Village

Corn Belt Fire Department began with nothing except a few committed individuals

By FRED KRONER
fred@mahometnews.com

For many of us, the chance to learn about history comes through words that were chronicled by people at the time of the event.

If the accounts are incomplete, then much of the background remains a mystery or is forever lost.

Former Mahomet resident Keith Dawkins doesn’t need to refer to records about the start of the Corn Belt Fire Protection District, more than 65 years ago.

He was there for the first regular meeting on July 31, 1953 at the home of Harold W. Hannah.

Keith’s father, Donald Dawkins, was the first fire chief, and his son was one of 20 members of the inaugural volunteer staff.

Now 88 and living in Ballwin, Mo.,, Keith Dawkins recalled how the name came about.

“At the first meeting, someone asked what we should call the department,” Dawkins related.

It couldn’t simply be Mahomet, because it encompassed more than the village.

Nor could it be Mahomet Township, because other townships were also included.

“A man who farmed east of town, Jess Fogel, said ‘We live in a Corn belt. I can’t think of any better name.’ “ Dawkins recalled.

The name stuck.

The first officers were on their own as far as procedural issues.

“Dad was supposed to swear people in, but there was nothing written down (as far as rules),” Keith Dawkins said. “He was making it up as he went along.

“That’s the way it was back then.”

A volunteer fire department in the village had existed since at least 1917, but there was no protection or coverage for the rural areas until Corn Belt was formed in 1953.

Three trustees were chosen at the first meeting and they were each given different time frames  to serve.

President James Campbell received a one-year appointment. Secretary Harold Hannah was appointed for two years. Treasurer Leland Dollahon had a three-year term.

Those decisions weren’t by chance, Keith Dawkins said.

“The terms were alternating so you wouldn’t replace them all the same year,” he said.

In addition to Donald Dawkins, three other appointments were made at the first meeting.

A.O. Jahr was selected as assistant chief. Chosen as captains were John Lindsey and Wilfred “Ferdie” Williamson.

Current fire chief John Koller has studied the history and talked with former firefighters to learn as much about the past as he can.

He is impressed by the foundation laid by the original officers.

“They were literally starting from scratch,” Koller said. “They had no rules or regs (to follow).

“I can’t imagine the work, effort, time and dedication it took to get it started.”

That Donald Dawkins did a good job in his role became obvious as the years passed.

“After Corn Belt was formed, he helped other districts start,” Koller said.

Before Corn Belt was in place, voters had to give their approval.

“My understanding is that everyone thought it was great,” Koller said, “but the funny thing is the vote was closer than I would have thought.”

Residents in four precincts cast ballots. Three supported the plan, all by narrow margins. One turned it down by three votes.

When everything was counted, the measure was approved, 142-125.

The first firehouse was not on Main Street, but at what was known as the city building (now the water department) on the west side of the park. The next move was to Main Street, but on the south side, almost directly across the street from where the current station is located.

Koller said one part of the attitude that existed 6 1/2 decades ago is still present.

“The citizens in this community support this department because it has been so fiscally responsible since 1953,” Koller said.

Keith Dawkins said there was little choice when the district was formed.

“We were a small community, but growing,” he said. “There was no money.”

The most recent census had been taken in 1950 and showed Mahomet with 1,017 residents.

The first fire-fighting crew for Corn Belt also included Royal Asher, Bruce Bird, Lee Carpenter, Russ Duke, Roger Herriott, Homer James, Charles Lindsey, Cecil Mahin, Ray Pasley, Wilbur Patton, Cecil Pike, George Pike, James Parker, Walter Ponder and Gerald Sinnes.

Mahomet resident Virgil Mahin joined the department in 1957.

Describing himself as a “new, green fireman,” Mahin remembers posing a question to Donald Dawkins.

“I asked why we didn’t train,” Mahin said. “We had meetings and would talk, but we seldom took the truck out and practiced handling the fire hose.

“He said the budget was so tight, the trustees weren’t going to send us out and burn up gasoline unnecessarily. You went to a fire and put it out the best way you could.

“We lost a few, but saved a lot.”

Being a volunteer firefighter wasn’t a get-rich scheme for those who served.

“Eventually, they gave us $2 a month,” Mahin said. “That wasn’t salary, but reimbursement to pay us for the clothes we damaged (while fighting fires).

“We reported in regular clothing. We didn’t have boots or helmets.”

Mahin recalled when trucks could haul 1,000 gallons of water to a fire.

“It didn’t take long for that 1,000 to be used up,” Mahin said. “We learned techniques for fighting fires and conserving the amount of water.

“You did a proper evaluation and tried to determine the beginning of the fire, and that’s where you put the water.

“You’d knock out windows, knock out walls and put the water at the base of the fire.”

Mahin served two term as fire chief, from 1972-75 and again from 1977-79.

His daughter, Erin Fulk, remembers having a hotline in the house.

“We had a red ‘fire phone,’ “ Fulk said. “The call for a fire or rescue would ring on that phone, then they would sound the whistle in town.”

There is no official list of major fires that Corn Belt has responded to, but with the help of Koller and John Harpst — who spent 45 years on the department and retired as assistant chief — a partial list from the past 45 years was formulated:

— April 18, 1974, Patton Lumber Yard.

Damage was estimated between $75,000 and $100,000 and the cause was listed as a possible arson.

Harpst said the fire took place on the same night as Corn Belt hosted a meeting for the Champaign County fire chiefs.

He was home at the time the call came in, but said the subject matter at the meeting could not have been more appropriate.

“We talked about what to do for a fire at a lumber yard,” Harpst said.

Even before he arrived, Harpst knew it would be a major event.

“I lived north of Candlewood at the time and as I looked to town, it was nothing but a red glow,” he said.

— Oct. 20, 1977, Satellite Bowl.

“We had scouts up here that (Thursday) night when we got the call,” Harpst said. “We told them to hold tight and Steve Pointer and I jumped in the truck and went up there.”

The bowling alley, located where Arby’s is now, had been in operation for 15 years. It never reopened after what was reported as a grease fire that broke out above the grill.

—Jan. 3, 1992, Herriott farm, south of Mahomet.

Four barns, estimated at $350,000, were destroyed. In March, 1999, Anthony Gallagher was convicted of arson.

— Feb. 20, 2015, Lake of the Woods Apartments.

A late morning fire destroyed four apartments in one building.

An estimated 75 firefighters from 10 departments assisted in fighting the blaze.

“The building was left standing but the roof burned off,” Koller said. “That was our last big one.

“We want to do our jobs, but if we didn’t have fires, we’d be OK.”

Mahin, who will be 90 in January, served 29 years on the department.

Although he doesn’t recall the year, he remembers a fire call several miles east of town.

“We saved Rising Grain Elevator,” he said.

Keith Dawkins said that words spoken by his father at the first organizational meeting are still appropriate today.

“He was very adamant that we’re starting something brand new, but the department belongs to the people,” Keith Dawkins related. “He said, ‘we are only the caretakers.’

“He wanted us to conduct ourselves as caretakers to pass on to the next generation, but we had no idea it would be what it is today.”

What it is today, Koller said, is a department with 17 apparatus and 50 personnel. Corn Belt is the third busiest fire department in Champaign County, trailing only Champaign and Urbana in calls.

“We cover (the village of) Mahomet and all or parts of four townships, Mahomet, Newcomb, Hensley and a small part of Scott,” Koller said.

The chief said the majority of the calls are not to report fires.

“About 67 percent are medical,” Koller said. ”The national average is about 70 percent.”

Those who want an up-close look at the fire station can stop by on Thursday between 6-8 p.m. for the annual Open House.

Free hot dogs and drinks will be available along with fire trucks rides and a chance to look at some of the older trucks. Sparky will also be in attendance.

Koller said the event generally attracts about 1,200 people.

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One Comment

  1. great article, but as being a long time resident of Mahomet, I sure thought the story left out the years JOHN JAY spent being chief & a friend to all! Just a little disappointed! John deserves a little more for his years of service and his son Bill for all he did for department.

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