The Phoebus Fire Company: dedicated to serve.
It is the first weekend of spring, and the volunteers of Hampton’s Fire Station No. 2 are manning the station.
It’s a “take-over” day, when Hampton’s professionally trained but unpaid firefighters assume primary responsibility for dealing with fires and other assorted emergencies.
But this was not always the case.
Hanging on the station’s walls are photographs dating back to as early as 1898, from a time when volunteers were the only firefighters in Phoebus.
Panoramic photos from 1918 and 1929 show the long lines of men and boys in Phoebus who served their community.
They also show something else: how the fabric of a community’s life was affected by volunteers, with photos of their football teams, baseball teams, the parades and civic events – all depicting the social importance and prominence of the fire company.
The Phoebus Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was organized in 1893, when its charter members donated $210 to buy a hand pump, hose and buckets.
In fact, Phoebus had a fire company even before it was incorporated as a town. Through community fundraising, enough money was quickly raised to purchase a hook and ladder wagon. They voted to name the wagon “citizen’s gift.” It was.
In the community’s early years – when streets were still dirt roads topped with crushed oyster shells – the wooden two-story Victorian building known as Fireman’s Hall housed the horse-drawn fire wagons.
Next door was a stable sheltering the horses that would pull the wagons and the men to a fire.
Atop Fireman’s Hall hung the large bell that was rung when help was needed. Even after the horse-drawn fire wagons had been replaced with motorized engines, the bell was still the call to service, and not just for the volunteers.
Even thought the by-then retired fire horses were used only for hauling or other heavy work, “The horses would still run to their places at the station and wait to be harnessed when they heard the bell,” said Ernest “Bubba” Hale.
Mr. Hale and Ray Mingee – two of the volunteer company’s senior members – confirm that the horses weren’t alone when it came to responding to the call of the bell.
As a young student at the Phoebus Graded School across the street from the fire station, Mr. Mingee said if he and other students heard the bell, “We’d go out a window, and not a door, because that was the fastest way to get to the truck.
“By the time the trucks got to Mallory Street,” he said, “they were so covered with men” running to answer the call “that you couldn’t see the fire trucks.”
Once at the scene of a fire, officers used speaking tubes – long metal horns with a flared end – to bark orders to the firefighters.
And what of the young boys who also answered the call? Well, they would help the firefighters by holding lanterns.
Indeed, many youngsters who would later become members of the company – including Mr. Mingee, Mr. Hale and Leonard Sulzberger – began their service as lantern or “lamp” boys.
Why did they join so early? “Everybody did it,” said Mr. Hale. “Before 1950, no one who lived here didn’t join – it was the social organization,” said Mr. Mingee.
By the time Phoebus had incorporated as a town in 1900, the fire company, stables, and city hall were all in buildings located near or where the fire station is today.
In 1939, as part of the Public Works Administration efforts across the country, Phoebus received a new post office and a small addition to its school.
At the same time, the old wooden fire station made way for a new brick municipal building to house the town’s city hall, police station and jail, fire department, courtroom, and officers for the mayor and treasurer.
Visitors today would be surprised at how small and compact the Phoebus city hall was.
Lining the top of the walls of what were the court and council chambers – in a fashion very much like a wallpaper border – are framed photographs of company members.
A carved bust of founding member R.A. Ruth normally hangs in the room but is on loan to the Hampton History Museum. The bust is rumored to have been carved by a Civil War veteran from the Soldier’s home.
Outside the station, the bell that had rung out calling men to a fire now rests in a place of honor.
Once the center of the Town of Phoebus and its operations, now the building is home to expanded fire and rescue services provided by Hampton.
In addition to the fire company, the building also houses the Phoebus Volunteer Rescue Squad, which has been in operation since 1948.
Before the squad’s formation, ambulance service to Phoebus was provided by the Wythe Fire Company and Dixie Hospital, which was located near what is now Hampton University.
The hospital charged for the service and tried for years to get the Phoebus Fire Company to take over this responsibility.
After a mysterious fire destroyed the Dixie Hospital ambulance, Phoebus was left with help coming from one ambulance stationed in Wythe.
Responding to the need, the Phoebus First Aid Squad was formed.
Mr. Mingee remembers that volunteers called to the station quickly learned that “a little siren meant rescue services, and a big siren meant fire.”
Today, as professionals assume day-to-day operations, fire and rescue volunteers are smaller in number.
Yet volunteers are still being sought, and many who join go on to become career fire fighters.
Those not interested in direct participation may also show their support for the station by volunteering for the Phoebus Fire and Rescue Auxiliary.
Yet whether a volunteer or professional, one thing is sure: the mission remains the same. To protect and serve. And in this, the men and women of the Phoebus Fire Company do us proud.