Algonquin Highlands cottager Jimmy Holmstrom was one of dozens to stop by the Stanhope Firefighters Hall Sept. 2 as the station celebrated 50 years of fire and rescue in the community.
Volunteer firefighters were on hand at the station, located on North Shore Road, for the open house and BBQ Saturday, celebrating the special milestone. Robert Sargent, who has 18 years of service, took visitors on tours of the facility, showing off old and new firefighting equipment. He said the event was a nice way to honour the department and its members for the years of service.
“This is a major milestone, and we had no intention of just letting it pass by without some sort of celebration,” Sargent said. “When this department was launched, it was run by the community for the community, and I think that still rings true today.”
Holmstrom said he was visiting to show his appreciation after firefighters saved his property from certain destruction in 2020.
“A Hydro One transponder blew on the corner of Hwy. 35 and North Shore Road. The bush on three sides of my cottage was on fire – I got a call from a neighbour telling me my place was up in flames, and that I’d lost it,” Holmstrom, who lived permanently in Toronto at the time, told The Highlander.
He immediately hopped in his truck and made a beeline up Hwy. 407. He called the Algonquin Highlands Fire Department for an official assessment of the damage, but all firefighters were out tackling the blaze. When chief Mike French returned his call a short time later, Holmstrom was fearing the worst.
“I almost didn’t want to pick up, but when I did, the chief told me ‘we’ve saved your place’. They were able to contain the fire before it reached my property. I have no idea how they did it, but there wasn’t a mark on the place. The land all around was scorched, but the building itself was untouched,” Holmstrom said.
“I’m very grateful to the wonderful firefighters we have in this community,” he added.
A brief history
The department was established in January 1973 at the direction of the old Stanhope et al township council. The first chief was Dick Kinsman, who trained and worked with an initial group of 20 volunteer firefighters. By June, the first fire truck had arrived, and the fire hall finished.
Back then there was no 911, so an emergency fire dispatch system was launched, with phone lines put in at the fire hall, the township office, and five private residences – operated by a group of women who became known as the ‘fire phone ladies’. These women were never paid yet handled all emergency calls until 2004.
Former Algonquin Highlands mayor Carol Moffatt, whose husband, Tony Aymong, has been a volunteer at Stanhope for more than 40 years, has compiled an extensive history of the department, some of which is currently on show at the Stanhope Heritage Museum.
During her research, Moffatt found the township had been budgeting for fire services since 1968, committing $1,800 between then and 1971. The department’s first fire truck was purchased for just over $28,000, with a second three-quarter ton panel truck added for $2,950 in 1975. By 1985, the annual budget had grown to approximately $38,000.
That money covered operational expenses only, with the firefighters themselves raising additional funds to pay for equipment. Potluck dinners, fundraiser dances, and popular events such as the Stanhope Triathlon were held to bring in money for things like uniforms, helmets, and breathing apparatus.
The Stanhope department was amalgamated with outposts in Dorset and Oxtongue Lake in 2000 under the umbrella of the Algonquin Highlands Fire Services.
‘Making a difference’
The fire department is a much different place today than when John Hogg joined in 1978.
“I’ve seen lots of change, but it’s all been good. This station has always been very good in terms of maintaining staffing, and making sure it’s very well equipped,” said Hogg, who was chief in Stanhope from 1998 to 2000, and then of the amalgamated Algonquin Highlands department until 2013.
While he retired from regular service a decade ago, Hogg still maintains a presence at Station 80. He volunteers at open houses and will attend the odd medical emergency.
“My promise is I will not get in the way,” Hogg says with a chuckle. “I still enjoy being involved, and doing whatever I can to make somebody’s day a little better. Almost always, you’re responding to people in their greatest hour of need.”
Sargent said one of the better changes to have been implemented in recent times was the introduction of a new mental health program.
“Years ago, people were encouraged to deal with things themselves. You weren’t supposed to talk about the things you’d seen, how it might have impacted you. Now, everything is wide open. We tell all new recruits if they have any problem at all, to talk to us and we will get them the help they need,” Sargent said.
Earlier this year the township brought in a grief counselor after a former colleague passed away, which helped several people, Sargent said.
Captain Ken Cox has been with the department for seven years. He said being a volunteer firefighter is his dream job.
“I’m fortunate that I get to work with some amazing folks here – you open yourself up to a whole new life when you become a firefighter. It broadens your social bubble and, for me at least, has enhanced so many parts of my life,” Cox said.
He was more than happy to volunteer at the weekend open house, feeling it’s important to connect with the community and show them what goes on behind the proverbial curtain. He said it was mostly young families that attended. He felt it was important, too, to recognize the work of those who came before him and celebrate 50 years of fire services in Stanhope.
“It’s a lot of years of heartaches and bad times, but the fire department is here to make folk’s bad times a little less negative. I think we do a good job of that,” he added.
The Stanhope department is looking for new volunteers. Anyone interested can learn more at algonquinhighlands.ca/ourcommunity/fire-services.