Nappanee Fire Chief Don Lehman
Nappanee Fire Chief Don Lehman addressed the audience after Martha Owen’s historical presentation of the department during the Prevention and Preservation Open House on a recent Saturday.

NAPPANEE — The Nappanee Fire Department is the only department in the U.S. to use the Smokey Stovers as a mascot.

“Smokey Stover” was a comic strip created in 1935 by Nappanee native Bill Holman and distributed by The Chicago Tribune.

The comic strips, several of which can be viewed on display in the Nappanee Center, featured the eponymous character in goofy situations with plenty of puns to boot.

It has becmoe a well-loved addition to NFD volunteers and their family members.

But NFD started long before Smokey came about, as it was created in 1892.

To highlight the department's 127 years, the public was invited to the "Prevention and Preservation" community open house and history presentation on Saturday.

Martha Owen, manager of the Nappanee Public Library/Nappanee Center's Heritage Collection, presented highlights of the department.

Nappanee was founded in 1874, but the town didn't started raising funds for a fire department until four years later.

"In 1878, the Wakarusa Sun reported that Nappanee had a huge fourth of July celebration like never before," she said, noting they hosted greased-pig catching, baseball, races and more. "All of those proceeds went to benefit the fire department."

Until the department was built, the town had a "bucket brigade." When there was a fire, one man would run into the street to alert others. They would sound a bell and form a line to the fire, passing buckets of water to extinguish the flames.

The need for a fire department was officially publicized in the Nappanee News in 1888, as many believed the town to be a fire trap due to its wooden buildings.

Then in 1892, when NFD was established, the town began to construct wells and waterworks. And two hose carts were purchased for $80 apiece, which is approximately $2,200 in today's currency. Current Fire Chief Don Lehman, however, said one of today's fire hoses would cost thousands more.

In its beginning days, the fire department consisted of two teams of 20 men. J.D. Coppes was elected the first fire chief — adding on to his list of "firsts" for the town, along with being the first man married in town and also the first to be arrested, which was for running his horse too fast.

The firemen weren't paid, but received a rebate on the town tax.

"Later it was decided they would be paid handsomely," Owen said. "They would get $3 a year, and if they missed a fire or failed to appear, then they got a 50-cent fine."

Teams were later dropped to contain 12 men each, and assigned to a hose cart: Goodwill No. 1 and Rescue No. 2. A third, which was later created by C.D. Volkmann and named "Alert" was kept as his private property and wasn't officially part of NFD. That cart faded by 1902, Owen said.

The Coppes Brothers and Zook owned a personal fire cart as well, which was primarily for use in the Coppes Factory, but the town was able to use it in the case of emergencies. Ironically, Owen said, that cart was lost in a fire.

Following the incident, Coppes approached the town board with a deal they would inevitably take: they bought the Alert cart, and in exchange Volkmann would purchase a hook and ladder truck with the money.

But as with any venture, there were some fun and games involved in being part of the fire department; hose cart racing became prominent just one year after the department's conception.

"On July 19, 1893, they raced hose carts against Goshen, Bremen, Valparaiso and a team from Ohio," Owen said. "This is typically run over a 100-yard course, that was usually dirt and gravel, and most teams consisted of nine to 12 men."

The two fastest men would stand aside the cart to steer during the race and brake at the end; one would stand behind the cart and unwind the hose; the rest would race the cart in the opposite direction. The timer went from the time the gun went off at the beginning of the race until water spurted from the nozzle, usually accomplished in under 30 seconds.

Hose racing is still in practice today, and Owen said a simple YouTube search can show years of the tradition.

The two town carts are on display, one of which can be found at the Nappanee Center.

Rocki Stillson, president of the Nappanee Historic Preservation Commission, said she was excited to see so many people turn out to learn more about the fire department.

She said she has a "long history" with the Stovers," which Owen expounded on in her presentation.

"Her grandpa Fred was a firefighter," she said. "Him and Evelyn got married in January of 1937. The auditorium burnt down in January 1937."

The auditorium fire, which Owen said was caused by a kerosene explosion, destroyed the auditorium and some of the surrounding businesses. The fire was so great that people could see the flames for miles, and believed the whole town was on fire.

"Fred and Evelyn were on their honeymoon at the time that this fire happened, Fred joked that he never forgave Evelyn for missing the greatest fire in Nappanee history," she said.

Owen detailed some of the most significant fires to touch Nappanee.

Right as the town waterworks was completely ready, it exploded on Jan. 25, 1893 — "blown to Adams," as the local newspaper reported Some were injured, and the blast caused nearby store windows to shatter. By July, a new waterworks was in place, as well as an electric building.

The Coppes Factory Fire, that caused the loss of the new hose cart hose, was in 1894. The Lamb Factory Fire of 1914 was the larges fire Nappanee had seen in 20 years. It spread so quickly between flammable materials that the building was a total loss, but they rebuilt later on.

The new age of firefighting was embraced by 1916, when hose carts fell out of common use. The department raised the funds to purchase its first motor fire vehicle for $4,240. Six years later it bought another, and in 1947 it acquired a fire truck equipped to fight fires in the countryside.

The Nappanee Fire Department took on Smokey Stover as their mascot in May 1952, when the fire chief at the time asked the artist if he could use the character.

"Bill wrote back and said, 'You can use it however you want to use it,'" Owen said. "Since then, the Nappanee Fire Department has been known as the Smokey Stovers."

Over the years, Holman sent personalized cartoons for NFD, and each fire engine features a different design of Smokey.

In 1962, during the Nappanee Milling Company fire, "Nappanee's equipment couldn't reach, so they called in the Elkhart Fire Department," Owen said.

That department's aerial truck was unavailable, so they called in the Elkhart Township Department. Due to a miscommunication, the department sent a tanker instead of a big ladder truck.

"They had to reach the blaze with a system of ladders on the rooftops and throwing buckets of water," she said. "During the fire, the upper platform of chute burnt through and a 24-horsepower motor crashed through and tore out the sprinkler system."

The Nappanee Center is home to many historical resourced that can be used to learn more on the town's history. Located at 302 W. Market St., the Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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