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Ghent Fire Company set to pass century mark

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By GREGG BERNINGER

After the great fire, looking west with the Bartlett House on right, in Ghent, September 1923. Photo contributed

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 100TH YEAR the Ghent Volunteer Fire Company has been protecting the community of which it has become an essential part. Those 100 years have seen many fires of all sorts, but thanks to those volunteers, none have been nearly as devastating as the fire from whose ashes the company arose.

The fire that broke out Wednesday morning, September 12, 1923, consumed the heart of Ghent’s business district, the area across Route 66 from the Bartlett House and running south toward where the VFW now stands. To many of Ghent’s inhabitants the extent of this fire came as no surprise.

The 1913 Sanborn Map of the Ghent hamlet, a detailed map produced by the Sanborn Map Company to help insurance agents assess fire risk, makes clear that Ghent was ripe for a disaster. The map reads: Prevailing Winds West, Water, Facilities NOT GOOD, NO Steam & No Hand Engine, NO Horse Cart, NO Hook & Ladder Truck.

Questions remain about how the fire started, though it’s apparent that the Ghent Hotel, two General Stores, and a building with a cobbler, woodworker, and barber were all lost. The loss totaled $75,000, equal to $1.3 million in today’s money.

This tragedy spurred a committee of Ghent men comprised of John Berninger, Emerson Southard and F. Vincent to visit Valatie to inspect a used chemical engine which was subsequently purchased and mounted on a Dodge pick-up truck.

From this humble beginning, the company members, with strong and continued support from the people of Ghent, has grown into an organization any town would be proud to have. In 2022 the GVFC responded to 112 calls.

For decades one of the highlights of the Ghent social scene was the firemen’s carnival. Thanks to Ghent being the home of the Fecteau acrobats and Adele Nelson’s trained elephants, both truly world class acts, the carnival proved a success year after year. In 1954 it raised $5,700; $64,000 in today’s money.

Many dances, shows, clam bakes and auctions over the years kept the fire company operating without any taxpayer dollars for much of its history. One of their first fund raising successes led to the construction of their first firehouse on the same grounds they occupy today.

Inside the first firehouse was the truck that remains the pride of Ghent, the 1928 American Lafrance, purchased for $5600 ($98,000 in today’s money) every penny of which was donated.
Among many families that have produced generations of firefighters, the Wilbers have done their part. Fred Wilber was a founding member and his son Charles, grandson Ken, great-grandson Kyle, and great-great-grandson Matt Radley have been a part of the family tradition. Charles and Ken both served as presidents of the Columbia County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, and Kyle is the current president.
As is the custom, the CCVFA president’s company hosts the annual parade. This year’s parade will be on Main Street and Church Street in Ghent on July 29 at 2pm. This will be a fitting kickoff to another 100 hundred years of firefighting in Ghent.

Ghent Fire Company all dressed up. Collection of Barbara and Charles Wilber
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