By Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
In search of history, a researcher often discovers more questions than answers. Last spring, public history graduate students began the initial legwork of researching the history of the Stillwater Fire Department, Police Department, Ambulance Service and Civil Defense for the upcoming “First Responders” exhibit scheduled to open Thursday, September 23, 2010 at the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History. This summer, one of those students, John Withers, continued the search and while uncovering fascinating facts and personalities he also discovered a few mysteries along the way.
During his research, Withers discovered that during World War II when the majority of men were shipping out to serve overseas, college and high school young women stepped up to serve as volunteer firefighters in Stillwater. According to a photograph of the young women holding a fire hose in the February 1944 issue of The A and M College Magazine the coed fire fighting squad included Annabelle Rea, Laurice Bailey, Betty Joe Kerby (Assistant Fire Chief), Lora Belle Darrow, Bonnie Beth Darrow, Mary Jo Baird, Esther Schaller Darrow, Isabelle Griebel, and Annabelle Fowler Thomas. Were there more who participated? Another photo found of a young woman sitting on the front bumper of a fire truck is identified as Darlene Adams. The A and M College Magazine article also mentions Junior Co-Eds from the High School, but none of their names—so there must be more. But who were they and where are the young women–named and unnamed–in the article now?
Stillwater Fire Chief J. Ray Pence carefully selected the young women for the program. They went through the same training that the men did—training that was compared to military boot camp. During one of the final tests before becoming firefighters, the women were required to successfully remove and replace their face masks while being locked in a chamber filled with poisonous gas.
The Co-Ed Volunteer Firefighters served successfully and were respected by the community and even received national recognition. Co-Ed Volunteer Fire Chief Betty Joe Kerby was the first woman to attend the National Fire Department Instructors’ Conference as a delegate. It is believed that Stillwater’s success with the program inspired the discussion of women as firefighters across the nation
Withers also discovered a mention of Junior Coed Firefighters–high school girls who also received firefighting training and served the community. Withers and Museum Staff are still in search of any additional information available about the Junior and the Collegiate Coed Firefighters. Where are these women now? What was their experience serving Stillwater as Fire Fighters like? What was the response of the citizens of Stillwater to their service?
Another mystery is the location of the cornerstone from Fire Station No. 1. The Oklahoma State University Fire Protection School has information that the original cornerstone from the first Fire Station was salvaged and turned into the base of a bird bath at a home somewhere in Stillwater. A photograph of the bird bath exists but the location or owner is unknown. Fire Station No. 1 was located at the corner of 9th and Lewis Street where a historical marker describing the landmark now resides. The first Fire School training classes were held at the location—training classes that eventually led to the establishment of Oklahoma State University’s highly respected Fire Protection School, a school often referred to as a “national treasure” and the “West Point” of Fire Protection training.
Can you or someone you know help us learn more—and in the process, build a greater appreciation of the history and significant contributions of Stillwater’s First Responders to the community? If you have any information about any of these mysteries, please contact the museum at (405) 377-0359 or email at [email protected].