by Jim Bulls
I became a Reedleyite in 1947 and I was in for a culture shock the first time I went out in Aunt Geneva’s backyard to play with the neighborhood kids. The countries represented included Mexico, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Russia, Italy, Portugal, Armenia, Lebanon, Japan, and Korea, to name a few! John Steinbeck introduced California to the new immigrants called “Okies” of which I was one, wearing high top shoes and overalls. But the games we played were all the same: kick the can, statue, or mother may I. My first friend was a Portuguese kid named Danny Enos, who lived down the street. We would usually meet at Ayubes Market for a coke or ice cream.
We had no day care in those days, so on Saturdays Danny and I, along with a couple of hundred other kids, would converge on the movie theater for the afternoon. Sometimes there were 60 or more bicycles lying on the lawn outside the theater. No one ever had a bike stolen while they were at the movies. Since Mr. Enos’ blacksmith shop was just across the alley, Danny and I would always stop by to see if the pro wrestler Ali Baba was there. He wrestled when Gorgeous George was famous.
Danny’s Dad was also a volunteer fireman, so visits to the firehouse were made pretty regularly. I remember what a big day it was when the new GMC pumper truck arrived. It would move the old Dodge back to the second row in the firehouse. Danny and I were two of the lucky kids that got to ride the GMC truck in the Fiesta parade that year, and Danny’s parents were the Fiesta King and Queen.
The big fire in my youth was at Reedley Lumber Company—all that was left standing was the vault. The lumber company was one of the water hole stops all the kids made when riding their bikes.
Another fire that made an impression on Danny and me, plus most of the kids in Reedley, wasn’t because it was so big but because it played a major part of their lives. Doc’s Fountain in Chinatown was the place to go for snow cones. An antique, cast iron ice shaving machine produced the fluffiest “snow” from an old-fashioned block of ice. All you had to do was choose your flavor, or mix them all up to make a “suicide.” It was a sad day when Doc’s burned down.
Jackson’s Buick had a fire in their appliance department in 1954. That was close to us because we bought a new Buick there in 1955. When Sun Valley Grape Distributers went up in flames on I Street, the heat was so intense it broke the windows of Otani’s Department Store and Farmer’s Market across the street. About this time, the City purchased another new fire truck. Menno Penner went back to the American La France factory in Elmira, New York and drove our new fire truck back to Reedley. The old Dodge was retired from service and the 1932 Seagraves was moved to the back row.
The fire siren started screaming again, but this time it went on and on. I looked toward town and the fire seemed pretty close, it was big and not just a glow, you could see actual flames! Alumnus from 1922 to that day watched in dismay as their alma mater went up in flames.
The old Seagraves sat on North Avenue, pushing water across the lawn, over 50 feet away, to shower the third story of Main Hall in a plume of water. Every one of Reedley’s fire engines were put into use on this fire, plus a few from the neighboring towns. The building had been condemned, but not without controversy—half the school board wanted a new school, half wanted a second opinion on the structural stability of the old building. Rumor had it that a stray cigarette set off the blaze and another one said a student was responsible. In any case, since there was no building, a second opinion on the structure was a moot point. A demolition crew showed up on campus and the wrecker’s ball started swinging. It would pound away on those walls for quite a few days before the building came down—the contractor said later that in his experience, this building was the most difficult he had ever tried to take down.
One day I saw the Seagraves down at Cricket Hollow so I stopped to see what was going on. Even though the Seagraves had been relegated to backup engine, it still had to pass the same rigorous tests for certification regardless if it was 1932 vintage or 2010. What actually grounded the Seagraves, GMC and our first American LaFrance was not mechanical, but that they were no longer able to offer protection to the firemen to and from the fire. Firemen now ride in the cab of the fire truck; no longer do they stand on the toe boards, hanging on for dear life.
Today’s fire department is still made up of volunteers, but we now have a paid Fire Chief. Reedley’s fire department is proud to own the most modern of equipment, but it is capable of draining both our water towers in less than an hour. Chief Isaak is currently playing a game of Russian roulette, hoping we will not have a major fire until after the new water towers are built.
If this story sparks your interest, there is a very good display at the Reedley Museum featuring the 1932 Seagraves, the fire hose cart and acid fire extinguisher. During Fiesta time, the fire department takes the Seagraves to the annual RFD Open House and uses it in the Fiesta parade. If you haven’t ever attended the RFD Open House, they put on an excellent show along with Sequoia Safety Council. You can get up close and personal with all the equipment and also see a demonstration of the “Jaws of Life.”
I can’t talk about anything that rolls in or through Reedley without mentioning Milton Anderson. His life revolved around the railroads, where he knew each engineer by name and was always there to wave as they passed by. His photographic memory allowed him to remember the serial numbers on the passing boxcars. When there were no trains to greet, he would go to the fire station and memorize all the data on each fire truck. Milton could tell you the model year, license number, mileage plus pumping OPM of each fire truck. He would also do the same with all the school buses, along with the route each driver made and who got on or off at each stop.
I would like to dedicate this story to the memory of Milton Anderson, 1942 to 1979, and Danny Enos, 1944 to 1984.
Check out part 1 of this series here at KRL!