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Serving: MO

126-year-old fire bell summons volunteer spirit

Mindy Ward A close up image of a large bell
RING THE BELL: In the late 1890s, this fire bell in Trenton, Mo., was the one way to summon volunteers to fight fires in town and the surrounding community.
When the fire bell rang, small-town residents stepped up and answered the call.

In the parking lot behind the local bank sits a nearly 130-year-old bell, alone.

There are many unique and stately buildings when driving through downtown Trenton, Mo. It is home to the magnificent Grundy County Courthouse built in the early 1900s, which resembles more of a castle on a hill than a place of law. It can only be accented by an even smaller medieval building on its north side, which once served as the county jail.

But despite all this grandeur, it was a small monument surrounded by modern-day concrete that stood out — a fire bell.

This fire bell once held a prestigious place in the community back in 1896. It was in the bell tower of City Hall, according to the placard on the brick monument. The story etched in metal explains that when someone reported a fire, the bell rung for 15 seconds, followed by one, two, three or four strokes to let the volunteer firemen know where to respond.

In those days, they used a horse-drawn fire wagon to carry equipment and firemen to the scene. Both the wagon and the horses were located on the first floor of City Hall, along with the clerk’s office, city collector’s office, marshal’s office and even prisoners. The second floor is where the fire chief lived.

Now, I can’t imagine any city hall today housing horses, but it shows the importance of fire protection in the late 1800s. It rivaled that of local government. But what still amazes me is even back then, when the bell rang, volunteers came to serve. That spirit of rural communities still holds true today.

While technology advanced and now alarms travel across the airwaves, volunteer firefighters still answer the call. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 745,000 volunteer firefighters across the U.S., which make up 67% of all firefighters. Most Missouri counties have at least one fire department staffed by volunteers.

Still, I’m not one who questions whether volunteer or “career” firefighters have more or less heart. I believe anyone who rushes into a fire, car crash, flood or blizzard has something I do not: courage. These men and women put someone else’s life, someone they do not know, above their own without hesitation. And that type of resolve and commitment deserves a place of honor in any small town.

So, while our firehouses may no longer have historic bells, when those sirens sound, take a minute to stop and give thanks for our emergency personnel who have been serving our communities since they began.

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