MANY OF THE old timers who are still around have warm memories of “Ethel,” the first fire truck owned by the Ville Platte Fire Department. The 1927 American La France was bought new in that year, and it was only fitting for Chief Milton Reed to name the truck after his only daughter, Ethel. The original fire truck was retired from service many years ago but is still standing in the City Barn.
Looking Back to Thursday, Nov. 7, 1968
For many years, there have been those in Ville Platte who have fulfilled their boyhood dreams of becoming a brave fireman willing to sacrifice their lives and limbs for the thrill of being part of the excitement that accompanies a fire.
These are the men who have made the Ville Platte Fire Department what it is today--an organization of 59 volunteer firemen who are constantly ready to react swiftly to the shrieking sound of the horn or siren indicating a fire. It is not just the excitement of thrills that these men get from fighting fires, but also it is the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped save a life or a family’s entire life savings.
From the beginning, it has been the Reed family which has provided the leadership and dedication necessary to make the fire department a reality, not a myth. The entire citizenry of Ville Platte owes a debt of gratitude to the late Phillip Milton Reed, who founded the department and served as fire chief until his death in 1930 at the age of 46. Phillip organized the department of some 18 men, most of whom have passed on by now, and persuaded the town officials in 1927 to purchase a 1927 American La France fire truck, which was named “Ethel” after his only daughter.
Prior to this, the only equipment the department had was a water wagon which was hitched up to the first automobile that came along following an alarm. Back in those days, the school bell on top of the Evangeline Academy, which once stood where the present City Hall now stands, served as the only signal to alert the people of a fire.
Among those early fire fighters of Ville Platte who braved the weather and danger in answering an alarm were such men as: Leonard Fontenot, Raphael Ortego (deceased), Linus Campbell (deceased), Hubert Demoruelle (deceased), Carl Wiggins, Olipsey Lafleur, Apo Fontenot, Wade Soileau, Curtis Fontenot (deceased), Dick Ortego, Alton Ortego (deceased), Herbert Buller (deceased), Edgar Buller, Tillman Buller (deceased), Mayo Vidrine (deceased), John Earhart (deceased), Cliff Buller, and Aurelien Landreneau. These were the men who made up the original fire department of Ville Platte, and it was they who set the example for future generations to follow in keeping the town a safe place to live in.
The history of Ville Platte has seen many costly and tragic fires, but it would take one of these old timers to recall the most fatal disaster in the history of the town. That fire occurred on Sept. 22, 1919, when the old dance hall on Main Street burned to the ground leaving 31 persons dead and scores injured. Tales of heroic efforts to save the people trapped inside the two-story building still circulate in the area. At that time, there was no equipment in sight to fight a fire of such magnitude.
Following the death of Phillip Reed, the fire department was run by Earl Jeffries and then Aurelien Landreneau. In 1937, Gerald Reed, a nephew of Phillip, was elected to head the department in the only election ever held winning by one vote out of a membership of 21. It was in 1954 that the fire department came under the leadership of a young Reed, namely Hampton Reed Jr., who probably is one of the most dedicated public servants Ville Platte has ever known.
Since then the department has grown in size and efficiency to become the respected alert organization that is entitled to be. The tight-knit department today is composed of Chief Reed, Assistant Chief George McDaniel, Fire Alarm Superintendent Murray Ferguson, four full-time paid men, six captains, and 53 volunteers who give up precious time with their families and jobs to risk their safety in fighting fires.
The four full-time men, Able Deville, Will Billeaudeau, Murphy Guillory, and Noah Fontenot, are on duty 24 hours at a time and maintain the building and equipment until an alarm is received, immediately leaving with a truck if the fire is in town. As soon as one of the other several volunteer drivers reaches the fire station, the other truck departs to the fire. The most active volunteer drivers are Allen “Couze” Vidrine, Reinel Smith, Cliff Wagley, and Mike Ferrina.
Special duties are relegated to the six captains in the department who are chosen by the firemen to direct firefighting activities under Chief Reed’s command. The present captains are Cleveland Fontenot, Adam Miller, D.L. Perron, Reinel Smith, Allen Vidrine, and James D. Vidrine. These men will again be voted on for the coming year tonight (Thursday) by the volunteer members of the department at their regular monthly meeting. Other volunteer firemen holding down special duties in the department are the secretary, Allen P. Fontenot, and his assistant, Adam Soileau. The department also is privileged to have two State Police sergeants as members, Floyd. J. Ortego and Floyd Fontenot, who handle the traffic at fires.
In addition to those previously mentioned, the Ville Platte Fire Department consists of Gerald Ardoin, Addison Beaugard, Bonner Buller, Bobbie Demourelle, L.P. Demourelle, Unal Deville, Bevy Fontenot, Elvin T.L. Fontenot, Herman J. Fontenot, John Lee Fontenot, Joe G. Fontenot, Joseph H. Fontenot, Jules J. Fontenot, Nat Fontenot, Ollie Mae Fontenot, James B. Henry, Kirby Hill, Rodney Lafleur, Lawrence Lee, Larry Lemoine, Ashland Manuel, Huey Manuel, Freddie Martin, George McDaniel, Elmo Nedler, R.P. Monier, B.J. Moreau, Donald O’Conner, Harris O’Conner, Van Ortego, Vernon Ortego, Eugene Reed, Clarence Rivers, Alvin J. Soileau, J. Calvin Soileau, Sompton Soileau, Harold Stromer Jr., Dewey Thibodeaux, Rodney Veillon, and J.B. Vidrine. Bobbie Demourelle has the distinction of being the longest active member in the department with a record of 31 years of service.
When Chief Reed entered the department in 1946 after serving in World War II, all fire alarms were handled through the telephone central office which was located then on the second floor of the Evangeline Bank building. A caller would dial the operator who would then turn on the siren, but someone had to run to the fire station to turn the alarm off and then call the operator for the location of the fire. This out-dated method was eliminated after the present alarm system was installed in 1950 when the new fire station was built. The radio communications system was installed in 1955 under the administration of Mayor Harvey LeBas and now consists of 20 transitioned radio receivers which are kept in the fireman’s home. A high pitched tone is sent over the radio when an alarm sounds, alerting the listener to the location of the fire which then follows the tone. Only the top 20 firemen who answered the most calls in the preceding year are privileged with the use of a receiver.
The City now owns two radio-equipped fire trucks, a 1937 Peter Pirsch and a 1950 Mack truck, each having a 750-gallon per minute capacity.
Until 1957, all of Ward One was served with City equipment, but the La. Fire Rating Bureau ruled that this was not permissable, so the Evangeline Parish Police Jury then created the Evangeline Fire District #2 which consists of all of Ward One outside of the city limits. At the same time, the jury created a Fire Board of five members. Elin Pitre is president of the board with Jesse Johnson, Douglas Tate, Clarence Soileau, and Aliday Rozas as members.
The Ville Platte Fire Department then agreed to house and maintain the district’s equipment at no charge. Soon after, a bond issue was passed for the purchase of a 1957 Ford Truck with a 750-gallon capacity and booster tank with 600 gallons. In 1966, a smaller Ford one-ton fire truck was purchased by the district.
There are two special events that every Ville Platte Fireman looks forward to each year. One is the annual Fireman’s Ball which this year is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 27 at the Evangeline Club from 8 p.m. till, and the other event is the annual Ladies’ Night Banquet which will be held in January.
The three volunteer firemen who answered the most alarms in the preceding year are presented cash awards of $50, $40, and $30 at the banquet, and the competition is fierce.
The fire department meets its expenses by conducting a drive every Fall, picking up $1,000 to $1,200 every year, plus a two percent fire insurance rebate from the La. Firemen Association which amounts to another $1,200 per year. Since the department doesn’t charge dues as most other departments do, the money collected is used to buy boots, hats, raincoats, and six suppers a year. A utility truck used for hauling emergency floodlights and a generator was also purchased by the firemen from this fund. The City pays the salaries and for the maintenance on the trucks and building plus insurance covering the firemen in case of injury or death.
The Ville Platte firemen are a select group of dedicated souls whose only compensation is the satisfaction of knowing that in some small way they are doing something worthwhile in making this a safe community in which to live. It is fitting and just that they be given the recognition that they so deserve for their rewards are few and far between.