‘Last of the Mohicans:’ Marvin Yost never dreaded going to work as a Salisbury fireman
SALISBURY — Back in his days as assistant fire chief, Marvin Yost sometimes had to conduct regular evaluations of his men — a task that was necessary, but a process Yost didn’t want to make too lengthy for him or the employee.
So Yost became famous in the department for lighting a cigar at the start of the reviews and declaring, “As soon as this cigar is gone, you’re gone.”
There were a lot of smoke-filled-room evaluations.
Yost was 23 when he joined the Salisbury Fire Department in May 1947. It was a 24-man department then. The main station sat at 117 S. Lee St., and the downstairs included four jail cells for holding anyone arrested by Salisbury Police.
Yost, 92, can’t believe it, but all the men he started with in 1947 have passed away.
“The Last of the Mohicans,” he says from an armchair in his longtime home on Heilig Avenue. Every now and then, he still wears a white, modern-day uniform shirt — and all the hardware — given to him by the department a few years ago.
Yost harbors no regrets. It was “an enjoyable life,” he says of his years in the fire service.
“I never dreaded going to work.”
But some days tested him more than others. Because Chief Fred Shipton was attending a conference in Indianapolis, Yost found himself as the man in charge during one of Salisbury’s biggest fires ever — the downtown fire of 1964.
“We rolled in there at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Yost says. “… We knew we were in trouble.”
In the 100 block of South Main Street, the fire started at Underwood’s and spread toward McClellan’s and the W.H. Leonard jewelry store. Oestreicher’s was going to be scorched, too.
Fifty years later, Yost can be blunt in his assessment: “It made for a nice parking lot.”
The heat was so intense it blew out windows on the other side of the street. Spencer firemen, responding as part of mutual aid, could see the fire from their station. Close to 100 volunteer firemen from across Rowan County helped in fighting the fire, with Yost trying to orchestrate it all.
He arrived on the scene early Sunday morning and didn’t make it back home until Wednesday.
“Every day is a guess,” Yost says, “and you have to be prepared for the next minute, the next call.”
Over his career, Yost fell through floors and pulled people dead and alive from smoke-filled and burning buildings. More than once, he reached through a window from the outside and his hand found someone who had crawled to that spot in hopes of finding fresh air.
He also learned to look for people on the floor behind doors, places they reached before smoke overtook them.
Yost earned a lot of his firefighting chops in an era before air packs, which he credits today with saving a lot of lives.
“You had to eat smoke, or you weren’t a fireman,” Yost says. “You had to know how to breathe.”
Yost thinks he was a common-sense fireman, though he sheepishly recalls the day he jumped into the chief’s car and took off by himself with an oxygen tank. At the asphalt plant, a man was trapped in a sand tunnel.
In his solo rescue attempt, Yost came close to being buried himself.
“That was a close call,” Yost says. “I’ve had a heckuva a lot of close calls.”
Marvin Yost was the fourth of six boys in his family. His dad was a carpenter, and his mom ran the busy household. They lived on nine acres off Peach Orchard Road.
Marvin first attended Yost School, a two-room building with two teachers. One instructor taught grades 1-4; the other, grades 5-7.
Marvin and his brothers took a long hike through the woods to reach Yost School, crossing Peeler Road on the way.
When school buses became available, Marvin started going to Faith School, then Granite Quarry High School. Back then, there were only 11 grades. In 1943, during World War II, Yost was drafted into the U.S. Army, and he can still tick off the different places the Signal Corps sent him stateside while he was learning to be both a soldier and tele-communicator.
His Army travels took him to schools, bases and fields in North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Washington State and New Jersey — Atlantic City, to be precise.
Yost recalls that Hollywood actor Broderick Crawford gave him rifle training in Atlantic City, where the soldiers were staying at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on the Boardwalk and eating meals at the Ambassador.
While Yost was stationed at Geiger Field in Washington State, he came down with rheumatic fever, which left him with a heart murmur and led to his being sent home. He was classified with a 10 percent disability and honorably discharged.
Back in Rowan County, Yost — always good with numbers — enrolled in Salisbury Commercial College and, as he describes it, “went to school on the government.”
He focused on accounting at the business school and was lined up to take an office job at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis at $130 a month. Married by then to Mary Pinkston, Yost says he also was broke and decided it wasn’t worthwhile to drive back and forth to Kannapolis every day when he could work for about the same salary at the Salisbury Fire Department.
Shipton, his brother-in-law, arranged for Marvin to get on with the department. Yost started in May 1947 when Salisbury firemen worked either the day shift or the night shift and could count on having off every other Friday.
The hours were relentless, plus while he and Mary were raising their three children, Marvin usually held a second job. He worked, for example, as a mechanic at Peeler’s Sunoco and also put in some years at McGill’s Laundry.
“I loved the work,” Yost says specifically of the Fire Department. “I loved having the job because I was paying for this house, and I loved my family.”
Marvin and Mary Yost built their house on Heilig Avenue for $7,000 in 1950, and as their family grew — the couple had two girls and a boy — they added a couple of bedrooms upstairs.
When Yost started with the department, Salisbury had fire stations at 117 S. Lee St. and on South Main Street next to Chestnut Hill Cemetery, with sleeping quarters in both.
As a rookie, Yost took the normal hazing from the more veteran firemen. He was told immediately after taking the job that if he ever missed making the truck on a call, he would be fired.
One night his buddies hid Yost’s clothing and set off a fake fire alarm. A desperate Yost slid down the fire pole without his clothes, put on hip boots and a raincoat and jumped on a truck ready to go.
It was a good laugh at Yost’s expense.
“It’s family,” Yost says of the firefighting fraternity. “Sometimes they pull tricks on you, and they pulled every trick on you in the book.”
A fireman’s turnout gear was pretty simple then — a raincoat, hip boots, a tin helmet and cotton gloves “It was no gear, really,” Yost says. “We were tough back then, buddy. We didn’t realize it though.”
Yost marvels at the fire equipment available today and what the Salisbury department fought fires with early in his career. It was, for example, a red-letter day when the department purchased its first aerial truck whose ladder could reach the top of the Wallace Building (today’s Plaza on the Square).
Yost recalls the weight of a 50-foot wooden ladder, which was so heavy men needed pipe poles to pull it up. “You couldn’t manhandle it,” he says.
Yost’s long firefighting career also started before the department was using radios for communication. Instead, the firemen, when they weren’t on duty at the station, depended on an alarm system “with 100 miles of wire stretched over the town,” Yost says.
Besides the big air-powered siren on top of the Lee Street station — “that thing would blow you out of bed,” Yost says — the individual homes of firemen had what Yost’s daughter Dolly Canup calls a “gong.”
A big board with about 100 wheels at the Lee Street headquarters would send out an alarm by wire to the individual gongs. Each was essentially a big bell rung by a little clapper.
If the gong rang four times, paused, then sounded eight more times, the fire families knew a fire was happening in section 48 of the city. Salisbury was divided into 100 areas, and Yost had a card at his house showing what area each number matched up with.
So when needed, he could go straight from the house to the fire.
The “gong” at the Yosts’ Heilig Avenue residence almost led to their house’s burning down one day while the family was gone on vacation. Fellow fireman and neighbor Earl Stirewalt knew the wiring into the residential bells was sometimes faulty, and he thought it might be a good idea to check the Yost’s house after an alarm went off.
Sure enough, Stirewalt could see that a fire had started in the closet where the Yosts’ gong was installed. “He broke in and saved the house,” Marvin says.
It took little time before Yost made himself indispensable in the department. He started out driving a firetruck, but soon he was the officer in the passenger seat, directing the driver where to go.
He was promoted to captain in 1953 and was Shipton’s assistant chief by the time Fred became chief, succeeding Charlie Burkett.
“I moved up (in rank) pretty fast,” he says.
With his mechanical ability, Yost worked on the trucks. He also became the station’s barber, cutting all the men’s hair. He handled the payroll for the department, too, and started the men on an exercise plan.
As his responsibilities increased and before fire dispatchers became the norm, Yost was answering the “170” emergency line at the fire station. He was the one deciding from the calls coming in how many trucks and men to send to fires and what stations should respond.
Yost’s fellow firefighters were quick to give Marvin’s oldest daughter, Mary Darlene, her nickname of “Dolly” the first time Yost brought his infant daughter by the firehouse. She has been “Dolly” her whole life.
Nicknames are common at the firehouse. What was Marvin’s? “They called me ‘Chief,'” he says.
Yost also became what amounted to the Fire Department’s first training officer.
“This man was instrumental in getting the fire training at Rowan Tech started,” son-in-law Andy Canup says.
Yost had been going all over Rowan County teaching basic fire training at the volunteer departments, and he was behind the building of a “smoke house” at Rowan Tech, now Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, which has a fire-training school.
Yost retired in February 1984, but he didn’t stop working. For about 15 more years, he held jobs with Medical Breathing and Rowan Medical, delivering equipment such as oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and hospital beds.
Mary, his wife of 63 years, died in October 2008.
It was Fire Chief Bob Parnell’s idea to honor Yost’s longtime service to the city only a few years ago. By resolution, then Mayor Susan Kluttz proclaimed April 14, 2011, as “Marvin R. Yost Day” in the city.
“Every day is my day,” Yost says.
And he’s not just blowing smoke.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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