St. Francis Fire Department celebrates 50 years

The St. Francis Fire Department has seen a lot of changes since it was founded 50 years ago May 9, 1963.

Current St. Francis firefighters pose for a quick picture during a practice drill. Photo submitted
Current St. Francis firefighters pose for a quick picture during a practice drill. Photo submitted

At the time, St. Francis firefighters worked through the Anoka Fire Department, and the city of St. Francis signed annual contracts with Anoka for fire protection services.

Back then, the “St. Francis” Fire Department was really just a list of names of firefighters in St. Francis who wanted to raise funds for starting an independent fire department. The state fire marshal required that a city seeking to form its own department must own specific trucks and firefighting equipment before it could operate independently.

That equipment wasn’t cheap, so Fire Department members and the Fire Department Auxiliary – “The Fire Flies” – spent years working hard to raise the needed funds.

They held barbecues, garage sales, bake sales and street dances behind George McDonald’s Feed Store, said current St. Francis Fire Department Captain Barry McDonough. By 1974, the group had finally raised enough money to buy the equipment it needed. The feed mill was torn down and in its place the first section of today’s fire department building was constructed. The St. Francis Fire Department officially launched as a stand-alone department in 1975 under former Fire Chief Jim Lucas, who still lives in St. Francis today.

In 1996, a much-needed addition was built to make room for the department’s growing fleet of trucks and firefighting equipment.

McDonough, who has been with the St. Francis Fire Department for 17 years, has been sifting through old records and articles to put together a scrapbook in honor of the department’s 50th anniversary.

Among his finds is a clipped article, date unknown, written by June Anderson for ABC Newspapers describing some of the earliest recorded fires in St. Francis:

In 1869, fire destroyed a gristmill (a building in which grain is ground into flour) built by Dwight Woodbury in 1855. That mill was rebuilt.

In 1891, J.P. Woodbury built a larger mill, which was destroyed by fire on July 19, 1933. That fire also burned part of the old dam.

The article goes on to quote an old Union newspaper article covering the blaze: “Fire which started in a grain flue in the old Woodbury Mill in St. Francis completely destroyed the mill and the dam across the Rum River in one of the hottest blazes that the county had for a long time.

“The fire was first noticed by Mrs. R.G. Streetly who gave a general alarm by shouting to several men in the C.H. Shaw store. … The heat from the huge building was so intense that one could not get within 400 feet of the blazing building.”

When the building collapsed “sparks from that fall and from the blazing dam were carried onto the bridge which began to burn,” the article stated. “Using buckets, groups of men succeeded in extinguishing the flames before any serious damage could be done.”

On Jan. 10, 1947, another fire “completely destroyed the Red and White grocery store in St. Francis and threatened to destroy the adjacent garage as well as the residence of store owner Robert Leathers before Anoka firemen could get the blaze under control.”

A March 11, 1987, article in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune describes a fire that destroyed the St. Francis American Legion Hall in the early morning hours of March 10, 1987. Damage was estimated at more than $200,000.

On Feb. 24, 1998, a church building that stood right behind the St. Francis Fire Department burned down. The building was more than 100 years old. The fire was one of the first serious fires that McDonough fought in his early years on the department. In fact, a photo of the blaze published in the “Minnesota Smoke-Eater” shows McDonough in his gear preparing to enter the burning building.

For McDonough, firefighting is a family tradition. His father is a retired Minneapolis firefighter. Coincidentally, when Barry was 6 years old, he won the St. Francis Fire Department’s annual coloring contest, which the department still holds today.

McDonough joined the department in 1996. His brother Brian is also on the department and another brother, Bert, also served there but later moved on to a full-time firefighting position in Moorehead. Barry’s wife Jennifer is also a St. Francis firefighter.

McDonough said he is proud of the fact that the St. Francis Fire Department has always had more female firefighters on its force than most surrounding departments. In March 1995, a newspaper article on local female firefighters featured a photo of the four women who were members of the St. Francis Fire Department at the time. Among those women was Nancy Merrifield, who joined the department in 1982.

Merrifield was one of the first women to join the St. Francis Fire Department, but not the first. She remembers there were at least two other women who were on the department before she was — Sharon Folkerson and Carol Hentges.

Merrifield, whose husband Steve had already been on the fire department since 1979 when she joined, has many memories of her 25 years as a St. Francis firefighter.

She remembers taking part in fire prevention programs at schools and day cares.

“We would talk to kids about fire safety, and we’d wear our gear and teach them not to be afraid of what we look like with our gear,” Merrifield said.

The gear weighed about 33 pounds, she said.

She remembers that in the mid-1990s medical training requirements were increased for firefighters, so everyone had to take first responder classes and become certified. Merrifield also remembers being called to help neighboring fire departments to extinguish house fires, barn fires and grass fires.

And she remembers taking part in two significant practice drills, when the department burned down the city’s old community center building in June 1983 and the old post office building on Bridge Street in July 1989.

This summer the St. Francis Fire Department is celebrating its 50th anniversary, having kicked off the celebration by holding a spaghetti dinner in early May. It has also designed T-shirts featuring photos of the department’s old and new fire engines, including a 1975 Ford Bean on the lower left. (McDonough said Lucas remembers driving the Bean back to the shop when it was brand new in 1975). On the upper right of the shirt is a 1929 Ford. The shirts are available from any firefighter for $15. Proceeds will go to the St. Francis Fire Department Relief Association.

The Fire Department’s 50th anniversary was also the theme of this year’s Pioneer Days. Four former St. Francis firefighters were honored as grand marshals for the Pioneer Days parade: James Myers, Steve Braastad, Gerald Braastad and Don Leathers.

The celebration will continue on Aug. 3 with a golf tournament at The Ponds Golf Course. Tournament details will be announced in the coming weeks.

Today the St. Francis Fire Department responds to about 400 calls per year. It responds to medical calls, fires, car accidents and hazardous material spills. Most of their calls are medical calls. The fire department’s response area includes approximately 7,000 people in a 27-square-mile area.