In October of 1922, a group of civic minded gentlemen recognized the need for fire protection in the Franklin School District of Wilkins Township. Meeting in a garage, these men formed the Franklin Volunteer Fire Company. An initiation fee of $1.00 and dues of 10¢ per month was established amazingly, times haven't changed very much. In fact, it's cheaper to be a member today than in 1922. Dues in 2009 are $1.25 annually! At the time Franklin VFC was the third fire company in Wilkins Township, the other two being Wilkins #1 in the Linhart section of the township, and Wilkins #2 located on Brown Avenue. The former continues to operate today while the latter folded sometime in the 1930's.
Eighty-six years ago, Wilkins Township was primarily an agrarian community. Those that did not farm had a myriad of industrial plants to gain employment in. At one time, Westinghouse, U.S Steel, Union Railroad, and hundreds of coal mines dotted the local landscape. As the population grew, citizens saw the need for better fire protection. It was in this backdrop that the organization began to take shape. Under the leadership of President Harry Schoeller and Chief J. Watt, the fledgling organization struck out to learn how to be firemen. At one of the first drills, it was requested that all of the members bring buckets! Although the 1920's were not the most advanced times in terms of fire fighting technology, this was just slightly behind the standard of the day. In 1923, a committee consisting of Mr. Mease, Johnson, Coburn, Williams, Delaney, Scully, and Schoeller approached the commissioners for money to buy equipment. The request was granted and a one ton truck, two nozzle wrenches, two five gallon balcocks, and two extension ladders were purchased. A year later an equipment cart was purchased from Burgettstown Fire Company. When it arrived at Chief O'Brien's house, it was discarded as being a “pile of junk.”
The remainder of the 1920's saw the fire department continue to grow and establish its place in the community. In 1928, the fire company moved into a new building which it used until 1965 and drills were held to hone the skills necessary to be firefighters. Every so often the alarm would sound and the men would rush to the garage, haul out the hand cart and streak down Greensburg Pike only to discover the chief was drilling them to respond quicker. Sometimes however, the alarm was real. In one instance it was reported that the fire company's apparatus did not respond to a fire that partially destroyed Franklin School. Our firemen assisted Forest Hills who only had two men on their truck.
The dawn of the thirties was shadowed by the black cloud of the Depression. In spite of this national hardship, the fire company continued to grow. 1935 saw the beginning of an event which over the next 50 or so years would be the source of great consternation, and more than just a little bit of fun, The Street Fair . The first street fair had carnival games, games of chance, and a parade. The initial committee, headed by Ralph Shafer, held the fair at a lot on Electric Ave the week of May 20. During the 1930's, the fire company also became active in local firemen’s organizations such as East Boros and The Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s' Association. A Cadillac squad was purchased during this time and the fabled hand cart was finally phased out.
In 1940, the fire company began looking into the possibility of buying a new truck. The new truck committee, which had $1,057 in their fund, sent out bids to seven fire apparatus companies in July, 1941. Five were returned. A bid from the Peter Pirsch Corporation was accepted and a down payment of $1,000 was made. When World War II broke out in December of that year, the truck the fire company ordered was commandeered by the War Production Board and delivered to the Navy. Not willing to wait out the duration, the members sent a letter to local congressmen and to the WPB requesting a meeting. By 1943, the truck was released and the Pirsch was delivered. This truck served Wilkins #3 until 1975. World War II brought on tough times for the fire company. Many of the men were off to war and money and material to maintain equipment was in short supply, with most available and quality supplies going to the war effort. However, the post-war boom of the country was reflected in the revitalization of Franklin VFC.
In 1948 several new members joined the fire company. A few of them are still active today and are among the most respected members of our fire company. Among them are Hank Maroda, Bob Skrbin, and Dave Shafer. Joining within the next few years were Bill Bowlin, Ray Burkhart, Fran Colonello, Whitey McClleland and June Stewart. According to one story, this group decided that the Pirsch needed some work. Piece by piece, they took the truck apart and sent them to work with their fathers at Westinghouse to be chromed, resourceful to say the least.
The 1950's were a very active time. In 1951 a GMC panel truck was purchased for the sum of $1,750, new fire-fighting equipment was purchased and training increased a great deal. In 1955, Jim O'Brien began a tenure of 22 years as the fire company's President. In 1959, a new truck was ordered and in 1960, the first truly modern fire truck Wilkins #3 owned was delivered - the Maxim. For the next 25 years it would serve as either a first or second run unit.
The 1960's saw another important development. Shortly after delivery of the Maxim, the need for a new building was recognized. Money would have to be borrowed for this undertaking, so the fire company sought to become a charter organization. This resulted in the official name change from Franklin VFC to Wilkins Twp VFC #3. The current fire station was constructed between 1964 and 1965. At a cost of some $51,000, the building was a welcome addition to the community. Membership increased as did interest in the fire company itself. A five year report in 1965 showed the financial status of the fire company. Average annual receipts were $8,198, disbursements were $3,802 and savings were $4,050. In 1966, Wilkins #3 signed a charter to sponsor a Scout Troop and a By-Law amendment establishing non-resident members went into effect. In 1968, much discussion was held at meetings regarding the fire company's role in civil disturbances, proving that not even a small town like Wilkins was immune from the social turmoil enveloping our country. It was determined that participation was up to the individual firefighter. In 1968 the use of radios at fire calls began. Call signs for individual units were assigned and Forest Hills began dispatching. In 1969, a Ford squad truck was purchased at a cost of $6,195.
The 1970's saw Wilkins move into a new era. An influx of members resulted in the bulk of the membership we have today. A glance down the roster reveals the vast majority of our members joined sometime in the 70's. In 1972, the fire company held a year long celebration of its 50th anniversary, culminating with a weekend getaway at the now defunct Conley's on Rt. 22. In 1975, the Tele-Squirt was purchased from the Pierce Corporation. It was first piece of aerial apparatus in the township and Wilkins #3 remains the only company in Wilkins to run such a piece of equipment. During this time, members began to take part in state and county conventions, a tradition upheld to this day. These events are the subject of countless memories and stories by those who attended, and whose names will remain anonymous to protect the innocent. 1977 was the final year that Mr. O'Brien held the office of President, marking the end of an era. In 1978, the first sets of bunker gear were purchased for $6200 or $258 per man. The seventies closed out rather auspiciously.
That same year, a committee was formed to replace the 69 Ford, which had grown much too small to handle its duties. The result was Service 17, a 1981 Mack which is still in service today. This was to be the first of three vehicles purchased by the fire department in the 80's. In 1987, Tower 16 was purchased from the Sutphen Corporation and continues to be our first run unit. A year later, Engine 18, a 1965 Mack pumper was purchased from Churchill VFC and completely refurbished. It was sold to Forbes Trail Vo-tech in 1995. In 1983, the fire company decided it had outgrown the building, and so an addition with a second floor was added. While the structure is sound, at the time some of the methods used to build it were questioned. For example, at one point the contractor looked at the half built addition and asked, "Do you guys want any windows in this thing?" Nonetheless, the addition somehow got built.
The 1980's were a time of change and development. The training methods and equipment improved as a response to the new challenges facing firefighters. Wilkins #3 became a member of the Allegheny County Hazardous Materials Unit's "Red Team" and serves as a vital member of that organization to this day. The first sections of four-inch hose were purchased in 1983 to improve the water supply at the fire ground. Each first run unit of the three Wilkins companies received 1,000 feet. Some notable fires were the St. Thomas Church fire in 1983, the Perna Industries fire in 1986, the old Spa fire in 1988 and the Westinghouse R&D fire in 1989.
The current decade has been a good one for Wilkins #3. Training has been taken to a higher level and we strive to maintain up-to-date equipment as much as our budget allows. We are very fortunate to have been spared much of the financial crunches that have hit many other local fire companies, but not the concern of gaining new volunteers. This is a problem which, unfortunately, is not unique to Wilkins #3. None the less, the fire department moves on to bigger and brighter horizons. In 1991, street fairs came to an end, but as a community gathering, they seem to have been replaced by the annual Lenten Fish Fry. No longer does the squad truck patrol the streets of the 3rd district imploring one and all to, "come out to the annual street fair." It now informs you of, "Fish! Fish! Fish!" for six weeks in the spring. In 1993 we purchased a used police car and designated it Squad 19 to be used as a "run around" vehicle and in 1996 we purchased Squad 18, a Ford pick-up truck. In 1994, Tower 16 won first place at the Pennsylvania State Firemen convention and landed our picture on the cover of the, "Pennsylvania Fireman," magazine. Since that time, the Tower has taken a few lumps at fires, most notably the two Copper Mill fires in 1995. 1997 marked the 75th anniversary of our fire company.
Over the years, Wilkins Township VFC #3 has changed to the point where its founding members would not even recognize it. Of course, that can be said of most anything that is 86 years old While the changes have blurred the past, the mission of the fire company remains the same: To protect the lives and property of the citizens of Wilkins Township. That is the uniting factor of all firefighters past and present. What will the next 86 years hold? No one knows for sure. It is no secret that volunteerism in the fire service is reaching critical lows in America. One thing is certain however: if Wilkins #3 can continue in the same tradition it has for the past 86 years, the future will indeed be bright.