Street and Grand Avenue, now the site of the Franklin School Apartments.
The current Station 1, at 701 E. First St. was built in 1917. An addition was built in 1960 and the apparatus bays were added in 1989.
The west side fire station at 1303 W. Main St. was built in the 1960s and sold to Agra in 2012 as the city started planning for the new central fire station.
For many years, the city featured two fire stations to cover the east and west sides of town. The railroad tracks dividing the city were a major concern in having two stations. Prior to the sale of the west side station, that station housed the rural firefighting equipment, while the east side station held the city trucks.
Station 1, which once housed the department’s equine employee, has been remodeled many times over the years, but has reached the point where the city deemed it no longer adequate for use as a fire station.
“It’s going to be very nice,” Capt. Mike Drury said of the new fire station. “It’s time to move and upgrade to a new facility that can house everything in one building.”
The Merrill Fire Department will hold an open house Oct. 20, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Station 1.
“This will be the last hurrah at this station,” Drury said.