Culver’s fire department: 110 years of saving lives and property

As in much of America, fire remained a constant and very real danger in the early decades of Culver’s existence, when dozens of homes, businesses, and other buildings were lost to flames.

The Culver fire department was organized Feb. 3, 1903 at the William Foss Harness Shop on South Main Street. Each member paid $1 to join, and fire fighting equipment (rubber buckets and a ladder) was purchased. Harry Saine was chosen as the first fire chief because he had had previous experience in another town. Charter members were William Cook, Arthur Morris, Harry Saine, J.R. Saine, Thomas Slattery, Orr Byrd, Edward Zechiel, Charles Medbourn, Fred Cook, Al Mawhort­er, Walter Byrd, Monton Foss, and G.W. Smith.

The Culver Water Department was created and a few hydrants installed in the business section of town. The first fire truck was a hand push cart which was donated by the Plymouth Fire Department and was equipped with a bell and hose. Plymouth also donated a light weight hand-pulled ladder truck.

In 1905 each fireman was required to pay three dollars for one stock certificate, the beginning of the building fund for a permanent place to meet and store equipment. Eventually they bought a building which was moved to property owned by Henry Litsenberger to whom they paid one dollar a year for "ground rent." The 1906 Sanborn Fire Map gives the location of the first fire department building as being on Main Street, in the middle of the block on the east side between Madison and Marmont Streets, in a building which would be the approximate location of where the "horeshoe" building (later Emil 'Bud' Ruhnow's sheet metal business) was located before being razed in the late 1980s.
In fall, 1911 this firehouse was sold for $15 and the furnishings for $13.81.Again the department met in various business places as they looked forward to meeting in the new Town Hall in January of 1912.
An inventory of original fire equipment included "2 extinguishers, 22 rubber buckets (one reported to be no good), 13 cans of chemical, and one very heavy ladder.“

The town board was asked to consider the fire company's request for "two sets of ladders, two ladders with hooks, one cart for ladders, one fire hook with chain, two keys for church, one half-inch rope for extra tapper on (church) bell, one pick­axe, and more rubber buckets." The board "received the report favorably, increasing the number of buckets by four, purchase of two axes.”

Early fire reports generally declared nothing could be done to save burning buildings, but attention would be turned to saving the sur­rounding structures.

In March, 1919, it was announced Culver had received its new chemical truck, which was put on exhibition in downtown Culver. It would go 40 miles an hour, had 400 feet chemical hose and 1000 feet of water hose and it had three chemical tanks.

At Christmas, 1931, the members of the Culver fire department "were unusually well remembered by Santa Claus this year," wrote The Culver Citzien, "when each was presented with a beautiful gold fireman's badge, Mrs. E. R. Culver promted Santa's action, as her appreciation of the fine work done by the fire department."

In July, 1934, the only department fatality occurred when a fire truck crashed on a curve while responding to a fire call. Overturning on a freshly oiled road located on the east side of Lake Maxinkuckee.

Alfred B. Cromley, chief aged 38, died. Others injured were: Cary Cummins, Art Fishburn, Eddie Boberg, and Jack Taylor.

The Lake Maxinkuckee Association voted in 1953 to make "a sizable contribution" for new equipment, and in February, 1959, members of the department were present at the town board meeting to request a salary for the wife of fire chief David Burns, who answers all phone calls to the fire department, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It was suggested she be given a $300 annual stipend. The phone was in Burns' house until he retired from the department in 1974.

Also in the 1950s, Burns worked to raise funds for two-way radio equipment for the department.

Through the years the firemen had very creative ideas for fundraising including special movie nights at Culver's theaters, oyster suppers and trap shooting events, and one endeavor which has continued as one of the only existent records of the Culver community in moving pictures visible today. "See Yourself and Your Town at the Movies" was a fundraiser launched in 1936. A camera­ man took silent film of Culver Burr Oak, Hibbard, and the Maxinkuckee Village, including churches, schools, storefronts, and more. Also included were the firemen as they were preparing to make a (fabricated) fire run in which a lighted pipe jammed in a coat pocket had ignited fireman Mont Foss' clothing! Of course, the annual firemen's festival, which takes place in July alongside the Lions Club corn roast, has been a popular event for decades.

Various standout fire disasters such as the Our Lady of Angels elementary school fire in 1958 (during which 92 children and three nuns died), helped spur improvements nationwide in fire safety and prevention. As the century moved forward, smoke and fire alarms, sprinkler systems, standards in use and storage of flammable materials, safer building codes, faster and better fire trucks and fighting equipment, and more, were added or improved. As a result, fewer and less damaging fires ravaged Culver and the country, though the problem was far from eliminated, of course.

By 1966, the fire department and town hall had moved into the former International Harvester building at State Street and Lake Shore Drive, the current home of the fire department alone. Over the years, department members have made great improvements to the building, including expanding it to the north, to the former site of the Esme Kemple home.

Among other artifacts of the department's long history stored there are the original minutes books, starting in 1903...and they reside, naturally enough, in a fire-proof cabinet.

The department was generous enough to allow members of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver access to photos and other historical items for digitization purposes. An archive including a number of photos of department members, equipment, fires, and even the complete set of handwritten, 1903-era department minutes are available online at the AHS website at


Among the many, many prominent fires Culver's fire department fought through the years included:

1905, Culver Military Academy’s $50,000 new gymnasium burned to the ground, despite bucket lines having been formed from the lagoon to the building (a number of Academy buildings were lost to fire in the school's earlier years, including its first barracks, first rec building/riding hall, Palmer House boat house, boat shed, trunk room, seconnd gymnasium, and farmhouse barn)

1905 fire, caused by lightning, which destroyed the first St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church

1906 burning of the Maxinkuckee ice houses (other ice house fires included 1932 and 1943)

1915 (October) burning of the Culver Military Academy horse stable, in which 66 horses were lost

1918 burning of an onion storage house with 5,000 bushels of onions (the most fragrant fire)

1920 fire which claimed the train station on Lake Shore Drive

1929 destruction by fire of the old Lake View Hotel, on the highest point of today's "Indian Trails" (a number of hotels a number of hotels were lost to fire as well, including the Colonade, the Ralston, and the Arlington)

1935 an arsonist's fire destroyed the Culver park's "bath house," the predecessor to today's beach lodge

1938 the Newman dairy barn burns to the ground

1944 massive fire destorying the Hi-Speed Re-Cap Tire Co. on Jefferson Street

1954 loss of the second St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church to fire.

1954 In perhaps the most tragic fire of the area, seven members out of 12 of the Kovacs family died when a flash fire hit their home in the small community of Hibbard north of Culver in March

1957, Easter Sunday loss of the upper floor of Culver's hardware store on Main Street to fire.

1969 (June) defective wiring was believed to have started the $75,000 basement fire at Grace United Church of Christ.

1972 huge fire destroying the Lake Shore Garage, at the site of today's Osborn's Subway

1977 Thanksgiving weekend burning of the Culver Academies' "Little Gym."

1978 two fires, within weeks of each other in October, claimed the grain elevator on Jefferson Street and bowling alley on Lake Shore Drive.


Harry Saine 1903-06
T.O. Saine 1906
Oland A. Gandy 1906-08
Charlie Asper 1908
A.M. Roberts 1909-12
J.R Saine 1913-20
Clifford C. Waite 1921-22
F.W. Cook 1923-24
E.O. Byrd 1924-25
Charles Bolin 1926
Russell Fisher 1927-28
Roy Swigart 1929
Russell Fisher 1929
A.M. Fishburn 1930
Roy Swigart 1931
A.M. Fishburn 1932-33
Alfred Cromley 1934
Wayne Von Ehr 1934-35
Cary H. Cummins 1935-43
David B. Burns 1943-73
Donovan Overmyer 1973-93
Lance Overmver 1993-2006
Mike Grover 2006-2013
Terry Wakefield, present chief.

Besides current chief Terry Wakefield, other current officers include Ken VanDePutte (assistant chief), Dave Cooper (secretary-treasurer), Glenn Whitmarsh (captain), Jerry Siler (training officer), and Tim McCarthy (safety officer).

Portions of this article were adapted from an article on the 100th anniversary of the Culver fire department in the Winter, 2003 Antiquarian and Historical Society newsletter by Jo Dugger, while some information was derived from Judi Burns' Culver history website at