One hundred and fifteen years before the present Rockville Volunteer Fire Department came into existence, fire protection for the small Village of Rockville was considered by the Maryland General Assembly. In 1806, the Assembly authorized a lottery to raise money for the purchase of a fire engine for Rockville . It is unknown if the Lottery was ever held or a Fire Engine bought for the Village of Rockville . However as the Village grew and with it the threat of fire, the protection and safety of the citizens was always considered.
Through the efforts of RVFD Life Member Timothy C. Jones, the following information has been gathered from the records of the Commissioners of the Village of Rockville and latter the Minutes of the Mayor and Council meetings. This information shows the efforts of the elected officials to protect the citizens from fire until the present Rockville Volunteer Fire Department was organized March 16, 1921 .
History of Rockville
Rockville is one of Maryland ‘s oldest towns, with its origins dating back to Colonial America. During Revolutionary times Rockville was known as Hungerford’s Tavern the name of its most familiar landmark. One of the first calls to freedom from British rule was heard at the tavern in 1774 when a group of patriots met to consider the latest British outrage – the closing of the port of Boston. They issued a series of resolves condemning the Boston blockade, calling for a boycott of trade with Great Britain until the blockade was lifted, and selecting delegates to attend Maryland ‘s general committee of correspondence in Annapolis – one of the meetings which led to the First Continental Congress.
When Montgomery County was formed by a division of Frederick County in 1776, Rockville served as the county seat and gradually became known as Montgomery Court House. In the 1780s, the community was known as Williamsburg , the last of its names before its designation as Rockville . At that time, Rockville was little more than a cluster of homes, a tavern, a courthouse, and a jail.
In 1801, the Maryland General Assembly changed the name of the town to Rockville because of its location close to Rock Creek. Rockville remained small during the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The population grew from 200 in 1800 to 400 in 1846. Rockville became incorporated in 1860 and was governed by three commissioners until 1888, when the city’s 400 residents elected the first Mayor and Council. The first big change in the town’s status began in 1873. The metropolitan branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad came to Rockville , and frequent trains started going to and from Washington and the brand new B & O station each day.
On March 3rd 1873 , a fire destroyed the Rockville Presbyterian Church. According to the minutes of the village commissioners of March 4, 1873, by motion of Mr. Prettyman it is “ Ordered that Mr. Green make or cause to be made six ladders for the use of the Corporation (village), three long and three short ones. The latter with iron hooks attached. The length, respectively, to be left to his [Mr. Green’s] judgment. And that one of each size be placed in the center and at both ends of the village and also so placed at these points as is the judgment of the President of this Board, they will be most accessible when require and least exposed to the weather.”
On August 28th, 1888 the new Mayor and Council directed “The Clerk…to ask the Domestic Fire Engine and Pump Company to bring one of their engines here on Monday September 10 th next and give a test or exhibition of its power. The Council is to be at no expense for transportation. Also to write to the Corporate authorities of Ellicott City as to what protection they have against fire.”
The Mayor and Council further ordered at their Nov. 9th 1888 meeting that: “On motion it is ordered that the Clerk buy three Domestic Fire Engines from the Manufacturer in Washington and one hundred feet of hose for each Engine and is authorized to pay $202.50 for the same. The Mayor, the Bailiff and the Supervisor are appointed as a Committee to select places to stow the Engines and ladders.”
The minutes of the December 3rd 1888 meeting of the Mayor and Council mentions a fire at Carrs Stable and that a group of men were appointed by the Mayor as Special Watchman and paid $1.00 each. In addition, the minutes contain a report from the special committee on placement of the previously purchased fire engines that “the most available place is to build a shed for them in the vacant space in back of Town Hall and the Supervisor is so ordered to take charge of the Engines until such place for them is built.”
During the next seven years there is no mention in the City records of any Fire Department related business until May 21st, 1895 when the Howe Pump and Engine Company submitted a “ proposition for exhibition of a fire engine in your City with a view of selling it if found satisfactory.”
The pumping engine consisted of a “#5 Suburban engine with two seven inch brass cylinders with a six and a half inch stroke capacity, four to six barrels a minute. And an 80 (about) gallon copper tank for a chemical hose basket.” The proposal also included a hose reel with 500 feet of two and one half inch rubber lined cotton fire hose and a four wheel ladder wagon; all for a price of $1500.00, FOB Rockville .
On May 21st 1895 a special meeting was held and it was duly moved and seconded that “the Mayor and Council purchase a Howe combination Chemical and Water Fire Engine of the Howe Pump and Engine Company of Indianapolis .”
The Mayor and City Council accepted the new fire apparatus from the Howe Pump and Fire Engine Company on August 31st, 1895 . They also appointed James P.B. Viers as Chief Fire Marshall and directed him to organize a Volunteer Fire Company.
Various Fire Companies
Historical records research also indicates that in 1905 there may have been another Fire Company in Rockville consisting entirely of African-Americans, with George Meads as their Chief Fire Marshall.
Also during 1905, the Mayor and Council received a letter from Sandy Spring Fire Insurance Company indicating that the Company may be induced into donating money for fire hose for Rockville . The Mayor and Council then directed the clerk to solicit others doing business in Rockville for donations. The clerk was also directed to buy 500 feet of “Paragon” hose from James Boyd and Brothers of Philadelphia, PA and a hose reel for same.
The Fire Company that was organized in 1895 seems to have been a failure since on December 20, 1916 , W.S. Ward, and W.B. Carr appeared before the Mayor and Council “stating they were endeavoring to organize a volunteer fire company” and asked permission to use the Town’s fire equipment. Permission was granted, but the Council directed that the Bailiff must be present when the Fire Apparatus was used and to make sure that it was put away.
Great Fire of 1921
On a bleak, raw, February night in 1921, the wind-swept streets of Rockville were as quiet and deserted as only streets in a small community on a dark, cold night can be. John Collins ran a store on East Montgomery Avenue, near the town center; the Collins Family lived above the store on the second floor, as was common.
The town hall, a great barn of a building that stood opposite the Maryland National Bank, was deserted. So was the small shed behind the building, which housed the small hand drawn, two-wheeler and hose that made up Rockville ‘s Fire Department.
Suddenly, where there had been silence, there came a frantic call. “FIRE!” It rang out in the night and split the darkness. John Collins’ store was on fire! How it started no one knew. But flames slashed, lanced, mounted and pushed toward the sky.
George Meads, the deputy sheriff in Rockville , was also the Chief of the little fire department. He did as the chief always did to summon the volunteers: walked into the street and fired his pistol in the air. Meads and “Dibby” Herbert manned the two-wheeler and the woefully inadequate hose.
The pistol brought the volunteers, the neighbors, and the bucket brigades, but these things weren’t enough. For a time, it was believed that the whole block would go despite the valiant efforts of the volunteers and the townspeople. A call went to the District of Columbia for help and the big city sent men and modern equipment. When dawn came the fire was in check. The danger of it spreading to the dry, old buildings in the block had past. But of John Collins’ store there was little left except smoking, smoldering ruins.
The next day, and for days after, the people of the town thought seriously of what would have happened if help had not of come from below the District line. Bill Burrows operated his barber shop just a few doors from Collins’ store and there was a lot of talk in his shop about what ought to be done. Burrows went to the town council and asked that a volunteer fire department be formed.
At a meeting organized by Bill Burrows on March 9, 1921 , fifty-one men gathered at the office of the Potomac Electric Power Company to form the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. That night, officers were elected and a committee was appointed to raise funds for the department. The first officers were President Dr. O.M. Linthicum, Vice President C.H. Robertson, Secretary-Treasurer Bache Abert, Engineer W.F. Disney, and Chief Joseph Howes. William Prettyman was named chairman of the committee designated to canvas house-to-house for funds.
On March 16th 1921 , Messrs. J.H Ward, Clarence Anders, W.S. Ward, and W.F Disney appeared before the Mayor and Council to speak about the recently organized Fire Company. Mr. Robertson acted as spokesman for the delegation and outlined to the Council what steps have been taken by the organization to that point. The Mayor and Council passed a resolution approving their plans and the Clerk was ordered to send a copy of the resolution to the Fire Company
Organizational efforts of the new Rockville Volunteer Fire Department were moving along at a rapid pace since the March 9th meeting. During the Mayor and Council meeting on December 7th 1921, Dr. Geo. E. Lewis and Messrs. Disney, Hoellman and Wilson appeared before the Council as a committee from the Rockville VFD to request the Town assist the fire department in the purchase if a fire engine. The Mayor stated that during its seven months of existence, the fire department had raised about $2,000, $1400 of which had already been expended towards the purchase of fire apparatus and the installation if a fire alarm system in the Town.
A motion was made and approved to “Obligate the Town to an amount not to exceed $3000.00 towards the purchase of an Engine.”
On December 16th, 1921 a Special Meeting of the Mayor and Council was held. Mr. Fred Waterous of the Waterous Fire Engine Company was present and offered a contract containing specifications of the Waterous Fire Engine and Terms of Payment. Motion made and approved to accept the terms and purchase the Waterous fire engine.
By January 1922, RVFD had, through dinners, donations, and a contribution from the city, raised $3,800 for the Model-T Ford- Waterous engine.
Only six people were allowed to ride on the Model-T in times of emergency and to prevent an argument, a ring system was developed. The first man to arrive after the siren sounded, grabbed the red ring, earning the coveted driver’s seat. The second man would grab the blue ring for the next most popular position, the officer’s seat. The remaining four men would grab white rings, signifying riding the back step. The rest would follow in their own cars. Competition never waned.
W. Valentine Wilson was Chief of RVFD from 1931 to 1952. Prior to the inception of a central county fire alarm call center, fire calls were phoned directly to Chief Wilson’s home. It is said that Mrs. Wilson waited until the Chief was heading down the street before she pushed the button that set off the siren; so that Chief Wilson always grabbed the red ring.
As the years passed the Fire Department grew and became very active in the Community. During budget meetings, the Town Council, would make contributions to the newly formed Fire Company. Although the Department was an independent organization, it appears that the Mayor and Council still had some control over where the Waterous fire engine could go.
During a Mayor and Council meeting in June 1923, “Permission was given to the Rockville Volunteer Fire Dept. to take the fire engine to Frederick on the day before the parade to be held in Frederick during the Fireman’s Convention and return with the same the day following the said parade.”
RVFD representative Mr. F. B. Welsh appeared before the Council on October 16, 1926 and urged them to convey to the Department the title etc. to all fire equipment now in possession of the Town. A motion was passed and the Mayor and Clerk were authorized to convey to the Rockville VFD all fire equipment then in possession of the Town and were authorized to sign the following bill of sale. “In consideration of its promise to furnish to the Town of Rockville fire protection, the Mayor and Council of the Town of Rockville hereby sells to the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. the three certain fire engines together with all fire hose, nozzles and firefighting equipment belonging to the Town of Rockville and now is in possession of said Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. In witness and by authority of a resolution passed at a regular meeting of the said Mayor and Council of Rockville held on the sixth day of October nineteen hundred and twenty six, said corporation has caused these presents to be signed by its Mayor and attested by its Clerk this 6th day of October, A.D. 1926”
The Mayor and Council forgave the debt for the Waterous fire engine and also turned over the Fire Apparatus that was purchased from the Howe Pump and Engine Company in 1895.
For the first few years of its existence, the RVFD stored the fire apparatus in a basement garage of the County courthouse, still standing and known as the old Red Brick Courthouse. (link to photo here). The first station was built on Perry St. across from the courthouse about where the current driveway is on the Maryland Ave. side of the building. The tower of the courthouse housed the fire department siren until 1966.
Over the years, the Department added other capabilities in addition to the engines. These included an ambulance in the late 1940’s and a rescue truck in the early 1950’s.
In 1948, the Department began discussion on building a new station. Due to the world situation at the time; the Korean War was ongoing and construction materials were somewhat scarce, this new building was delayed. The Department did add another bay to the rear of the building and made a number of renovations.
As the City of Rockville grew, it became apparent that more fire protection was necessary. In 1963, the Department built a station on Rollins Ave. on the southern side of the City. An engine and ambulance were placed in service and later, in 1973 an aerial ladder. The station currently houses an engine, aerial ladder, medic unit and ambulance.
Due to the growth in the city and because of planned urban redevelopment, RVFD was forced to find new quarters. In 1966, the current headquarters station on Hungerford Dr. was opened. This large, four bay station continues to serve the citizens. Shortly after the station was opened, the Department added another ladder truck to its fleet to be housed at the new station. The Hungerford Dr. station currently houses two engines, a rescue engine, a rescue squad, ladder truck, medic unit and ambulance. Designed as a station where most of the members responded from home for alarms, the Department now operates with full crews on duty in the station. Having outgrown the small living quarters, the Department is currently in the design stage of a full station renovation. The design of the new station is meant to complement the design criteria of the town center redevelopment and to evoke the Department’s history. The rounded bay doors reflect the design from the first station and the tower reflects the courthouse tower.
As the Rockville area continued to grow, RVFD added another station in the Potomac area on Falls Rd. in 1970. That station housed, and continues to house, an engine, ambulance and a brush truck.
Further growth led to Montgomery County constructing a temporary station operated by RVFD at Shady Grove Rd. and Darnestown Rd. in 1981. A permanent station was constructed on Darnestown Rd. in the vicinity of Quince Orchard Rd. in 1989. That station houses an engine, ladder truck, medic unit, tanker, brush truck and the County’s Urban Search and Rescue Team’s equipment.
Continued growth will likely see another station constructed on the grounds of the Fire and Rescue Training Academy on Great Seneca Hwy within the next three years and within the next ten years, near the intersection of Frederick Rd. and Shady Grove Rd.
Organized with 51 men in 1921, the RVFD now has a diverse complement of over 270 volunteers supported by almost 100 Montgomery County career firefighters. Our call volume has increased tremendously over the years, from the 1920’s where the Department responded to about 200 incidents a year to the present, where we responded to 24,910 incidents in 2010.