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Rugby Fire Dept. marks 120 years with pancake breakfast

By Sue Sitter - | May 22, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT Rugby volunteer firefighters serve up breakfasts of pancakes, kielbasa sausages and eggs to celebrate the department’s 120th anniversary. From left are Dallas Hager, Jerry Kurtyka, Eric Kuntz, Kevin Schepp, Jeremy Johnston and Sonny Lehman.

The Rugby Volunteer Fire Department marked 120 years as a vital part of the community with a pancake breakfast May 16 at the fire hall.

Following their tradition of service to others, firefighters served pancakes, kielbasa and eggs in exchange for free-will donations to help others.

“We’re raising money for the Glenburn Fire Department,” firefighter Mark Voeller said. “They lost everything. We’re also raising money for the Salvation Army. Every year, when Shopko was here, members of the fire department rang the bell for them at Christmas time to raise money. We weren’t able to do that this year, so some of the money we’re going to give to them because they didn’t get any money this year.”

The Glenburn Fire Department suffered a devastating loss of their fire hall and most of the property inside March 6.

The Rugby Volunteer Fire Department was established in 1900. The department postponed their anniversary celebration last year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Voeller said current members had researched the department’s history through meeting minutes to prepare for the event. A restored 1937 engine that had been traded back and forth to Wolford and Rugby sat in front of the fire hall along with more modern equipment for attendees to see. The department’s original water wagon is housed at Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum.

“The department’s pretty much been running steadily for 120 years,” Voeller said, adding, “It’s never been a paid department.”

“There was a period according to the old minutes where they got into it with the city a little bit and disbanded for a little while,” Voeller said. “But it didn’t take long before they got it going again. This was in the early 1900s.”

The department has responded to fires large and small throughout the Rugby area. The Jacobson Store Fire, known as the Million Dollar Fire, is one some residents still talk about.

Caused by furnace problems, the fire destroyed eight businesses when it burned March 25, 1954. Published accounts say its smoke could be seen from 20 miles away.

“It knocked phone service out to Rugby and everything because the telephone house was right next door,” Voeller said. “That’s where Rob St. Michel’s is now. They rebuilt that building.”

One attendee at the breakfast, Gabe Scheet, remembered the Million Dollar Fire.

After joining the department in 1960, Scheet fought a gasoline tank fire at the Farmers Union bulk plant.

“It was one of the most dangerous,” Scheet said of the gas fire. “It was with some great big gas tanks. When the gas burnt itself out, it went out by itself but when those tanks were blowing up, no one knew which way they were going to go,” Scheet recalled. “There was nothing anybody could do.”

Scheet added, “No one got hurt and there was really no property loss except the big tanker that caught fire and the tanks of course.”

Scheet, 95, is a life member of the department and a 2016 inductee into the North Dakota Firefighters Hall of Fame. He joined the department in 1960. Scheet served as fire chief from 1969 to 1971 and was president of the North Dakota Firemen’s Association in 1973. He said he never misses an annual meeting for Rugby firefighters.

“I’m glad to be here,” Scheet said as he ate his breakfast. “Anytime I can be with the fire department, I love it.”

“I grew with the department and I stayed there,” Scheet said. “The guys are always good. I’m getting to be old and all that good stuff, but they’re always there. Rugby has always had a good fire department.”

“Maybe I’m a part of the history,” Scheet added. “I enjoyed my years as a fireman. In fact, I had an awful time after I retired. What happened was the state passed a law that said if you were over 60 years old, you had to resign from the department.”

“Right now, when you look out there and look at equipment and look at the fire hall, man, they have come a long way,” Scheet added. “I remember when I joined, we thought we had the best equipment, but nothing like they have now. It takes almost an engineer to run those trucks now, I’m sure.”

The department moved into their new fire hall in 2015.

Inside the meeting and kitchen area, plaques and photo reproductions hang on the walls.

“This one was the Corner Drug fire in 1985,” Voeller said, pointing to one photo. I wasn’t on the department when that happened.”

A 30-year veteran of the department, Voeller is considered a life member. Firefighters serving with the department for 10 years are eligible for life member status, Voeller said.

Voeller said his father inspired him to join the Rugby Fire Department.

“My dad was a volunteer fireman in Towner,” Voeller said. “That was something I always wanted to do. I’ve always belonged to a lot of organizations but this is the one I enjoy most. It’s a little different from most organizations. There’s a camaraderie here that I’ve never seen on any other organization.”

“There are people you’d probably never spend any time with everywhere else, but here, you get to be good friends,” Voeller added.

Voeller pointed out several plaques engraved with names of firefighters and others who have benefitted the department over the years. “This plaque has life members of the fire department. These guys are all life members. It goes all the way back to charter members in the early 1900s,” he said.

“That plaque there is all the people who donated money to the new fire hall,” Voeller added, pointing to a long list with names of individuals and businesses who support the department.

Voeller said the department has been “very busy” lately. “If we don’t get rain, it’s going to be a long summer, too,” he added.

Like many in the community, Scheet said he notices how hard the department has worked lately. He appreciates it, too.

“You can tell, when that whistle blows, it doesn’t take very long and they’re gone, especially now with the grass fires,” Scheet said.

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