Fire department history column
By Norris Dearmon
For the Kannapolis Citizen
When Kannapolis began in 1906, the area had nothing but gullies, corn fields, cotton fields, woods and a few farmers. There were no fire departments or any other means for fire control.
As the mill was being built, the need arose for commercial building for a town and houses for the workers to live in. When those houses were built, fireplaces and flues were included for cooking and heat in the much colder winters than we have today. Wood was used for both purposes at first. The houses and town buildings were of wood construction.
By 1916, the mill and the village had experienced enough fires to demonstrate the need for some kind of fire control. A volunteer fire department was organized and chartered. Volunteers used buckets, since the town had no water system. The village had community wells, and the mill only had fire buckets hanging from wooden columns filled with water. The town lake was very small, with not much water in it.
H.E. Ketchie, the famous master mechanic of Cannon Mills, was a charter member of the new organization. Cannon Mills had a large wagon, which had been used to carry the Cannon Mills band in parades and was no longer needed. It was converted to a water wagon. It could be used to bring water to any house fire, but it took a while for it to get there.
It was also used to haul water throughout the village on Monday, for wash day.
Soon after the department organized, the mill bought a fire reel with a hose to use for firefighting. They also purchased a hand pump to get water from the lake. Thus began the reel team competition, which eventually set world records. Those records still stand today.
During the 75th anniversary celebration, the local department broke out the old reel, with five-foot wheels, repainted the red wheels and tried to make a run with it. Unfortunately, they never came close to the records set in 1933.
In 1975, Norma Howard, a reporter for the Daily Independent, interviewed Homer Ketchie for memories of the early fire department. Homer joined the department in 1925 and remained with it for 45 years.
I knew Homer personally because he was my neighbor. After we were both retired, I talked to him almost daily. I am going to quote from that interview with Norma Howard.
“The reel was left parked downtown,” he said, “and when a fire broke out we dashed toward it. Of course we didn’t have any water, except what we could get from the town lake. But each fireman had a bucket.”
In those days other men from the mill, who were not regular firefighters, were often sent from the machine shop and yard force to assist.
“As a youngster,” he said, “I was standing in our front yard (101 N. Ridge Ave.) watching two houses across the street burn. To keep a third house from catching fire, firemen laid a hose from the lake across the railroad tracks. Two trains, one going north and one south, were stopped to keep them from cutting the hoses in two. Finally the firemen dug a hole under the tracks so the trains could go on their way.”
Later, after Homer grew up and joined the fire department, he recalled that a house on Rose Avenue caught fire. Firemen responded to the alarm, but they had no water with which to fight the blaze.
“Snow was on the ground,” Homer explained, “and I remember they threw snow balls against the side of the house next door to keep it from catching fire.”
Today, it is a different story. The Kannapolis Fire Department has several fire trucks and a ladder truck with some paid firefighters to fight fires with and are expanding constantly. They also have a water system with fire hydrants to hook their hoses to. No more buckets.
Norris Dearmon is a member of the Kannapolis History Associates and a volunteer in the Hinson History Room at the Kannapolis Branch Library.