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The History of the Denville Volunteer Fire Department
By R. B. Leith and Ed Saniewski


The story of a strong successful volunteer organization can usually be traced to a group of enthusiastic and dedicated men. Men who have at heart a deep cause, and who strive to build around them the means to fulfill an ambition. The history of the Denville Volunteer Fire Department follows this pattern. The cause was fire protection direly needed. The means, although dear in terms of self-sacrifice and energy, was to develop into one of the foremost volunteer fire fighting forces in this area of New Jersey.

Denville in the 1920’s was a village undergoing rapid change. Like many small communities of the era it was experiencing its share of growing pains. With a population of a little more than 1200 in 1920 the town was without such vital services as water, gas, or a fire department. In 1922 Denville had three Committeemen serving the municipal government as well as two constables for law enforcement. But there were neither firemen nor any type of fire fighting equipment available. Neighboring communities were obliged to respond to Denville’s needs in the area of fire protection. The Mt. Tabor Fire Department aided Denville residents on several occasions, as did Rockaway Township. In the spring and fall during the period from 1922 to 1926 the Rockaway Fire Department reported giving fire protection to the Hub of Morris County on numerous occasions, at times to the tune of four fire calls a week.

There was much talk about organizing a fire protection unit for Denville, but nothing actually resulted from the rhetoric until 1926. During the latter part of 1925 and early 1926 the members of the Denville Athletic Club headed by Robert G. Ellsworth, discussed the idea of a fire department for Denville. This group is responsible for instigating the first real agitation for a fire fighting force. From among the fifty or so members of the Athletic Club came the nucleus of another future organization. They would form the first constituency in Denville favorable to the progress of Denville’s self-reliance for fire protection.

At a meeting of the Athletic Club on June 6, 1926 at the home of Robert Ellsworth discussion was again brought up on the idea for a fire department. This time firm action was taken which resulted in the formation of a committee instructed to investigate the general problems of organizing a fire department. Serving on the first committee were; Benjamin Kinsey, formerly a Captain on the Hoboken Fire Department, William E. Keeffe Sr. Horace Cook Sr., Robert G. Ellsworth and Robert Ewald. The first four of the committee were later to become Chiefs. These men were to investigate the terms under which a fire department could be formed, look into and research the type of fire fighting apparatus most suitable for use in Denville, and, most importantly, the costs involved in the undertaking.

The first regular meeting of the Denville Fire Department was held on the above date at the old school house with 22 members present. The following officers were nominated by John Worzel and seconded by John Allen and elected,

Chief Benjamin Kinsey carried

1st. Asst. chief Horace Cook Sr. carried

2nd. Asst. Chief Wm. F. Keeffe Sr. carried

Capt. Peter L. Peer carried

Lieut. S. R. Van Orden Jr. carried

It must be noted at the start of this history that there were elements among the town’s citizenry opposed to the improvement of establishing a fire department. The men of the Denville Athletic Club underwent some trying times. There was great sacrifice involved in their project. Much energy and endurance would be needed for the undertaking. Most important of all, lest it be forgotten, this was a volunteer organization from its genesis.

The first official meeting of the Department took place on July 20, 1926 in Denville’s old school building on Main Street. Prior to this first session the committee of Kinsey, Keeffe, Cook, Ellsworth and Ewald had had some difficulty with Town officials and others who looked unfavorably to the establishment of a fire department. The Township Committee had five members in 1926; Calvin L. Lawrence, A. Seldon Walker, J.Y. MacLaud, Joseph P. Hughes and Theodore L. Bierck. Committeeman Bierck was the only strong support the Department had on the governing body. When Chief Kinsey and other officers of the Department appeared before the Township Committee for recognition for the organization the body responded with less than luke warm enthusiasm. The Township Committee would grant recognition but could appropriate no funds nor could they promise funds or even the cost of running expenses for at least a year. When passage of the ordinance establishing official status of the Department was considered by the governing body, it was approved with reluctance. So it is obvious that the Department was on its own to survive or perish as an organization. As it turned out the Department took their case to the people and won the first of impending battles.

It is significant to indicate the vigor and efficiency with which the men of the Department began and carried on their business. Therefore, the minutes of the first meeting are duplicated below to refresh the memory of the occasion and express the seriousness of the Charter members of the Denville Fire Department: Denville N.J. July 20, 1926

On motion of Robert Ellsworth seconded by Wm. Shoppmann it was voted to purchase 8000 forms to be used to show amount pledged by subscribers to the Fire Dept. carried.

Motion made by John Allen seconded by Hugh Sweeney that the Chief appoint a canvassing committee. Carried.

Motion made by Robert Ellsworth and seconded by Robert Ronan that the Board of Engineers be instructed to purchase an American La France pumping engine. Carried.

Motion made by Robert Ellsworth seconded by Robert Ronan that Fred Jagger be made Secretary of the Dept. Carried.

Motion made by Robert Ellsworth seconded by John Allen that Secretary write the Board of Education requesting the use of the lower floor of the old school house as a place in which to keep the fire apparatus and equipment. Carried.

Motion made by Robert Ellsworth seconded by John Worrel that the Sec. also act as treasurer of the Dept. Carried.

Motion made by Wm F. Keeffe Sr. and seconded by Robert Ellsworth that the dues be $1.00 per year. Carried.

Motion made by Robert Ellsworth and seconded by Robert Ewald that the Dept. Meet as a body at the new schoolhouse Monday eve. At the special meeting of the Board of Education and demand the use of the lower north side room of the old Schoolhouse for the use of the Fire Dept. Carried.

Motion made by Robert Ronan seconded by SR VanOrden Jr. that Henry Ewald Sr. be made Honorary Counsel for the Dept. Carried.

Motion made by John Worzel seconded by Hugh Sweeney that Horace Cook Sr. be made 1st driver of the apparatus. Motion made by Chief Kinsey seconded by Wm F. Keeffe Sr. that Robert Ewald be second driver. Motion made by Hugh Sweeney seconded by John Keever that Robert Van Orden be made 3rd driver. Carried.

Motion made by Chief Kinsey seconded by 2nd. Asst. Chief Keeffe that Hugh Sweeney be made 4th driver. Motion made by Robert Ellsworth seconded by Hugh Sweeney that Peter L. Peer be made 5th driver. Motion made by Robert Ellsworth seconded by John Worzel that Robert Ronan be made 6th driver. Carried.

No other business on hand the meeting was adjourned until next Tuesday evening July 27 at 8:00 0‘clock in the same place.

Respectfully submitted FM. Jagger Secy.”

History Continued >>