Past and present Imlay City Fire Department is subject of new exhibit at historical museum

IMLAY CITY — Not long after what was then called the village of Imlay was settled in 1870, the population began to grow. Just 18 months later, more than 500 people called the village their home. It also housed a school, two hotels, four general stores, two hardware stores, a furniture store, a drugstore, two carriage and blacksmith shops, a saw and planing mill, a livery stable, and an elevator.

All of those buildings, plus about 100 more, were—like all structures—at risk for fire. In 1876, a group of men hoped to reduce those risks.

The first Imlay City Fire Department was organized with William Gooding at its helm. The department consisted of a bucket brigade—a labor-intensive effort to reduce damage and whenever possible contain a fire.

Picture numerous pails of water, which were filled at a hand pump and sent down a line of men hand-to-hand. The buckets were often handed up a ladder to another crew located on top of a burning building tasked with pouring the water onto the fire.

Later, Imlay firefighters used man-pulled water tanks, which carried more water and were faster to move to a fire location. Later still, horse drawn tanks were developed, which also increased the response time.

“It is said that the first man to arrive at the engine house with his horse was the one to receive the pay for the horse,” says museum historian Marilyn Swihart.

This photo hangs on the wall of the Imlay City Historical Museum. It was taken by Life Magazine photographers, who visited Imlay City in 1949 for a feature story about the fire department. This photo was taken on M-53, looking north at the Third Street intersection.

This Saturday, residents can dive into the history of the Imlay City Fire Department, and step through its evolution to the modern day as the Imlay City Historical Museum kicks off its newest exhibit at their ‘Meet the Heroes’ event from 1-5 p.m.

The Open House and Reception features historic artifacts and photos from the department, as well as retired and current firefighters of the present day. There is no charge to attend; light refreshments will be served.

Visitors will be able to thumb through a large compilation of historic photos, including one that Swihart found both interesting and humorous.

“It’s a photo of a fireman holding a lightbulb over a bale of hay trying to find out how long it would take to ignite the hay,” Swihart explains. “The caption on the photo says ‘not too long.'”

Visitors can also learn about the fire bell—which is still visible at the Imlay City Fire Hall downtown.

“The fire bell was placed in an 8-foot steeple on the original engine house,” Swihart says. “The fire hall was taken down when the new city hall, located on the northwest corner of Almont Avenue and Fourth Street was built in 1903, with space for the fire department. The fire bell was placed on top of this new town hall…and taken down and placed in storage when sirens were installed in the building.”

In 1968 when the current fire hall was built on east Third Street, the bell was taken out of storage and placed there. In 2019 when the new hall is built, the historic bell will find its new home as well.

Also of interest are several photos and information from a 1949 visit by photographers and writers from Life Magazine.

The popular periodical of the time did an extensive feature story on Imlay City’s Fire Department.

Visitors can also take a look at fire gear used through the decades, and see a list of every person who served as the department’s chief since its inception.

The Imlay City Historical Museum is located at 77 Main Street and contains several permanent exhibits as well as numerous artifacts, hundreds of photos, vintage newspapers, tools, clothing and items that tell the story of the Imlay City area throughout the decades. Memberships are available for a nominal fee. Seasonal hours run from 1-4 p.m. every Saturday. For more information call 810-724-1111.