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‘A Snapshot Back In Time’

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Three months ago, as Karen Dawson was cleaning her basement, she decided to finally open the old trunk that’s been sitting in her basement for years. Inside, she discovered a little piece of history.

Dawson discovered Marthasville Fire Department records from more than a century ago. The records were among the belongings of her great-grandfather Franz “Frank” Kehr’s, who died in 1943.

“I kept looking at them going, ‘What is this exactly?’ ‘What am I looking at?’” she said. “I wasn’t 100 percent positive what I was looking at, but I recognized the handwriting in one of them as my great-grandfather’s because he had beautiful copperplate handwriting. I started reading and of course, it was amazing, because it is so very legible for being so old.”

As Dawson, a retired teacher from the Washington School District, was reading over the books of paper, she realized it was a preamble of someone starting something.

“I wasn’t for sure if it was starting the fire department or starting the Marthasville and Farmers Fire Co.,” she said. “I started to think, ‘What should I do with these because they’re not going to mean too much to too many people.’”

That was until she came upon the second book showcasing the minutes of a meeting back in 1921.

“It wasn’t till I saw all the Marthasville and Warren County names that I realized what I was looking at,” said Dawson. “After that I thought maybe the fire department or the Warren County Historical Society would want them.”

The two books, which documented the start of the Marthasville and Farmers Fire Co. in 1879, offered insight to a Fourth of July Picnic that was held for recruitment purposes. With the books in “pristine condition,” Dawson was able to make out the list of members of the fire company ­— Rottmanns, Bergs, Kochs, Mittlers — all well-known names in the area.

In 1880, there were 15 members in the fire company who paid an annual membership fee of $1. Along with the membership roster, the books contained passages about repairing a portable dance floor and recruiting the local cornet band, records and roll calls for each meeting, as well as financial transactions, equipment acquisitions including a pump and a 10-foot hose, and hiring a local blacksmith and wagon makers to fashion a fire wagon for the newly founded organization.

On Feb. 8, Dawson donated the two historical ledgers to the Marthasville Fire Protection Department.

“It was such a joy to take them over and talk to the fire department,” Dawson said. “I was thrilled that they seemed excited.”

Chief Sean Johnson said the department was indeed excited to receive the books.

“It’s hard to get some history of the organization, especially when the previous time frame we thought was in the early 1900s,” Johnson said. “Karen insinuated there were dates dated prior to that. So I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’”

Johnson said the books recorded the different adventures the department had with fundraising.

“We have the same type of fundraisers today, not particularly the exact same that they did,” added Johnson. “Some of the things listed was a wheel of fortune type of thing, sold cigars, beverages and candy. They made $30 at one fundraiser.”

“They also mentioned a portable dance floor early in the records,” said Cindy Gladden, public information officer at the department. “They were talking about fixing it so they could use it for the Fourth of July picnic. They made 18 bucks off the dance floor at the fundraiser, so you must have had to pay to be on the dance floor.”

Retired Fire Chief Jim Buescher said, “It’s interesting to see what they had to approve in meetings. They had very small expenditures, like 79 cents for bolts to fix the hinges on the barn door. There wasn’t really much they didn’t really talk much about. They talked about fire prevention, extinguishing fires and basically how they could finance what they wanted to do and, how far out they were going to go.”

One expenditure that was recorded was the purchase of the department’s first bell, which weighed 600 pounds.

“The bell sounded good when close to it, but (the sound) didn’t carry,” Gladden said. “So they raffled (it off) and (bought) a 210 pound bell (instead).”

Gladden said Charles Mittler was the first president of the Marthasville and Farmers Fire Co., beginning his term in 1879.

“In their constitution and bylaws it says ‘The president shall appoint a special committee of 12 whose duty it shall be to respond instantly to any call or alarm of fire.’”

Back then, the department had between 15 and 17 members. Johnson said the volunteer fire department has 35 members today.

Dawson once lived above the office of the The Marthasville Record (now the Warren County Record) in downtown Marthasville. She came from a family of educators, including her cousin James Kehr, her grandfather, Elroy Kehr, and great-grandfather, who started teaching in Marthasville in 1887 and later became superintendent. Dawson’s family, along with her two sons, gave her permission to donate the books to the fire department.

“It’s kind of a snapshot back in time,” said Dawson. “The history, to realize that Marthasville, even though it’s a small community, has a rich community of people really wanting to invest in helping each other. I think it speaks so well for those founders of men and women back then who were worried about each other. I think that if nothing else, it shows that there were people, almost 200 years ago, who were already starting to think about how can we maintain and become a strong community.”

She hopes that these documents will assist the Marthasville Fire Protection Department in further chronicling its early history.

Currently, Board of Director and Retired Assistant Fire Chief Bob Koch and Buescher, who both have been with the department for almost 50 years, said Marthasville Fire Protection Department’s documented history begins in 1928, so they’re hopeful that these ledgers with the last entry being in 1923 will fill in the gaps.

“It’s about understanding your roots,” Johnson noted. “Most importantly, understanding where you came from, what you started, how you started, and how you got to where you are today. The history is important from the newest member to the most senior member, and you can’t take that away. It’s history. And you want to continue the legacy that’s been set before you in a positive manner.”

The books will be stored at the Marthasville Fire Protection Department to preserve its history.

After digging through her family history, Dawson said she visited the Quality Copy on Fifth Street in Washington, and to her surprise she ran into another historical family piece.

“I was kind of walking around, and I looked in a room,’ she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have a Heidelberg press!’ That’s what grandpa used to have, and he said, ‘That was from your grandpa’s newspaper office.’ Such a small world. When the Record was sold, he went over and bought it. He still uses it today. I just thought that it was very timely.”

She said she remembers when her grandparents used to live above the press.

“They printed the paper right in their home downstairs in Marthasville,” added Dawson. “I grew up in the newspaper office, watching newspapers come to life and holding different jobs when I got older. When I was younger, I rolled the newspapers and put them in wrappers so they could be mailed. That was a big deal then, having to mail the newspaper to folks.”

As she continues to dig through her family trunk, she uncovers more and more local and state history.

“I’ve found some pretty cool historical stuff during my treasure hunt, but I’m not quite ready to share my findings,” she said. “Once I find the appropriate places to give them to, I will share them.”