TOMS RIVER – A trail of fire trucks and ambulances screamed through the downtown area, blaring sirens and honking horns. The parade ended at a bandstand where music was playing. All of this was in celebration for the 125th anniversary of Toms River Fire Company No. 1.
Whereas most parades have floats or groups of marchers in the mix, this one was almost entirely first responders. K-9 units took point, so there’d be some distance between them and the sirens.
“Mr. America” or “Uncle Sam,” as he’s sometimes called, got a place of honor near the front. His real name is Joseph Placente, and he’s known for wearing patriotic clothes and carrying the flag in local parades. He waved and saluted people on the sidelines.
Some of the trucks had names like “The Beast,” “Crosstown Express,” and “War Wagon.” Most were local, but they came as far as Wallington and Rutherford.
The parade came down Hooper Avenue, turned right on Water Street, and came up Robbins Street before heading back out on Washington Street. The Shamrock & Thistle band played on the road and in front of the bandstand on Robbins, in front of the fire house. The Music Academy also put on a show, the first time they were able to since the pandemic.
A street festival with vendors was also held, and people shopped among the tables selling crafts, food, art, decorations and other items. Despite the recent rainy days, the weather was pretty good and there was a decent crowd.
It was a family event, which was important, since firefighters spend a lot of time away from their family, who always worry when they are on a call. The firehouse on Robbins is named the Henry Runko Firehouse, after a firefighter who died in the line of duty in 1981. Their substation in West Dover is named the Charles Weingroff Firehouse, named after a firefighter who died in the line of duty in 1973.
The building on Robbins was where they have been since 1913.
The fire company had been incorporated in 1896, however they were operating for years before that, according to company history.
In the early days, the bell atop the fire station had been purchased from Bayville Church. When it rang, teamsters would arrive and pull the truck to the location. They would charge the fire company for their services, and leave the truck at the scene of the blaze for the firefighters to haul back.
The company had bought the truck for $600 from Howe Pump and Engine Company of Indianapolis. It was painted red, white, and blue and was lettered “The Toms River Fire Company.” Upon arrival, they put on a demonstration for the whole town. They put up a makeshift building and set it on fire and put it out twice – first with chemicals from the vehicle and then by drawing water from the Toms River.
Their first motorized truck would come in 1918.
Even in the second half of the 20th century, the volunteers did the best with what they were given. Former Chief Richard Beck has been with the fire company for 62 years, active for 60 of those years. He recalled that when he started, the boots they gave him had holes in them and they didn’t have a helmet that fit him. He used to sleep with the windows open year round so he could hear the siren.
One thing that’s always been needed is volunteers, he said. This has always been a volunteer company, and it’s hard to get people in the door when they live such busy lives. If anyone is interested, they need to just come to any fire house and ask how to join, and they’ll go through the testing and training.
Some families have members from several generations. For example, the Weingroffs. Trustee Carl Weingroff talked about the amazing support shown by the fire companies coming from all over the area for the event. There was even more going on behind the scenes. While all these units were at the parade, other fire companies were covering for them so that no town was without a squad in case of an emergency.
There was also a lot of work that led to the 125th anniversary event being a great success, he said.
But that fits the theme, in that the firefighters do a lot, without most people noticing, so that families can enjoy themselves.