Atwater Fire Department celebration looks back on 100 years of protecting the community

Atwater Fire Department. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

Atwater Township Fire Department is gearing up for its centennial celebration Sept. 10, where there will be food venders, historical apparatus, and at least one extrication demo at the fire station, allowing viewers to see how the Jaws of Life operate.

The festivities are set for 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at three locations in Atwater town center: Old School Park, 6660 Waterloo Road; at the fire station, 6570 Waterloo Road; and at Atwater Church of the Nazarene, 6720 Waterloo Road.

Weather permitting, a helicopter from University Hospitals will be on site. Portage County Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski has also been invited, as has a K-9 officer and handler.

The centennial celebration will include a cruise-in at Atwater’s Church of the Nazarene, next door to the park. Attendees can also try their luck on a 50-50 raffle which will benefit Old School Park and AFD. Themed gift baskets will also be raffled off, with those proceeds benefiting Atwater Fire Department. Children will enjoy face painting and balloon animals.

A plaque made for the centennial celebration. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

Parking is available at LifePointe Church, just west of the fire station on Waterloo Road. A shuttle will be provided to transport people to AFD and Old School Park.

“We’re looking forward to being able to celebrate this with them,” Atwater Trustee Thora Green said. “It’s 100 years of volunteer service to our community, which is amazing. The department  has grown from fire to also include ambulance service. It’s a testament to our volunteers and to our community for supporting our volunteer fire department.”

According to the Portage Remembers series, published in 2000 by Heritage Publications, O.F. Miller founded the AFD in 1922. Earl Strong served as Atwater’s first fire chief, heading a department that was housed at Brockett’s Garage, later Long’s Auto Emporium, at 6362 Waterloo Road.

Chief Strong and O.F. Miller led a group that included W.D. and H.K. Mowen, E. Harter, I.P. Chapman, O.B. Shreve, R.R. Roeder, J.H. Swisher, and Charlie Waltenberger, Portage Remembers notes.

The volunteer fire department gained its first truck, a 1922 Dodge, the next year at a cost of $1,740, according to Portage Remembers. (That’s about $31,000 today, adjusted for inflation.) The vehicle was decked out with ladders on its sides, a bell in front, and chemical tanks. Fire trucks now cost at least $250,000, and models with all the bells and whistles can rise to over a million, said EMT Lindsay Davis, AFD’s only full-time member.

From its one fire truck, AFD has grown considerably, now using two fire engines, a historical brush truck, a tanker and a pickup truck. It also has two ambulances and will take delivery of a long-anticipated third ambulance this week. When it appears, the department will sell one of its older models, Davis said.

Atwater built its first real fire station at 1315 Bank St. in 1931. Its current station at 6570 Waterloo Road was built 25 years later, Portage Remembers reports. A lady’s auxiliary was created in 1955, with Lucille Stahl as the founder and first president. They called themselves the Atwater Firettes. That group has since disbanded.

AFD fire chiefs have been Charles Waltenberger, Glenn Stahl (twice), Lester Laubert, Raymond Whittlesey, Bob Floyd, Fred Martz, Lynn Whittlesey and Melvin Russell. Tom Nellis, AFD’s current chief, has led the department since April 2020.

“We’re celebrating 100 years of protecting the people of Atwater,” Nellis said. “The men and women of the Atwater Fire Department are honored to have been able to serve residents of Atwater for the last 100 years. We appreciate the support from the residents of our community.”

Firefighting seems to be a family tradition. All in all, eight members of the Knapp family have served the AFD, and six of the Whittlesey family, Portage Remembers observes.

Jerry Donnelly became the AFD’s first certified EMT in 1977. The department acquired its first ambulance (used) in 1980, allowing AFD to offer emergency medical service for the first time.

AFD now claims 21 members, of whom 19 are firefighters. Eleven members are basic EMTs, three are paramedics, one is an advanced EMT, and two are EMRs (Emergency Medical Responder, a step below an EMT). Two of its members are poised to start basic EMT basic, and a few more plan to tackle level 2 fire certification training, Davis said.

AFD members are part-time, serving paid duty shifts, though they may volunteer to respond to emergencies from home. AFD’s duty roster usually calls for two people to be working on station from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. More members are always welcome, Davis said.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.