(Riverton, Wyo.) – Fifty years ago this week the Missouri Valley Fire Department was chartered and three years later, construction of its first fire hall commenced. To celebrate this big anniversary, an open house will be held at the District’s newest fire hall this Sunday, July 13th from 1 to 4 p.m. with a free barbecue and ice cream social that’s open to the public. The fire hall is located on Highway 134 between Davison and Clothesline roads.
While construction of the first fire hall in the valley took a couple years to complete, in between the department’s military surplus 6×6 tanker and pumper trucks were kept in the Shuttlesworth family’s large potato cellars during the winter months, just down Highway 134 from the former and present fire hall.
The department’s first truck was named “Big Dick” and they picked up this tanker from Lysite. “I’m not sure why we got it from Lysite, but Bob Robinson and one other fellow and myself went over there and drove it back,” Larry Shuttlesworth recalled. A three-quarter ton tanker, without a pump on it and with a canvas top, was the department’s second truck. It was nicknamed “nursemaid,” according to Shuttlesworth’s memory. “We used it as a first response vehicle.” A second 6×6, this one a pumper, earned the name “Elmo” and it was in service until just six years ago. “Big Dick was our fastest truck, it had a lot of miles on it and had been used to pull a fifth wheel in the military before we got it. It was real loosened up and faster. It ran rings around Elmo. It was the one we took out first on each call. Elmo, though, was our first pumper.”
In the beginning, Missouri Valley Firefighters served about a quarter of the county’s land area, from Missouri Valley to Jeffrey City, East to Lysite, North to Boysen, west to Hudson and to just north of Riverton. It was a huge land area. In 2001 the fire district boundaries were re-drawn, with Lysite, Hudson and Shoshoni’s fire battalions carving out some of Battalion #4’s land area.
Hanging in the meeting room of the new fire hall is a faded, Friday, Feb. 24, 1967 photocopied page from the Riverton Ranger, showing the charter members building their new fire hall and painting their first 6×6.
“Back then we dispatched the volunteers by telephone, we had to call each one separately. Gerry Dewey and myself were the dispatchers,” said Kathy Metzler. “By the time the firemen got to the fire hall and got the trucks rolling, we’d meet them out at the highway to give them an update on the call.”
The charter members of the Missouri Valley Fire Department were Larry Shuttleworth, Bob Robinson, Myron Jarvis, Louis Downey, Chuck Downey, Gary Riegert and Jay Cantrell, as best as folks can recall. Only Chuck Downey and Gary Riegert are still living.
Today’s nearly 10,000 square foot, five-bay drive-through fire hall is a far cry from the double wide, single door fire hall the department started in. From those initial lumbering 6x6s, the Missouri Valley Fire Battalion #4 now has eight vehicles parked inside its spacious hall, including first response, brush trucks, tankers and several pumper or structure fire engines.
“In our previous fire hall, the trucks were parked inches apart, and to get to the other side of the hall, you had to go outside and walk around to another door. It was that tight,” said Kelly Gardner, the current Chief of Battalion #4.
In the early days of the Missouri Valley Firefighters, the official name of the department, funding was hard to come by, although county commissioners Walt Rhodes and Wally Pearson were very supportive, especially Rhodes, Shuttlesworth said. “But we had tremendous community support with funds raised at chili and pancake suppers and many donations.”
“At the big Lakeside Fire at the east end of the Boysen causeway, we didn’t have bunkers. I remember my husband was wearing a pea coat. Because of the spray from the fire, and it was the dead of winter, afterwards I had to put him in the shower to get all the ice off of his clothes,” Metzler said.
But with community support, and a few calls to a supportive banker, members of the fire department got loans for needed equipment and Missouri Valley was the first rural department in the county to get extrication equipment. “That really boosted the number of calls we received, because we’d respond to all the traffic crashes on this side of the county,” Gardner said.
Shuttlesworth also recalled the high number of calls the department was dispatched to up on Birds Eye Pass. “There were a lot of lightning strikes up there, and in North Portal, but it took a long time to get into North Portal, then. We kinda winged it back then, we didn’t have Scot packs, bunkers or face shields, but we got along.”
Because of the community support, Shuttlesworth remembered that fire insurance rates “came down a lot because we were here. People were really appreciative of that, they were really tickled, and we were able to get more and better equipment.”
After the department was established, Shuttleworth said some of the charter members had their sons join up. He remembered that Myron Jarvis brought in his boys Mike and Gregg, who were soon joined by the Medow boys, Shuttlesworth’s son Troy, Kelly Gardner and the Campbell’s, among others he could not immediately recall. “But not everyone out in the valley was a firefighter, but ones we had were good,” he said.
The community support continues today. The biggest, and only fundraiser the battalion holds each year, is it’s pancake supper. “What did we have last year, some 250 to 300 folks?” said firefighter Cody Martin. “People really support that, and now we have the space for them to come and hang around afterwords, have coffee and visit.”
Gardner also noted that many times when the department responds to a fire, a short time later a donation comes in from the family they helped.
Presently Battalion #4 responds to about 55-65 calls a year and they lend a lot of support to Shoshoni. “It seems a lot of our battalions are short on volunteers, so we help out where we can,” Gardner said.
Assistant Chief Ron Wempen said the department gets a lot of false alarms too, because so many people have cell phones. “They see smoke from their cars and call it in. Many times it’s just a controlled burn, but we’re obligated to respond.” Metzler also said the big gas plant flare by Lost Cabin catches people’s attention, especially at night, and a fire is reported.
The Battalion was proud to receive the Fremont County Fire Protection District’s Outstanding Achievement Award last year for having all of its volunteers trained up to Firefighter I standards. And this past year Missouri Valley Firefighters established their first ever scholarship for a Shoshoni graduate going into a vocational area. The scholarship is $500. “It’s our way to give back to the community,” Gardner said.
Current members of Battalion #4 are: Chief Kelly Gardner, Asst. Chief Ron Wempen plus Mike Allen, John Campbell, Blake Davison, Paul Downey, Brian Markowski, Cody Martin, Joe Metzler, Kathi Metzler, Steve Weber, Lauri Wempen and Justin Helton.