Volunteer firefighters: We built ourselves a station

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When James City gave its volunteer firefighters a lease on land to build a new fire station in the 60s, they got to work laying the foundation.

(Courtesy of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department)
(Courtesy of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department)

“We built ourselves a fire station,” said Billy Apperson. The 71-year-old began volunteering at the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department in 1959 – before he even had his driver’s license. He continues to work there as a public information officer.

The Toano community contributed time, materials and money to get a brick fire station built on the corner of Forge and Richmond roads, Apperson said.

“The community really built the thing with their donations,” he added. “Yes we did the work, but the community made it possible.”

The firefighters weren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. Many spent their off-time and weekends hauling dirt and installing plumbing into the station.

“The only thing we didn’t do was erect the steel,” said Pat Martin, 69.

Martin began volunteering in 1961. Four years later he became the first hired and paid firefighter in James City, ascending to chief status later in his career.

Martin and his father, Hillary, worked side-by-side to install about 90 percent of the building’s plumbing. Hillary Martin, who didn’t want his son to become a firefighter because of the dangers of the job, was one of the charter members of the James City County rescue squad.

(Courtesy of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department)
(Courtesy of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department)

The now 50-year-old fire station was dedicated to Toano in 1966 after three years of volunteers pouring “sweat equity” into the project, Apperson said.

“I was up here on the weekends and on my days off working with the rest of the volunteers,” Martin said. “I actually almost got divorced over the time I put in.”

Their work paid off. Everyone in James City came to see the new fire station the day it was dedicated, Martin said.

Today dark stains adorn the brick fire station where lettering once hung proudly to display the name of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department.

Those stains will soon be gone – along with the rest of the historic building.

The fire station will be demolished next week to make way for a long driveway leading up to the bay of a new $6.3 million firehouse built for the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department.

Those volunteers who lived in and love the old station understand the necessity of the new firehouse, which is larger and features state-of-art equipment and training space.

But they say their treasured memories of fighting fires, saving lives and developing a family bond in the old station won’t disappear with the structure.

Love is in the small details of the old fire station, said James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department Chief of Communications Paul Tidwell, 68.

“This place – it amazes me,” Tidwell said. “The closeness of it.”

Tidwell began volunteering at the fire department in 1982 after his father and stepmother were killed in a car accident on Interstate 64. Apperson sponsored him to become a volunteer.

(Courtesy of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department)
(Courtesy of the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department)

“I wanted to do something to help people,” Tidwell said, adding that the firefighters quickly became his family.

The old fire station wasn’t just home for the firefighters. It served as a community hub where the people of Toano could get their fill of fish frys, play Bingo and celebrate life’s big moments like weddings and school graduations.

“The doors were never locked when I was a firefighter here,” Martin said.

Although fire stations come and go, family is forever.

Firefighters young and old, as well as community members, are still welcome to come to the James City-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department to enjoy a cup of coffee and a good conversation, Tidwell said.

“It’s the people,” that make the fire department special, he added.

Mayfield can be reached at 352-431-9612.