A History of Russellville and its Heroes

by | Dec 1, 2018 | Features

The Russellville Fire Department’s (RFD) newest station has been in the news a lot lately. Just a few months ago, staff moved from their old location next to Russellville City Hall to the state-of-the-art three-story building on El Paso Avenue. With Russellville’s population growing each year, this spacious new building gives the RFD room for expansion. The first floor is a public entrance while the second floor serves as living quarters for fire fighters. The third floor is home to the chief’s office, a multiple screen CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) and the RFDs archive section. Despite the glimmer of new equipment and technological advancements, it’s the archives I’m here to view. Retired RFD Assistant Chief/Fireman Jim Horton is waiting for me on the third floor. Jim is the researcher and author of the book Up In Flames: The Evolution of Russellville, Arkansas and its Fire Department.
At 178 pages long and running up to the year 1988, the book is jam-packed with historical detail. Russellville was incorporated in 1870 and by 1900 the population was at 1,832. SouthWestern Telephone Company came to town in 1903 and then in 1904 a citywide waterworks was formed. But at this point the city had yet to create a fire department. In 1905, a large fire at the Russellville Ice and Storage plant changed that. The Courier Democrat says an onsite group quickly formed a “bucket brigade” and was able to eventually put out the fire. But insurance on the building didn’t cover everything. For the first time, Russellville was forced to reckon with its growth and need for increased services. In the same issue that mentions the fire, Jim found a writeup about a “mass meeting of citizens held at the court house… for the purpose of organizing a local fire committee.”
Jim says the story of the RFD isn’t just about fighting fires. It’s also the story of a local telephone company that received calls about fires and the water department that supplied the water to put them out. To a lesser degree, it’s about the ambulance service and the police. “I will let the firemen tell their story in their own words,” he writes in the introduction, “sometimes from right out of the volunteer’s log books and out of the full-time log books.”
The content of the log books detail the RFD’s growth and changes. Some stories are tragic, others dramatic and touching. And then some are just plain hilarious. Take for example the log entry from January 11, 1978. It states that a dog was given to the RFD and S. Crowell was appointed to take care of it. The entry then notes some suspected arson in the city. “Had three fires in the last few days in that area, suspect arson.” But when you read on down to 0845 hours we discover an update on the aforementioned dog: “Dog sh_t all over Bay floor, rags too, general mess.” At 1450 hours the log book returns to a more mundane discussion of replacement hoses.
Then there are the stories of firefighters putting out engulfing flames, such as the Dardanelle Valmac (a precursor to Tyson) fire or when firefighters rescued a man trapped in a ditch that had caved in on West Main Street or the time a firefighter gave resuscitation to three Siamese cats who almost perished in a house fire. There is the story of firemen rescuing a little boy and a kitten stuck in a tree on North Fargo. According to the log book the kitten returned the favor by biting Captain Williamson on the finger and he then had to go get a booster shot at Saint Mary’s. In 1982 firemen put out a blaze on South Commerce that saved the lives of two small children; in 1983 firemen saved an apartment building from destruction over on North Cumberland. Jim has broken his book up by year, centering the narrative around national events such as World Wars or regional events. He even includes his own personal stories, like being drafted into the Vietnam conflict, an event which pulled him away from the RFD for several years.
Though this is a history of the fire department, it’s also a history of a rapidly growing town. By 1910 the population of Russellville was 2,936, a 60 percent growth from 1900. According to the 2010 census, the town now pushes 28,000.
Jim says he first started compiling histories back in 1977 when he began doing family genealogy. “Then in 2004 a guy by the name of Chris Wallace, who is on the fire department, came up at a Christmas party and wanted to know if anyone had anything that they could put together for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of RFD,”Jim recalls. He says he didn’t have anything compiled, but he did know that the station still had all their log books and he was certain he could put a short history together.
Jim soon learned that writer, editor, and councilman Edwin L. McDonald had compiled an early history and J.B. Lemley had also written a short history for the Pope County Historical Association running from 1905 to 1940. So Jim took that and expanded it, making a short book that precedes his current compilation. “I took what they got together; I backed up to the mid 1950s and gave a little more detail and brought it forward to 2004,” says Jim. “And that’s what that short one is, for the 100th anniversary.” The book is tiny compared to the recent publication. Jim is currently working on his second big volume that will pick up at 1988 moving up to the present. 
But Jim is not just an RFD historian and former fireman. He’s also a man who watched his father become a fireman before joining the department himself and retiring as the assistant chief. Jim’s book is also a bit of a memoir. He remembers his father working as a fireman. “From time to time I’d get to ride on the firetruck with him.” I ask if he remembers the first time he saw a fire. “We had a grassfire out on South Eerie,” Jim recalls. “We jumped on an old fire engine we had, right up there,” he says, pointing to one of the black and white photos on the fire stations archive room wall. “I was 13 or 14, I guess.”
When Jim was hired back in 1967, he was one of the first full time firefighters on the RFD. Previously, the RFD relied on a partially paid volunteer system. Jim’s father was one of those partially paid fireman. The elder Horton was a volunteer firefighter in 1952. From 1967 up until 2000 the RFD had both full-time staff and partially paid volunteers. “Back in 2000 all the volunteers retired,” explains Jim, “and it went to solely full-time professional departments.” Jim became assistant chief on February 1st, 1982.
I ask if he knew early on that he wanted to be a firefighter or if it was a goal that came later in life. “It just kind of evolved,” he explains. “I needed a job, and there was one available here.” Jim says the RFD hired people by voting on the qualified candidates. His father helped him get appointed, and Jim says you had to learn everything by “OJT,” [on the job training]. Now recruits can train at Arkansas Fire Academy in Camden. But back then, he says, “it was basically just read these red books.” Jim picks up a worn copy of an old red fire training manual the RFD keeps in the archives. “We’d go to Monday night meetups; we’d have drills,” he says. “Sometimes we’d go out and burn [dilapidated] houses for practice. The rest you just had to pick up along the way.”
Jim came to work for the RFD in a time of great transition, not just for the department itself but for the entire community. In 1967 the interstate was being built, Lake Dardanelle was filling up, the nuclear plant was on its way, and the ambulance service was just beginning. The city still didn’t have a publicly owned waterworks and the community had mixed feelings about the need for increased services. “The ambulance service was basically run by the funeral homes up until that point,” says Jim. “They’d send a hearse out to pick people up and transport them to the closest hospital.” But starting in 1967 there were federal regulations and growing insurance issues, and so the funeral homes shifted this service over to the county.
Jim makes it clear that the growing city didn’t always grasp their need for a fire department nor did they support the RFD with their taxes, a problem that would continue well into the 2000s. Sitting in a the sparkly new building with its modern alert system and comfortable chairs, it’s hard to believe that was ever the case. Jim says for years the RFD wanted a greater say in how their operation was run and funded. They pushed back against city council’s unwillingness to give the firemen representation in the city decision making. So Jim and many others worked to bring in the IAFF, International Association of Fire Fighters, a unionization that gave the firefighters representation and power to advocate for themselves. Later, Jim and his colleagues would bring in the Civil Service Commission to help oversee the RFD and ensure fairness and accountability to and for the city and the citizens.
While we’re visiting, the alarms go off. According to the CAD information, there’s a wreck on Arkansas Avenue. It’s listed on the screen as a low priority event and police are already headed to the scene. This kind of high-tech integration is a huge shift from those early days when Jim came on. But he’s quick to note how difficult the job is now with the intense physical requirements, the HAZMAT training, and the testing.
“But you all laid the groundwork,” I say.
“Yes, we beat the bushes and rattled the trees and got things going,” he laughs.
While we’re watching the CAD, Chief Kirk Slone steps out of his office to brag on Jim’s research and commitment to preserving the RFD’s past, especially in these times of great growth and change. Chief Slone notes something I already suspect but that Jim shrugs off: the archive room of the brand new department is largely an outgrowth of Jim’s commitment. “So many places don’t have the history,” Chief Slone says. And he’s right. Having an accessible public research archive for a town agency isn’t the norm. But it’s fitting that the old, green, faded log books are now given a place of honor in the RFD’s newest facility.
To purchase a copy of Up In Flames: the Evolution of Russellville Arkansas and its Fire Department, contact Jim Horton at 479-858-2419.

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