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Preserving our Past: Memories of the Whitefish Bay Fire Department

Members of the WFB Volunteer Fire Department, photographed in the late 1930s. Shown are: (Front Row) Fred Baumeier, Chief H. Asen, B. Praskowski, (Rear Row) Wm. Hoppenroth, F. Palmer, G. Kranich, E. Hess and O. Kugelman

Members of the WFB Volunteer Fire Department, photographed in the late 1930s. Shown are: (Front Row) Fred Baumeier, Chief H. Asen, B. Praskowski, (Rear Row) Wm. Hoppenroth, F. Palmer, G. Kranich, E. Hess and O. Kugelman

March 5, 2014

By Tom Fehring:

Based on an interview of Joseph Casal, retired Whitefish Bay Fire Chief (1951-1981). He was interviewed on June 30, 1981 by Pat Rieslbach.

Chief Joseph (Joe) Casal moved to Whitefish Bay in 1926 when he was 14 years old. His parents built a home at 1019 Barrett Place (now called Meadow Place) which ran from Kimbark Place to the Northwestern Railroad tracks. The depot for the Northwestern-Lakeshore Division Railroad  was at Silver spring Drive. There was also a depot at what is now Capital and Wilson Drives. The Chief remembers that at 4 a.m. a cattle train would stop near his home to let a passenger train go through. The cattle were lowing loudly and woke him every morning.

Chief Casal’s uncle was a railroad engineer for the Northwestern Railroad. Often, by prearrangement, young Joe’s uncle would stop his train at Barrett Place, pick Joe up and give him a ride to the Capital Drive depot. Joe would walk back home. He also walked to Shorewood High School nearly every school day for three years – getting a lift or taking the streetcar very rarely.

While Whitefish Bay was developing, there was still a farm, owned by Fred Kreuger, along the Northwestern tracks at Marlborough Drive and Hampton Avenue at the present site of Holy Family Church and School. The Casals could walk to the farm and buy produce there. (The railroad tracks were removed in 1928.) There was also a remnant of a farm remaining south of Silver spring Drive at Kent Avenue.

West of Santa Monica Boulevard, many concrete alleys had been laid, but very few homes had been built along them, and most of the roads were still dirt. Further west there was a sand and gravel pit, later filled by dumping, at the site of Bay Shore Town Center. The swampy land along Diversey Boulevard south of Hampton was also filled by dumping.

No swimming beaches had been built, but fishing was done from the rocks on the shore at Silver Spring and Henry Clay. The banks along there held spots of quick sand. As a kid, Chief Casal got stuck in some at the foot of Henry Clay; his friends extended tree branches to him and pulled him out. Around 1971, a firefighter got stuck in quick sand on the bluff near 4600 North Lake Drive.

At that time, horse drawn wagons still delivered the milk, ice and coal, and groceries from Steinmeyer’s Store. Horses also pulled the snow plows. Commercial buildings began with the Post Office on East Silver Spring Drive, where Winkies Variety Store now stands. At Danbury Road and Silver Spring, H.P, Wilke had a hardware store; some thought the “H.P.” stood for “high priced”.  ON the south side off Silver spring was an I.G.A. Grocery store run by Mr. and Mrs. Heyer who later opened a store north on Part Washington Road at Green Tree Road. At what is now 417 East Silver Spring Drive was a grocery and butcher store. A barber shop was located on Diversey. On the north side of Silver Spring was the original Whitefish Bay Tailor; it became the Whitefish Bay Tailor and Cleaner and still exists on West Silver Spring Drive as the Whitefish Bay Cleaners. Just west of the Tailor was a small store selling ice cream and such; farther west was Brand, the butcher. Next to the butcher was a home with a storefront notions shop owned by Pekofsky. The years 1941 and 1942 saw growth and many changes in the businesses on Silver Spring. The Casal family also shopped at the many small retail shops on Green Bay and Keefe Avenues and at Schuster’s Department Store on Third Street. 


 

Chief Casal graduated from Shorewood High School in 1929.  He and most of his friends found it hard to find jobs that lasted in the midst of the Depression. He was an apprentice steam fitter, worked part-time at the Gerber Garage on Henry Clay Street, and then joined the Whitefish Bay Forestry Department. He became a volunteer fireman in March, 1934.

The Whitefish Bay Volunteer Fire Department was organized on November 23, 1928. Water came from the City of Milwaukee, a pumper was needed at Montclaire Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard for adequate pressure. The minutes of the organizational meeting are attached to this record. There were 25 volunteer firefighters; the average attendance at fires was 15. Volunteers were paid $2 for each fire call. A volunteer had to own a car and a telephone – which cost $2.75 per month. The siren blasts indicated by their number the direction of the fire. In the past a volunteer auxiliary would arrive at the big fires with coffee for the firefighters. The last volunteer firefighter served in 1946.

There was an attempt to revive the volunteer force in the 1950s, but residents did not respond. Chief Casal sees the disappearance of volunteers as parallel to the drop in attendance at Whitefish Bay Village meetings. The siren and tower were dismantled in the early 1940s and sold to the Village of Hartland. In November, 1936 Chief Casal joined the professional firefighting force; he became Lieutenant in 1948 and Chief in 1951.

The Fire Department was originally located in back of the old Village Hall. It had no basement and was always cold and damp and became very cramped. The chief and other firefighters were marooned there for four days during the big (snow) storm of 1947. The Chief slept on the truck hose bed. Fred Baumeier slept on the table. They were short of food. Luckily the only fire during those days was a chimney fire on Belle Avenue east of Lake Drive. The fire truck was a 1928 model, but with tire chains on it got through the snow. Other highlights of the past include a description of burning fields on Mondays because the three foot tall grass would otherwise burn accidentally and be a danger in a wind – but the housewives who hung their laundry out on Mondays complained. In 1931, at a fire on Woodburn street south of Pandl’s Restaurant, a fire captain died of a heart attack. In 1932 or 1933, a gas meter on Circle Drive caught fire and the four inch main fed the fire – causing a total loss. Milwaukee sent a truck from Park Street and Bartlett Avenue (to help). The Chief remembers some cases of arson and one murder in 1924 or 1925 where the body was burned in a boiler.

Chief Casal shared a number of photographs from his service on the Village’s Fire Department, which are appended to this article.

 

 

The above is the minutes of the meeting that established the WFB Volunteer Fire Department

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