My 50 Years in the Fire Service

This page is a interview with Fire Chief Thomas English who was the Fire Chief at Springfield Fire department from 1958-1972.  The interview was conducted by Fire Chief David Greer when he became Fire Chief in 1972.

We would like to Thank Fire Chief David Greer for preserving history by conducting this written interview.

I will go back to the year of 1910 when we lived in Nashville, Tennessee.  My Father:James J. English, had come to Springfield work for Perry and Bell, Contractors.  They were building the "Poole" building, where the Cato's store is presently.  One day when we lived in Nashville, there was a tree that had caught on fire by lighting right in front of our house.  The fire engine came racing down the street,  throwing smoke and sparks.  It was being pulled by three fine horses.  The firemen put the fire out quickly, and this was when  I think the "bug"hit me.  Again this was in Nashville Tennessee: a much larger town than Springfield, and one of the few cities that had a fire engine in the year 1910.

 In April of 1910, we all gathered out in the middle of the street to watch Halley's comet cross the sky. It looked like a big ball of fire, with a long tail of light trailing it.  Several people thought it might be the end of the world.  Some of the people were frightened, and others were laughing.  In October 1910, we moved to Springfield.

 In 1910 on the train arriving at the depot in Springfield, my father met my mother where the depot is now located.  She had with her, six children, Mary, Frank, Thomas, Ann Elizabeth, William and our younger sister was born here in Springfield, and her name was Emma.  Father loaded us in a two seated surrey driven by Mr. Davis Bell, who later became my boss as Commissioner of Fire.  We stopped at the Old Albion House Hotel, (this is where the White McClanahan building is now), on the square for lunch.  We then walked down 5th Avenue East, known as "pulltight hill", across a wooden bridge, (a swinging bridge) that crossed Black Branch.  We crossed on over to Brown Street to the house we rented, across from the Cook Place ( This is where Jesse Holman Jones hospital is now).

I have lived in Springfield ever since, and watched it grow to be a fine City it is now, with some of the finest people for friends and neighbors anywhere.  When we first took a look at the streets, with their step stones at walkways I marveled at the way the horses could travel so fast between the cobblestones without breaking the buggy and wagon wheels, or even crippling themselves.

About two years after we had moved here, I remember one night the sky was red, as the Randolph House burned.  Also that year: 1912, Moore's Barn where the Dollar Store is, burned the first time.  It looked like the whole town was on fire.  My parents would not let me come uptown to watch it burn.  There was another store fire about that time: the Wilk's Glover Company.  We have had several fires uptown, but Springfield has been fortunate that only lone buildings burned one at a time, keeping fires small and contained within the original building.

I started my career as a fireman at the age of 15, when the old fire bell was located on the square in back of Farmers Supply Store, and the old "Wildcat" whistle at the power house would send out the alarm.  Before the First World, I ran to a shed on 15th Avenue to meet one of the dray wagons.  They were driven by Mr. Lee, Mr. C.H. Hancock, or Mr. Pop Webb.  We stored two wheel hose carts there, and there was another hose cart housed on the square at the bell tower.  It was my job to hold down the hose cart on back of the dray wagon on the way to the fire.

We didn't have many fireplugs at that time, but the Volunteers as firemen were good with what they had to work with.  The Volunteers at that time were: Mr. Rias Goodwin Sr., George England, Walter Wilkerson, Burgess Ridge, Clifford Couts, The Telephone Boys, Shorty Spears, Al Denton, Clyde Cutrell, Delvren Vardell, Clark Tomerline, Louis Draughon, and Charlie Reddick.  I was holding the hose cart down while riding on back of the dray wagon from the shed on 15th Avenue, where Carter Lumber Company is now.  I met another kid who came to fires with his Dad, and we became life-long friends.  His dad was Rias Harrison Goodwin Jr.

About 1920, the building located where the Dollar Store is burned.  It was caused by a gasoline wagon in the driveway between the tire store and the Qualls Motor Company.  So, it was at that time the Commissioners bought our first fire engine; an American Lafrance  with chain drive wheels, a midship pump, a soda-acid extinguisher tank, booster reel, hose and hose bed, a big brass bell hand crank siren, and right-hand drive.  It was the finest piece of equipment at that time.  All the City Fathers and the Firemen were at the railroad to see it delivered sometime in 1921 on a flat car.  It was around that time when Mr. Tomerline was transferred to Mississippi, and Mr. Heyward Mason took the Chief's position for a while.  Delwyn Vardell was the Assistant Chief, Lewis Draughon, Clyde Cutrell, Charlie Reddick, Cloud Thompson, and the men mentioned earlier all have gone or are deceased, except Mr. Vardell, who lives in Nashville. Mr. Riddick, Draughon and Couts who live here in Springfield are still my good friends. 

The first big fire answered by our new engine was a lumber and fertilizer house along the railroad below Richard Street.  They housed the new fire engine first at the Hotspot Motor Company on 5th Avenue East, then it went to Barber Motor Company on North Main Street, and also spent some time at Batts Buick Company on the property owner by the City Street Department now.

In the Spring of 1923 while I was working for Coca-Cola on 10th Avenue West, one Sunday Morning I was repairing and washing my truck when Mr. Couts and I heard the fire bell blow.  The engine was coming down Main Street, but the Dixie Flyer was across Main Street, blocking it for several minutes.  About five minutes to be exact.  We followed it out South Main Street.  Not knowing where the fire was, the engine had stopped in front of my house, which was burning.... My Brother and I had a 1918 Model T Ford parked beside the house so we had to push it away quickly.  Mr. Vardell had to leave the Church to drive the fire engine.  In those days, so much time was lost while the Operator was found after the call was put in, to the telephone officer or Police Station.  

The neighbors wanted to help us, so they carried the furniture hurriedly and dropped it in the yard, doing more damage than if they had left it in the house.  They even ripped the old wall telephone from the house and threw it in the yard.  Water pressure was scarce, and the mains small, and we only had one little standpipe tank on Fourth Avenue at Cheatham Park School ground.  We now have three large storage tanks, one on 15th Avenue, one on 8th Avenue, and the latest on 17th Avenue East, besides the water Plant storage on North Memorial Blvd., on Sulfur Fork Creek, and the Wartrace lake for back-up supply.  The City hired Claude Thompson full time to drive the fire engine in the daytime, and Will Ragland at night.  They moved to G.S. Moore building on 8th Avenue & South Main Street, and stayed at that location until 1931.  Then Chief Tomlerine moved across Main Street, next to the Storage Battery, where it was when I came to work for the Springfield Fire Department.

When Mr John E. Garner, Mr. Joe Calloway, and Mr. N.W. Watson were elected in 1933, they Organized a paid fire department.  Frank Murphy was named Fire Chief.   Will Ragland, John Ridge, and Me, Tom English were the Personnel on a eight hour shift.

One day we found the soda-acid tank had leaked onto the fire hose, damaging it, so we drilled into the pump housing to connect it to a booster pump to use water pressure by the engine.  In October 1933, the Springfield Fire Department moved to a new building (remodeled) on 7th Avenue, where the Department stayed until November 22nd 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Commissioners J. Travis Price, Richard (Dick) Roark, and Eugene Beck Sr., leased a building on 10th Avenue East, until they bought it for a permanent home for the Department.  The old fire engine had a long and useful life, until 1938, when we ordered a second fire engine.  Commissioners Garner, Rudolph, and Watson approved the order.  It was the latest Peter Pirsch, which is still used as a back up today.

The City Fathers decided and agreed to sell the Old 1921 American Lafrance fire engine to a Mr. John Garrott of Gallatin Tennessee.  This was around 1957.  I hated to see it leave Springfield.  It was later sold to Mr Vorhees of Huntsville, Alabama, who restored it to be as original as possible.  The painting and the running condition of the old fire engine was restored also.  Mr. Vorhees contacted me by mail one day, and he said he wanted the history of the old fire engine.  He wanted to know if we had the ladders that went to the engine.  These ladders were partially burned up at a fire, when Kempers Loose Floor burned and collapsed.  I understand that he shipped our old engine to Baltimore, Maryland to a museum in his hometown.  I hope we can do the same for our old 1938 Pirsch fire engine before long.  Its history will be great.  So I say, save it for the children, and they will cherish it here for a long time to come.  This would be a nice gift from the city.  

The "regular" department as we know, was put into action in 1933.  I started July, 1st 1933 and that was 39 years ago.  I have seen many men come and go in the fire department.  In 1936, one man was added, so that made it two men on duty at all times.  They were working 11 hours a day, and 13 hours at night.  This man that they hired was named Mr. Landon Hall.  In 1937 Mr. Ragland left the Fire Department and Jimmy Apple was hired.  In 1939, Mr Everett Covington, Robert Randolph, and Mrs. Byron Johnson were elected Commissioners.  They appointed Mr. John Ridge as Fire Chief, and me, Tom English, Assistant Chief.  Mr. Frank Murphy was released....Soon Chief Ridge gave up the Chief job, They then made Will Ragland Chief of the Department it was at that time we started having BIG fires.  First we lost several houses on Richard Street.  No water pressure and that Winter of 1940, the coldest weather we had was in January.  It was very cold.  Qualls Motor Company caught on fire on a Saturday night. Mr George Barbees house on North Main Street caught on fire on Sunday, then on Monday morning, the coldest day in history that I can remember, the temperature was 17 degrees below zero!  The Security Federal bank on the South side of the square burned.  The engine pump froze up, and we had to use city water pressure from the plug, and return the engine to the fire hall.  The hose and ladders had ice all over them, and the mens coats and hats were iced over also.  Firefighting was handicapped as the hose froze to the ground.  In 1941, Mr. Edgar Powell was elected Mayor, and Mr. Will Hayes Commissioner.  There was not much going on, just routine calls.  In 1943 Mr. John Browder became Mayor again.  Mr. Will Haynes was elected fire commissioner again.  They rehired Mr. Frank Murphy as Chief.  Mr. Will Ragland transferred to the Police Department.  Mr. Richard Roark, our present fire commissioner, worked as a fireman for a while and transferred to the Police Department.

War Clouds were forming, and the War was on, the building on Fort Campbell was underway, and they needed firemen, and they visited firemen looking for experience.  So, I went to Fort Campell for eight months, then I returned to the Department when John Ridge went to the Army in May of 1942.  Mr. Charlie Perry replaced me on the Department here.  Then Jim Apple left for Fort Campbell.  Several men worked there the next few years, including Mr. Warren Mayo, and others as the War was on.  In 1943, we had one of the biggest fires, the Planters Loose Floor on South Main Street.  The soldiers were camped here, so they helped us fight the fire all night.  When the War ended, some of the fireman were released from military service.  So, Chief Murphy added more men; James Apple and Arnold Holland.  It was at that time we went on a 24 Hour shift.  24 Hours on 24 Hours off.  No extra large fires and things were about normal.  We had 100 or more calls per year.

About 1948 we added three more men.  Jim Violette Jack Osborne, and Delbert Jones.  We had a bad Winter in 1951.  We had lots of fires and frozen hose.  Jim Violette left the Department to move to Adairville, Kentucky.  Thomas Warren was hired in his place, but he didn't stay long, so Mr. Earland Wix was hired and he is still with us.  Mr. Violette returned and George Bradley was added making the department better manned.  Also Mr Kermit Wooden was hired.  Mr Murphy retired on account of his health.  Mr Landon Hall became the Chief of the Department.  At that time we had trouble with small boys setting tobacco warehouses on fire.  They set Kempers Loose Floor, Moore Chambliss Loose Floor, and then they burned Dibbrill Brothers down.  THen about 1954 the Morton Furniture Company burned on South Main Street, and the smoke from that burning building covered the City like a blanket.  We had to have help from the Nashville Fire Department.  We were able to save the Bell Dowlen Mill, and other property.  Then after a while things started letting up except for the small fires.

In 1956 Mr. John R. Long and commissioners ordered a new Mack fire engine, and that was the latest thing in equipment at that time.  In the Thirties on the lighter side of firefighting and memories were the people who visited the fire hall to play checkers and cards, like the late Dr. W.B. Dye, and his partner Dr. Delap, and Coach Boyce Smith, Harry Pepper, Sambo Bigger, JustinCook, Dr Bell of Nashville.  Also some characters; Cecil Shelton, Jesse Poole and Elmer HInton of the "Down to Earth" fame.  He was working for the Springfield Herald paper then.  The monthly dinners by regular and volunteer firemen back in the thirties and forties are gone forever.  In 1938 Mr Garner invited the Tennessee Firemen Convention to be held in Springfield.  WHat a great time we had meeting and eating Bar-B-Q and talking about our firefighting and experience.  I also remember Chief Frank Murphy and his little dog "Goodie", who for 17 years were inseparable.  If Chief Murphy rode the fire engine, "Goodie" did too, If he answered the fire call in his car, Goodie was with him as long as she lived.  After Springfield organized a regular paid department, they installed a signal system in the early 1930's.  When a call came in, we set it to blow two complete rounds from 3 to 9, to tell firemen what part of the city the fire was in.  We also had the No. 1 key to blow at 12:00 Noon each day.  The town grew out of the system when traffic got so heavy that people would try to beat the fire engine to the fire.  These people would also black the fireplugs, as sightseers.  They had learned the secret of the code for each ward.  We have had to call on our good friends from Nashville, Gallatin, and Goodlettsville from time to time in the past.  

We are now better equsipped to handle big fire with three engines, and ample water supply.  Also most big manufacturing plants have sprinkler systems installed now,  The regular department personnel are at present: Myself  (Chief English), Assistant Chief Jim Violette,  Assistant Chief Earland Wix,  George Bradley, Jack Osborne, Kermit Wooden, Arnold Holland, Bob Johnson, Hillary Rippy, and THomas Woolford.  Some fine men work as volunteer and to name a few, our present Police Chief C.H. Hancock, R.L. Farmer, Comer Fowler, his Sons; Lloyd and Alvin, and his grandson Mike, Odell Poole, Loy Cook, Ernest Wilkerson, A.V. Wilkerson, Jesse Gray, and Son, Billy and Delbert Jones.  Some more regulars and volunteers who were firemen for Springfield giving thier time and service are Carney Freeman, Garland Garrison, Bill Anderson, Russell Burr, Vernon Johnson, J.G. (Buck) Darden, Corneilious Bell, Tom Austin, Carney Bell, Archie Cook, Jimmy Hall, Jewel Warren, George Parker, Earnest Lane, Grover Mangrum, James Goodwin, Fowler Brothers, Loy Cook, Lanny Head, Billy Paul Carneal.  Some of these men are on call now.  Others will help if needed.  Bob Morris is back on the volunteer list.  Some of these men are second and third generation firefighters. e.g. The Hollands, Wilkersons, Ridges, Halls, and Grays are Second Generation.  The Goodwins, and Fowlers are 3rd Generation.  All of the glamour and hero worship of firemen is gone.  Young men and boys no longer ask to join the volunteers.  Since firefighters no longer run with their axes and ladders, or ride hanging on side of the fire engine racing through town.  The Fire Department is a vital part of the City Operation, so it needs the respect of the Community.  Wit all of the new chemicals and plastics and other materials, the firemen has to be schooled and well- read.  He must be a skilled professional equipped with a air service mask, insulated boots, and safety helmets, also fire-resistant clothing, and gloves, smoke ejectors to remove smoke and toxic poisons from buildings.

They must watch out for falling walls and chimneys, so they need to be protected.  Now the fire departments have salvage covers to place over contents to protect it from fire and water damage.  They also spray to combat smoke and soot odors on drapes and rugs.  They carry mops and brooms to remove excess water on the floors to keep down losses.  The word "Arson" strikes terror into the City Fathers, the Firemen, and the general public.  The arsonist is better known in the fire service as a "Firebug".  We had to deal with some of these firebugs.  There are two kinds of arsonists, one for personal gain.  The first time I thought of Arson, Chief Frank Murphy and I were on inspection and we noticed this Merchant, his stock was heavy on examination, but we found that the boxes were empty.  Chief Murphy ordered them removed at once.  He did, and he did not have a fire.  It wasn't long when he sold out and left town.  One time we had two stores on fire uptown, both clothing stores.  Several years ago we thought they were set for gain.  The other kind of arsonist is a "Thrill Seeker"

We in the fire service, and the Department Head have to contend with several of these people.  Some small boys set tobacco factories on fire, they were caught, and sent to reform school.  A little boy set fire to Bransford School, but he was caught and he was sent to the State Hospital for treatment.  Arson is hard to detect and much harder to get a conviction on.  You need an eyewitness almost every time.  As Mr Otto Murphy or Sammy Lee, State Arson Investigators, will tell that this is true.

In 1958, I was made Chief of the Department.  Mr Perry was still Assistant Chief.  Mr Hall retired on account of his health.  We had nothing but routine fires, and training as we sent men to Murfreesboro to the State Fire School every year, so as to keep up with all the new materials, plastics, and Inspections, that are being put on the market.  Mr Perry retired because of ill Health.  About 1964, we put in effect a work schedule of 72 hours on, and 72 hours off, or "Kelly Day" for firemen, giving them a shift off when the shift rotated around.  I had several large fires during my years as Fire Chief Here are a few I've made... The Murpphy Building, (now Pratts Kitchen) on Main Street.  Bentleys 5 cent & 10 cent store on Main Street & 7th Avenue.  Payne Chevrolet on Locust Street, Bransford High School on Richard Street.  Also, a furniture store where Crabtree Furniture Comapany is located.  I installed the "Little Fire Marshals"  in the City and County Schools, the 2nd in the State after Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  We still mark your house wit a big red "I", for invalids, this is on a request basis.  This program is designed so that firemen can look for them.  That is one of the first things they do when they arrive on the scene.  

In the late 1950's, Mr Mangrum was hired in, but did not stay long.  A Mr Hollis Duncan joing the Department in 1959.  Also, Walter Lee replaced Landon Hall about this time, in the early 1960's, Charlie Perry left the Department and Buster Plamer was hired.  We moved to 10th Avenue East and added more men.  Bob Johnson, Thomas Woolford, and Haskell Hardaway, making 5 man shifts.  We left one man in the firehouse to man the radio and telephone, and 4 men to go and fight the fire.  Palmer left the department and Barthell Bradley was hired, and later Haskell Hardaway left, and Hillary Rippy was hired.  There were no changes in Personnel until I retired.

I can remember some unusual fire calls.  L&N Railroad agent called in from Guthrie, Kentucky asking us to meet the train No. 95, a mail car was on fire.  Some of the mail was destroyed.  We have had several calls from people who leave thier cooking stove on.  Leaving the burner on would result in a lot of pots and pans burning up, causing smoke and odors in the house.  We also get calls to rescue pets in distress off the house, or out of trees.  Also we have had calls to rescue children out of close places.  We have had our anxious moments, when about 3 years ago, a train ran into a gasoline tanker on South Main Street, at the crossing.  It knocked down the electric signal bell, and there was a gasoline spill on 8500 gallons of gasoline in the street.  We closed off the immediate area, and opened all fireplugs from 10th Avenue at Main Street to Sulfhur Fork Creek to wash and dilute the gasoline away.  With all this gasoline running down the streets and the spill did not ever ignite, and set everything around for several blocks, will never know, but we were pleased with the way it turned out.  We had no building loss, except for the truck and the signal.  No one was hurt.  We had to wash down the train engine before it could continue on its way, as gasoline was sprayed all over it.  We also had another gasoline spill scare just before I retired when a valve at Draughon Oil Company burs-ted, spilling gasoline on the ground.  They lost 2500 gallons before we got it fixed.  We had to wash the gasoline down the creek.  There was no loss, except for the gasoline.  We were lucky in removing the gasoline, no sparks from trucks or tools, in the transfer to the large tank to the truck.  The remaining gasoline was dangerous as the ground was soaked in gasoline for several days around the plant.  Mr Louis Draughon was scared so bad that he wanted to dig a trench to "run it away".  I had to refuse to let him do it.  The pick might hit a rock.  When I told him why, he said, "Thank you, I'm not thinking straight, I'mso frightened about this mess".

I went to the Fire Conference in Memphis several times during the last 10 years.  It was a very good experience for me and my party.  Among my party was: Mr Otto Murphy, The late Mr Goosetree, Chief Inspector, and Gordon Keel from Clarksville Fire Department.  It being International, There were Chiefs from London, Paris, Rome, Canada, South America to lecture on firefighting, always saying that about 90% of the fires was caused by carelessness.  They showed films of tragic fires.  Starting with the Chicago School Fire, the texas City Oil tanker explosion that almost destroyed the whole City.  The Atlanta Hotel Fire, and the Kansas City Oil Refinery, where gasoline tanks bursted, throwing gasoline all over the firemen.  It was not pretty to look at, but those things happen in this business, as I have witnessed many times the loss of life at fires.

Back in the 1930's and 1940's, when the Polic and Fire Department were in the same building, the firemen were used as desk sergenants for the Police Department as economical saving for the City.  It was not satisfactory.  When we had to answer a fire call, we were leaving the house open without an attendant at times.  The late Charlie Easley and other Chiefs of Police worked well with the Fire Department, as they could while in the same building.  The Springfield Fire Department received several awards for outstanding service to the City and State in firefighting, also helping the citizens in charity drives, gathering new and broken toys to repair so that children will have a better Christmas.  The money the firemen gave from their own pockets.  Each year you could be a partner by bringing your old toys and wheel vehicles to the fire hall.  Come and visit your Department they would show you around.

Thinking back, here ar some fires we remember uptown besides the fires already mentioned and described:  The Shinebaums Department Store located on the East side of the Square.  There was extensive damage to this building.  Mr Shinebaum hollered long and loud about the firemen drowning his fat geese in the basement.  Just before the Holidays another fire close by was the Hunter Paint Company, in the old Tanner Building, and a lot of fire and smoke from exploding paint was hard to extinguish, between 7th Avenue and 8th Avenue.  Besides the Bentley fire in the O'lworvitch building, Dresslers Department Store had a big fire there.  Next the Bob Murphy building in the same block had several fires.  Firest E.E. Baker Harness Shop, then in the early 1960's, this building caught on fire again, and was a complete loss.  The Bernard Building across Main Street had a fire while O.G. Rawls occupied it where Binkley Show Store is now, Two small fires I recall was a sign in front of Pauls Mens Store, also someone dropped a lit cigarette in the furnace grating at Ehrenwalds Vouge Shop.  We had to make several fire calls to the County Courthouse.  The smoke from the furnace went through the bell tower, where the red light was located on rainy days, made it look like the building was on fire.  Then about 5 years ago, we did have a real fire in the Courthouse in the main Courtroom damaging the floor and smoking up the paint.  As I write this, the County Court is sandblasting and repairing this landmark.  Also we had a fire in a building owned by Mrs. Hilley, occupied by Fyke Farmer Grocery across the alley from the old H.G. Hill store building being torn down for a Commerce Union Bank parking lot.  Then McCord and Harris drug store had a costly fire where Cato's is now.  Back in the 1930's or early 1940's, the County Jail caught fire in the attic, We had to remove part of the roof to get to the blaze so that we could extinguish the fire as they marched the prisoners out.  Hughie Blackwell said, "Put her out boys, dont let my home burn down."  Mayor Travis Price and Commissioners Roark and Beck ordered a Chevrolet truck from Payne Brothers.  They sent the fire engine to Barton American Fire Engine Company, where they put a hose bed and the booster tank, with a 500 gallon capacity on.  Then they mounted a front end pump, this was the Year 1960.

They have 3 engines on duty, city water in reach of all citizens for firefighting.  As this is written, there is a new fire engine on order to replace the old Peter Pirsch engine that is 37 years old.  Also, some changes in Personnel:  Jewel Warren replaced George Bradley, Charles Cantrell and Chuck Warren were added to the Department.  David Greer is the Fire Chief at the present time.   He became chief July 18th, 1972.. In closing, after answering thousands of calls over the years, I have enjoyed the challenge.  I hope that I contributed something to my community as a service to the citizens.......

Tom English, Fire Chief Retired