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DL firefighters restore historic fire bell

Ryan Swanson and the restored fire bell: It was a matter of departmental pride and honoring local firefighter history. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 2
The old Detroit Lakes Fire Department was in a building that still stands near the Washington Square Mall. The bell can be seen on one corner of the rooftop. Submitted Photo2 / 2

The tolling of the iron bell high atop the fire hall at one time alerted firefighters and citizens of a dangerous fire in Detroit Lakes.

Technology has since greatly improved the way emergency personnel are alerted to a situation, and the heavy bell was placed on display in front of the current Detroit Lakes fire hall. Exposed to the elements for nearly 40 years, the old bell fell into disrepair and started showing signs of its age.

Firefighter Ryan Swanson felt such an important piece of the Detroit Lakes Fire Department history needed to be repaired.

"I'm big on the department history," Swanson said. "And in my mind, this is a big part of the department's history. You want to keep the memory of the guys who used to have to actually respond to (the bell). Our day and age is a lot different than what they had to go through."

That bell was the only fire alarm system Detroit Lakes had for many years, according to former fire chief Arville Thompson. He said the bell was replaced by a siren, which was replaced by a telephone system, which was replaced in the late 1960s by the pager radio system still in use today.

Thompson spent 25 years as a firefighter, serving as assistant chief for four years and chief for ten. He said 1961 was his first year with the department.

"Back in those days, they didn't have air masks or protective clothing like they have now," Thompson said. "You'd measure a firefighter by how much smoke he could eat."

The equipment the firefighters used was much different, too. In the early 60s, the department was still using a 1927 LaFrance pumper truck, which is now restored and can be seen in parades. The tanker they used was a converted milk truck and their newest fire engine was a 1948 Chevrolet that made every call until 1968, Thompson said. They used rubber boots, non-insulated rubber jackets and fiber or leather helmets with no masks.

"Things have changed a lot," he said. "Now, one of the most expensive things a city can have is the fire department with all those units and expensive equipment. But it's a necessity."

The old fire hall is the brick building kitty-corner from Washington Square Mall currently housing the MPCA and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson's local office, among other businesses.

The bell was located in a spire on the northeast corner of the roof. Thompson said the fire chief lived in the basement of the fire hall, and when a fire call would come in, the chief would go ring the bell to alert firefighters in town.

The existing fire hall was built in 1968 and it has received a major addition and other improvements since then.

The process to restore the bell started in July when it was removed from its crumbling base and brought to Minnesota Metalworks to be sandblasted and primed.

Cracks and chips were repaired. Once the bell was back at the fire hall, it was measured and the new base on the northeast lawn of the fire hall, which is now more visible since the closing off of Main Street. The new base was built using bricks left over from the construction of the hall.

"It looks 100 percent better," Swanson said. "And when it's all said and done, with the name plate up there, it's going to look really good."

Swanson said he and fellow firefighter Mark Olson would like to get the restored bell in place this winter, but for sure by early spring.

The bell, which weighs, "a lot," according to Swanson, will have to be hoisted into place with some heavy equipment, then bolted to the base.

Swanson said several local businesses, including Minnesota Metalworks, Strata, Roger Winter Masonry, Brushmarks and Ness Granite, all donated time and materials to help with the restoration project.

"We do what we do down here for the pride of the department," Swanson said. "When something starts looking a little ratty, we don't like it. A lot of this is department pride."