Ellis firefighters reflect on department's 60-year history

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 19, 2011

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — Fire Chief Jeff Whitley and Assistant Chief Chuck Wetmore have a combined history at Ellis Cross Country Fire Department of about 60 years.
That’s how much history the department will be celebrating from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday at the 3420 Old Mocksville Road station.
Like any fire department, the history of Ellis Cross Country is full of good and bad memories.
One year, early in the department’s history, they responded to a chimney fire by shoving the hose in the top of the chimney and flooding the room below. Before cell phones, it was common for firefighters to simply follow the firetruck’s water trail to the incident.
And they’ve seen sad times.
In March 2008, they carried a Salisbury firefighter into the emergency room at Rowan. The firefighter, Justin Monroe, did much of his training at Ellis. He later died at the hospital.
In 1987, Wetmore responded to an incident and found his 17-year-old daughter trapped under a car off East Ridge Road.
His daughter made a full recovery and Wetmore didn’t quit the department.
He and Whitley will be among the 22 volunteer firefighters on Saturday that make up Ellis Cross Country.
“We just want to make it aware that we’re here,” Whitley said.
Whitley expects about 200 visitors to attend Saturday’s anniversary bash. The department will showcase old equipment they’ve used and a helicopter from Carolinas Medical Center is planning to land at the station at about noon.
“Come out Saturday if you want to eat, or you can look and see the trucks and see where we come from,” Whitley said.
After joining the department in 1975, Whitley became fire chief in 1990.
He said the department started in 1951, around the same time a teenage girl forgot a hot iron that caused a porch to catch fire.
Residents of Ellis Crossroads rushed to the fire, beating it with wet feed sacks, but the house burned to the ground.
Whitley said it’s unclear if the fire came immediately before the community began planning for a fire department, or immediately after, but he said a single truck could have stopped it.
A month and half after hosting a meeting about a fire department charter in Ellis School in the summer of 1951, the department received its charter. One year later, the department had built a two-bay fire station.
They also bought their first firetruck in 1952, a 1951 Ford F-5. It cost $1,800. Whitley said a firetruck today costs about $300,000.
Whitley said the department now has six vehicles that provide emergency service to nearly 3,000 people in the Ellis Crossroads community.
Whitley says he’s not exactly sure why the department was named Ellis Cross Country Fire Department, but speculated that it may be because of the large coverage the department provided to help other fire districts in the 1950s.
Ellis Crossroads was once a growing suburban area for those with jobs in Spencer, like the Spencer Finishing Co.
The department was the third rural fire department in the county in 1951.
Despite taking care of about the same number of families — 625 — over the past 20 years, the department has only had one death in its district. Whitley said the death happened when a man’s house caught fire and collapsed while he was asleep.
In 1991, the department answered about 30 calls annually. They now respond to about 300.
Whitley said the economy has really pushed rural fire departments to the limits in recent years. He said he now makes it a point to apply for every grant possible to keep the department going.
“We’ve really pinched pennies to not waste money,” Whitley said.
When the department first began, they ran a popular micro-midget race track as a fundraising project. Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s father, Ralph Earnhardt, often raced at the track. The races were discontinued in the early 1960s.
The current location isn’t the original, Whitley said. The original fire house was on East Ridge Road. The current station was built in 1983.