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Fire department history forged in community

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This year will mark a couple of very important events in the history of our area. The Argyle Volunteer Fire Department is opening its new fire station on Gibbons Road at FM 407 and also celebrating its 50th anniversary.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of the contribution that these firefighters have made to our area, however all of us in the Cross Timbers should take pride in them, not only the proud citizens of Argyle.

If the original founders of the AVFD could see what their efforts created, they would, without a doubt, be amazed. The organization that started in the spring of 1963 now provides protection with fire, rescue, and emergency medical services for the citizens of Argyle, Bartonville, Copper Canyon, Corral City, Lantana, Northlake and much of the unincorporated land surrounding these cities.

The new fire station will be a modern 15,400 square foot building. It will join the station in Lantana and the substation in Bartonville, which together will house a fleet of three engines, two brush trucks, three ambulance units, one rescue squad and two support trucks.

Presently there are 18 volunteer and 36 career members, 75 percent of whom have some type of medical rating. However, the degree of protection that this force provides was not always present in the Cross Timbers area.

Back in the 1950’s, people in southern Denton County were becoming increasingly aware of fire dangers in our area. The older farmsteads were being converted from cotton and wheat fields into cattle ranches. More pasture land and more people moving here made for greater fire dangers. In the days before automobile air conditioning, open car windows with a large percent of the population addicted to cigarettes made for an increasing occurrence of grass fires. Newer homes of the time seemed to always be built with wood shingle roofs and wood burning fireplaces, which further increased the risk of fire. About the only protection that local residents had were home fire extinguishers and garden hoses.

Fire departments in towns such as Denton and Lewisville did sometimes respond to requests for help from this area but it was not their responsibility to venture outside of their city limits. The vulnerability of property owners in the Cross Timbers area was obvious. With this in mind, a group of individuals made a decision to organize a volunteer fire department for the area around the newly incorporated town of Argyle. There was strong encouragement from fire officials in Denton and Pilot Point but the skills and the determination of a few of our early citizens provided the catalyst that created the AVFD. There is no possible way to credit all of the men and women responsible for the incubation of the AVFD, but there are a few especially worthy of note:

Grover Wallace was born in 1912 on a farm in Argyle. Both of his parents were born in Denton County and his roots here were very deep. Grover worked on area farms as a young man then got a job stringing wires for the local phone company. It seemed he knew everyone and everyone knew Grover. He was very aware of the dangers that fire could pose to regions like the Cross Timbers. Grover was among the first of our citizens to propose forming a volunteer fire company. Grover was a religious man and whether he was climbing telephone poles or fighting grass fires he often could be heard singing church hymns. Grover was also a city councilman and the very first chief of the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department.

Elmo Smith was born in 1920 just up the creek in the little settlement of Stony. He grew up on his father’s farm and that is probably where he developed the knack for fixing things. Elmo owned and ran a garage in Argyle. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the effort to organize a fire company. His skill at making old balky engines run was of great value to the infant AVFD. Elmo was very well liked and also served as fire chief.  

Richard Hensley worked as a mechanic in Elmo Smith’s garage for many years. Richard was Elmo’s son-in-law, which made building the department and fighting fires a bit of a family affair. Richard Hensley was the fire chief for over twenty years. He also was an owner of Dependable Trash Service and at one time served as the mayor of Argyle.

James Price is the son of James and Lois Price who, along with their son, owned and operated the Bartonville Store for many years. He got to know just about everyone in the area including some of the early members of the AVFD. When he was still in high school James joined the group, at least to the extent that an eager teenager was allowed to. James Price has now been a member of the group for a record-breaking 41 years. He has served in just about every capacity from floor scrubber to fire chief.

Charles Jenkins, Clarence (Whiz) Whisenhunt, Elwood Harral, and Earl Cochran were some of the early officers and directors of the group. Doyle Smith, Pete Livingston, DeWitt McDaniel, Ray Smith, E.E. Pickle, T.J. Self, Tom Howard, Charles Jenkins, Bob Malone, Bill Carpenter and Charles Evans were some of the very first volunteers.

A part of the creation of the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department that cannot be overemphasized was the role played by the women of our area.  At its inception, Geniece Whisenhunt, Wilda (Tootsie) Hensley and Yvonne Jenkins worked to get the AVFD started even though in 1963 it was commonly believed that few if any females could perform the tasks of firefighting. Even so, much of the heavy lifting of early fundraising was borne by the ladies. 

Within its first few months of operation, the brand new AVFD raised sufficient funds to purchase a well-used tanker truck. Unfortunately during one of the first service calls the truck engine threw a rod, which put the only vehicle that the AVFD owned out of commission. This could have been a lethal blow to the brand new fire unit, except for the response by the ladies of Argyle. They held a series of bake sales and chili suppers, often with the help of groups like the 4-H Club and Boy Scouts. As a result, a new engine block was bought and the truck was back in service and ready for action by the first week of January, 1964.

The women continued with their strong support of the program sponsoring a variety of fundraising events such as Chili Suppers, Talent Shows, Raffles, Domino Tournaments, BBQ Dinners, Fashion Shows and Bake Sales, Garage Sales, Pet Vaccinations, Turkey Shoots, Poster Contests, Christmas Gift Bazaars and direct solicitations. They also conducted a very successful annual event called the Miss Flame Contest. The women became more and more active and in 1971 formally organized into the Women’s Auxiliary of the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department.

One problem that the early department had to contend with was the fact that most of their volunteers had jobs. When fires were reported during work hours, it took time for them to leave work, drive to the fire station, suit up and get to the fire. Some of the ladies in the Women’s Auxiliary volunteered to drive the truck and get the equipment to the emergency site to minimize response time. To do so, it was determined that they would have to meet certain height and strength requirements and go through a training program. Among the Auxiliary members who qualified were: Sue Anderson, Martha Beavers, Martha Hanson, Tootsie Hensley, Sonny Hueholt, Yvonne Jenkins, Sherley Long, Lori Long, Cathi Robbins, Sherrie Robbins and Kay Utesch. The women did not respond to all of the fire calls, only those where they were needed under emergency conditions. However there were times when they did respond and by the time that male volunteers got to the fire, it was extinguished.

All of this occurred during a time when fire departments in cities such as Dallas and Fort Worth were under mandates from the Justice Department to hire one minority firefighter for each non-minority hired. Large cities were told to balance new hires
based on race, ethnicity and gender. They tried but were unable to entice female candidates to even apply. In 1977 recruiters from Dallas tried to meet their goals by enticing women from Denton County to apply.

Since 1963 there has been a steady growth of membership and skill levels and the old “hand-me-down” vehicles and tools have been gradually replaced by more up-to-date equipment. Now the department responds to about 1,200 calls per year. Average response time for both fire and medical emergencies is just eight minutes. It is very likely the new fire station will improve this number. Current Fire Chief Mac Hohenberger seems to be very proud of the AVFD and he has every right to be. We should all be proud of this homegrown group of first responders.

Contact Jim Morriss at jmorriss@aol.com.

 

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