OKEECHOBEE — After more than 100 years of service to the Okeechobee Community, the city fire department is facing its final days. Beginning on June 1, all fire services in Okeechobee City and County will be provided by Okeechobee County Fire/Rescue. Many of the employees will be finding new homes within Okeechobee County Fire/Rescue. Some will go on to other jobs, and some will retire.
According to local historian Magi Cable’s banners created for the city’s centennial celebration, the city fire department began in 1915 with the city council appointing Benjamin Hall as chief of police. In those days, the chief of police also served as fire chief she explained. Twenty three men have served as chief, and the infamous Pogey Bill served four times.
In 1926, Okeechobee City Hall was built and for many years, it housed the fire department and served as a home for the chief and his family. The chief served as jailer, and the chief’s wife cooked for the prisoners in the jail, said Cable. Jim Godwin, son of Former Chief Olen Godwin, said his dad did all the cooking for the prisoners while he was chief because his mother was a nurse at the hospital. “My dad was hired as chief, jailer, custodian of city hall and cook for all the prisoners. My mom baked cakes though.”
In 1948, a volunteer fire department was organized, and in 1950, the department responded to its first fire call in its new Ford F-6 fire truck. Also in 1950, a more organized volunteer department was established, and a siren was installed at city hall.
In 1968, fire department headquarters were dedicated within city hall.
In 1977, the county started its own fire department.
In 1982, there was an attempt to merge the city and county fire departments, but the city council rejected the merger.
Also in 1982, the city’s fire engine number one was restored, to be kept as a historical relic of days gone by.
After the city council election in 2018, when Bobby Keefe and Bob Jarriel were elected, talk of merging the fire departments was begun again. This time, despite attempts by city firefighters to save their department and much grumbling from the community on Facebook, an agreement was made with the county commissioners for OCFR to take on fire services within the city. City firefighters were given the opportunity to go to paramedic school, with the city paying the tuition, and many accepted. Becoming a paramedic is a requirement to work for OCFR.
A gathering of past and present city firefighters was held on Saturday, May 1 at the fire station, and many familiar faces were there. Robert Mears, organizer of the event, said he just wanted it to be a celebration of the years of service to Okeechobee.
Former Chief Keith Tomey, Present Chief Herb Smith and the sons of Olen Godwin and Jinks Reutebuch, both former chiefs, shared memories of the time they spent in the fire station.
Jim Godwin said he was the second man officially hired by the department and was assistant chief under his dad.
Donald Boney was captain of the volunteers during the 1960s. He organized a group of high school boys as volunteers, because they had a shortage of men serving. These boys came from the FFA (Future Farmers of America). “When the siren blew at the station, they got to leave school to help fight fires,” said Boney.
Michelle Harper was the first female volunteer and was told she would never make it, but she proved them wrong. After her first bad accident, they found she had a stronger stomach than some of the men. Harper said, “I remember the old Flathead Six sitting in the doorway of what is now city hall. It was open back then, like a carport. It sat right in the archway, and there was a pole to slide down to get in the truck.” Other trucks were kept out back in a wooden barn until an addition was built onto city hall to house the fire department. At that time, the pole was moved over to the new building and city hall was closed in as it is now. All of the volunteers ran the electrical wiring in the crawl space of the second story of the new building, said Harper. “This was when the police department was up there.”
Don Chapman, whose dad was mayor when Don was a teenager, said he remembers shooting pool in the back room of the fire station when he was too young to volunteer, but as soon as he was old enough, he joined up.
Aubrey Hand was a firefighter in the 1990s. “That was back when we were all young, dumb and stupid,” he said.
Although the city fire department will soon be no more, it will live on in the memories of those who served.
Magi Cable contributed to this article.