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Island fire department has long, rich history

May 3, 2017
By ED FRANKS ( , Pine Island Eagle

In the years before 1955, one of the most feared dangers to Pine Island/Matlacha residents was fire. People were almost helpless to fight fires because Pine Island didn't have a fire department.

Then in 1955, Pine Island residents learned about a 1924 American La France firetruck that was for sale in Fort Myers. The only condition of the sale was that the truck would be sold only to a "volunteer" fire department.

Several Matlacha men rushed to assemble a fire department and named it the Volunteer Matlacha Fire District. The "firemen" named CC "Buck" Mims as their fire chief, and bought the old truck for $1. The truck was kept on Mims' property on Porpoise Point in Matlacha.

It didn't take long for the firemen to learn that the truck they purchased for $1 was a "city" truck and would only travel about 8 city blocks before the engine would overheat and the freeze plugs would blow out. Whenever a call came in, the firemen would drive 8 blocks, the engine would overheat, they'd stop the truck, hammer in new plugs, refill it with water and continue on their way - repeating the procedure every 8 city blocks or so.

When the second fire chief, William Champine, was named, Marty Slater was named assistant chief and the fire truck was moved to Sunset Tackle Shop in Matlacha (which Slater owned). In 1957 the truck caught fire.

This left the island without a firetruck and in 1957 the firemen and their wives went door to door to raise funds for another truck. They raised $300 and were able to purchase a used truck, a 1949 Dodge, and a second-hand pump.

The wives also formed an auxiliary and the Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control Board was established to give the department a permanent tax base.

Members of the new fire board convinced the state to donate the land where Matlacha Park is today to Lee County. The county then approved the land for a new fire house.

At that time, in 1957, the land was all mangrove swamp and had to be cleared. The firemen cleared the land and planted grass while the Ladies Auxiliary kept the sandwiches and cold drinks coming.

Once the firehouse was built, the department still lacked funds for equipment and it fell to the firemen to build their own trucks using spare parts from other fire departments' junked fire equipment. The Ladies Auxiliary started bingo games, afternoon card parties, bake sales and pot luck suppers to raise the funds needed.

Up until 1957, ambulance service was provided by Fort Myers funeral homes. Then in 1958, the department added ambulance service. The only training requirement to serve as an EMT was first aid training. In order to keep the service running, the auxiliary raised funds by selling subscriptions of $1 for every homeowner.

Two ambulances were donated by Mr. Englehardt from Englehardt Funeral Home in Fort Myers - a 1957 Pontiac and a 1963 Oldsmobile. In 1972, Pine Island purchased its first new ambulance a new Dodge for $11,000.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the island population grew and a new centrally located firehouse was needed. About 1965, the land adjacent to Phillips Park was donated by the county. A new fire station was built using tax revenues and donations with much of the work done on a voluntary basis by firemen in their spare time.

Fundraisers by Pine Island residents were the mainstay of building and maintaining the fire department and ambulance service. As the island population grew, so did the fire department. Today Pine Island has three fire houses: one in The Center, one in St. James City and one in Bokeelia. A fourth is scheduled for Matlacha.

Source: "Pine Island the Forgotten Island" by Elaine Blohm Jordan. (1982)



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