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Major events in 125-year history of Homewood FD

Editor’s note: The Homewood Fire Department will hold its annual open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9. The event is fun and education, providing activities for the whole family that teach fire safety. The UCAN medical helicopter is expected to make an appearance.

The Homewood Fire Department is celebrating 125 years of dedicated service to the citizens of Homewood. The department has responded to thousands of incidents, including these notable calls:

1896: The first fire Feb. 24 engulfed the saloon of George Mertens and spread to the adjacent general store and feed store. All were a total loss. They were some of the village’s original businesses at what is today Ridge Road and Harwood Avenue.

1907: The first recorded fire fatality was a traveler sleeping in the village hall calaboose. When the fire was discovered about 8 a.m. on Dec. 5, and the night lodger was found suffocated by the smoke.

1914: On May 3, the clubhouse building of Homewood Country Club (today’s Flossmoor Golf Club) was destroyed by fire caused by a lightning strike. Ironically, it was the second time the clubhouse, on Illinois Street just east of Western Avenue, was struck by lightning (the first was 1907).

1928: A Feb. 12 fire destroyed the Homewood Feed Store on Harwood Avenue near Ridge Road. Firefighters’ efforts helped control the blaze and stop the spread to adjacent buildings in the downtown area.

1930: A June 29 fire took the lives of two Homewood children when their home at 183rd Street and Hood Avenue was destroyed by a blaze that was believed to have been caused by a toppled oil lamp that ignited window curtains. Neighbors, police and teen brothers were able to rescue two young children, but an 11-year-old girl died on scene. The 15-year-old brother died the next day.

Two days later the Homewood Village Board voted to replace its outdated fire engine for a new 1,000 gallon-per-minute Ahrens-Fox fire engine. It served the department until 1961.

1947: On Aug. 2, an electrical storm and lightning strikes ignited two fires, virtually across the street from each other. Fire destroyed a hanger and 18 airplanes on the grounds of the Washington Park Airport located south of 187th on the west side of Halsted Street. Within minutes, lightning also struck a barn at the Glenwood Manual Training School on the east side of Halsted. The airport, first opened in 1939, closed in 1950 after another fire there.

1959: A spectacular fire destroyed Surma’s Restaurant Feb. 7. Homewood firefighters, assisted by five surrounding towns, fought the fire that engulfed the restaurant. Surma’s rebuilt and remained in business until 2003. Balagio’s Restaurant occupies the building today.

1967: Children playing with matches were blamed for setting a fire that destroyed the abandoned Parson’s Ammonia Co. plant on June 30. The plant was scheduled for demolition at the time of the fire. It is now the site of the Flosswood Condominium complex.

1977: What will probably be the most spectacular fire in Homewood’s history was fought on Feb. 5 when fire destroyed the wood-framed grandstand and Jockey Club of Washington Park Racetrack. The smoke and glow of flames were visible all over the South Suburbs. Firefighting was hampered by bitterly cold temperatures, high winds and an inadequate water supply. No patrons or horses were injured in the fire which spelled the death of the racetrack on Halsted Street between 175th Street and Ridge Road.

1996: On April 9, a worker cleaning the interior of a village water tower fell about 15 feet inside the tower. Firefighters reached the victim in the tower but could not safely remove him since the department’s aerial equipment could not reach the catwalk on the tower. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was called and, in a dramatic scene, airlifted the victim off the top of the tower and flew him to a hospital for treatment. He was released the following day.

2004: A five-alarm fire gutted Chuck’s House of Magic, 183rd Street and Dixie Highway, on Halloween. Fire consumed the space and the roof collapsed. More than 20 pieces of fire apparatus responded to the scene. Chuck’s reopened at 18725 Dixie Highway and remained there until the business closed permanently in 2011.

2010: On March 30, Homewood Fire Department suffered its first fatality when Firefighters Brian Carey and Kara Kopas entered a home at 17622 Lincoln Ave. with a hose line. While advancing inside, there was a “flashover” in the front room, severely injured both. Tragically, Carey died. Kopas recovered after a lengthy hospitalization. The elderly homeowner perished in the blaze.

1870s Steiner Engine still around
As Homewood flourished, townspeople became more concerned about protecting their properties from fire. August Steiner, a blacksmith and owner of a grain and flourmill, built a small hand drawn pumping apparatus in the 1870s to provide fire protection for his mill.

This engine worked similar to water pumps found in homes at the time. Pull the handles up, water would be drawn into the pump. Push the handles down, water would be forced out the side of the pump into a hose line. A small water tank on the pumper had to be kept filled, usually by bucket brigade, when the engine was in use.

Steiner housed the pumper at his mill. In 1880 a small engine house was built in town and the hand pumper formed the nucleus of the village’s fire defenses.

Today the old Steiner hand pumper, Engine 1, is on permanent display at the fire department’s Brain Carey Training Center on 191st Street.

This story was contributed by Jim Wright of Homewood Historical Society

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