Gerald Pepper has been with the Roxana Volunteer Fire Company for 50 years – since its conception. Pepper is a charter member of the fire company and has held the position of its president, vice-president and chief, and he was the company’s very first secretary and treasurer. He was 27 years old when he attended the interest meeting held on Feb. 12, 1960, at the Golden Eagle Lodge in Roxana.
“Wilson Wilgus owned a service station,” he recalled, “and there were a lot of guys sitting around the stove in there 50 years ago, just talking about starting a fire company. I can’t recall any major fire or anything, but the idea was floating around. He got on the phone and called everybody he could think of, and we held the first meeting. And that’s what got it rolling,” said Pepper.
The fire company’s first fundraiser was a rummage sale, for which they received all kinds of furniture, appliances and farm equipment. Walter Wimbrow offered the company the use of the old Roxana schoolhouse, which he owned, to house the sale.
“When we started, we collected scrap iron and tin. And, back in those days, just about every farmer had a pile of junk back in the woods on his farm – you know, equipment that he didn’t need. And we hauled junk and cars, and we had a big pile back here.
“On Sundays, we would head out and start hauling,” Pepper recalled, “and Wilson Wilgus has a wrecker. It was a mountain of scrap back there, but that was probably one of our first fundraisers.”
Pepper said their efforts to raise money for the new venture were successful.
“When you consider the price of things 50 years ago, to take in $330 dollars from furniture and stuff people had donated, and another $350 for scrap iron, was a good sum of money.”
The company would later buy the schoolhouse from Wimbrow, for just $2,000. The members began work on the school immediately, to prepare it for its new use as a fire hall.
“We were here every night. And we started with that old schoolhouse, and what we did was cut a hole in it. That was our first truck bay,” said Pepper. “And we were out there every night, and we did all the work. We didn’t hire anybody. We tore the floor out and everything else and put that door in, and that’s how we started.
“And then in 1969 we build the other and, of course, in 1999 – I took pictures just about every day when we tore the old down and built the new. We did save the dining hall and kitchen. Everything else went. All this is new in ’99,” he pointed out of the company’s current fire hall.
As for its original equipment, the Roxana Volunteer Fire Company was able to purchase a used 1939 GMC pumper from the Indian River Fire Company for $1,300.
“I think I’m just so proud of the fact that we put up $10 apiece to get started, and that was everything we had. So what we’ve come to today – nowadays, when you get a new truck, after you put all the equipment in it that you need, it’s a million bucks. I mean, it’s amazing,” Pepper stated.
The early members of the RVFC were quite ingenious in equipping the nascent fire company. Their first tanker truck was not actually a tanker. The company purchased an Army surplus truck and a 1,800-gallon fuel tank used in fuel-transport planes – each for a dollar, recalled Pepper. The men just made it work.
“Well, we just had a bunch of guys here. We had a lot of people here. As my father said, a lot of barnyard sense, common sense. We just worked together. We had to. We didn’t have a lot of money, you know,” Pepper said.
The company’s first rescue trucks were originally Rehoboth Dairy trucks that the men purchased and converted. They did something similar for their first light truck, as well.
“Mr. Lynch had a metro bus that they delivered biddies in, to the chicken house from where they’re hatched in the hatchery. That was in the woods over there, junked,” Pepper recalled. “And the guys dug it out, and we made a light truck out of it. There were lights on top, and it had a generator in the side that could start and light the scene up,” he explained.
The first fire Pepper remembers responding to is one he recalls as being an embarrassing moment for the company.
“The one I remember is Mr. Lynch had an outbuilding on fire, and all we had was the old 1939 GMC we bought from Indian River – a used fire truck. It originally came from Easton, Md. – and it wouldn’t start! And Mr. Lynch was about the only guy that gave us a $100 donation. Everyone was $10 or $15, and he gave us $100. And we had to call Selbyville. It was very embarrassing, I remember that,” Pepper said.
The Roxana Volunteer Fire Company has come a long way since their first meeting and those early responses with their make-do equipment. They now have multiple engines and other pieces of equipment, as well as a second station on Route 54.
“When we started, in the phonebook there were three numbers, and if you had an emergency, you called one of the three until somebody answered,” recalled Pepper. “We ran wires underground, and we put a push-button by their phone, and they could push the button and the siren would go off. And we would come flying out of here, and they’d come over and tell us where it was. That’s before they had the callboard.”
After 50 years as a volunteer firefighter with the RVFC, Pepper has seen it all and done just as much.
“I love it. It’s part of my life,” he said. “You know, how many times in life do you get to become a part of something from zero – nothing – and watch it do this? It’s amazing how far it’s come. It really is.”
The Roxana Volunteer Fire Company will be celebrating their 50th anniversary of service and support to the community on May 1, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at their station located at 35943 Zion Church Road in Roxana. For more information, visit www.roxana90.com or call (302) 436-2300.