In the years preceding the 1930’s, the cry of FIRE! In the Odenton area of Anne Arundel County was almost certain to result in a significant loss of property. While telephones were gradually finding their way into homes and businesses, only West Annapolis, Earleigh Heights, Glen Burnie, Linthicum, and nearby Fort Meade had organized fire departments. The Odenton area was also vulnerable to the danger of forest and field fires that were started by steam locomotives traversing the same railroads that brought prosperity and development to the area. At least three notable Odenton landmarks, Browns Hotel, the Murray Hotel, and the N. P. Watts Store and residence had burned to the ground by the early to mid-1920’s. In the late 1920’s, yet another fire destroyed the residence of Leroy T. Mankin. Soon after that fire, a group of nine community leaders, including Mankin, decided it was time to take action to protect against further losses to their neighbor’s property.
On the evening of April 6, 1931, a meeting was held at O’Malley’s coal distribution business. By the time the meeting concluded, the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company (OVFC) was organized with the following officers: William A. Pumphrey, Sr., President; Leroy T. Mankin, Vice President; Wylie Lee Donaldson, Secretary; Murray D. O’Malley, Treasurer; and Lester L. Disney, Chairman. The other Charter Members present at this meeting were Charles L. Eckman, Holland P. Watts, John A. Watts, and Wilbur Stevenson.
The next recorded meeting was held on October 16, 1931, at the same location with the first order of business to file for incorporation. The Board was also introduced to C.W. Schaefer who represented the U.S. Fire Apparatus Co. who made arrangements to provide the fire company with its first piece of apparatus, a 1920 Model-T Chemical Wagon that was loaned to the company while they waited the delivery of their new apparatus.
By the beginning of 1932, things were starting to go well for the company and it decided to make application with the Board of County Commissioners of Anne Arundel County for assistance in the form of $2000 an annual appropriation from a fund that had been set up for such a purpose along with a monthly allotment of $100 to pay for the services of a full time chauffeur. Unfortunately, Jessup and Riviera Beach were also organizing fire companies and had also applied for the same assistance. The requests quickly exceeded the funds available so the Board adopted a resolution that no further fire departments be allowed to organize in the county and that any recently organized fire departments, such as Odenton, would have to wait until 1934 to receive any monies. With no immediate source of income to pay for the new apparatus, the order was placed on hold along with plans to build a firehouse. The next two years, the company made do with the Model-T and the property adjacent to Pumphrey’s store served as a parking space for it. On March 31, 1934, in anticipation of the forthcoming appropriation from the county, the Board bought two building lots adjacent to Pumphrey’s Store. Then, according to the county, the Model-T Chemical Wagon, lacking a pump and water supply, did not qualify as an acceptable piece of fire apparatus under the terms of the support agreement. At the same time, there was more bad news when the U.S. Fire Apparatus Co. stated there would be a delay in the delivery of the new apparatus. To help the company out, C. W. Schaefer once again located a used, fully equipped 1930 Chevrolet engine for the fire company. Now it had two pieces of apparatus, with no fire house.
In April 1934, the Board requested President Pumphrey to approach the Silver family and request the use of their warehouse and basement as a temporary firehouse until such time as the fire company could build its own fire station. The request was granted.
In very short order, this temporary firehouse became the center of the company’s fundraising activity. On May 30, 1934, the Board approved the formation of a Ladies Auxiliary but they were not formally organized until April of 1936.
In 1935 William A. Pumphey, Sr. was elected the fire chief of Odenton and served in that position from 1935 until 1942.
By now, membership in the fire company was growing rapidly with 25 new members in April and May of 1934. By the end of August 1934, there were 114 members.
When the County appropriation finally became available in April 1934, it included funds for a full time driver. Charter Member, Charles L. Eckman, was hired in April 1934 as Odenton’s fire paid driver.
The Company joined the Maryland State Firemen’s Association in May 1934 and joined the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Fireman’s Association in September 1936.
With an improved financial outlook, the fire company started to give serious thought to the construction of a new firehouse and to replace the Model-T chemical wagon with a modern piece of apparatus.
By May 1935, the company was ready to move forward to purchase a modern fire pumper capable of carrying 700 gallons of water and to procure the materials to begin construction on the new firehouse. The new 1935 U. S. Fire Apparatus pumper was delivered in December 1935.
The design of the new firehouse was the subject of many heated discussions. As originally designed, the station was supposed to be a two story building with a social hall on the second floor. However, cost considerations prevailed and a single story structure with two engine bays with crew quarters in the rear was approved. Construction of the new firehouse was slow as most of the labor was supplied by the members under the guidance of Charlie Eckman who spent almost all of his spare time laying block and digging wells. Some of the jobs requiring special skills such as pouring and floating the concrete floor were performed with labor volunteered by construction workers from the railroad and the community. The new firehouse was finally completed in late summer 1936. Although the building lacked a social hall, utilizing the floor of the engine bays accommodated some of the smaller fundraisers and meetings. The larger fundraisers were held in the Odenton Elementary School.
While there is little in the form of written documentation for events between 1937 and 1941, it is known that the fire company experienced its first accident with the Chevrolet pumper that sustained serious damage in a head on collision at Route 3 and Route 175 in Millersville.
During the war years and into the mid 1940’s, dances were held giving the company the needed funds necessary to operate. The first Fireman’s Carnival was held in July 1934 on the grounds of the O’Malley Coal Yard. Later, a fireman’s parade was added. The carnival, with the exception of a few years during the war, is still carried on today. The company was now able to use the income from the fundraisers to pay the monthly operating expenses, and the county appropriation was used to make payments on the outstanding notes. The fire company seemed to have finally turned the corner and put some of their financial concerns behind them.
In 1942, due to the increase in rail traffic to support the buildup of the war effort, concerns about the safety of the at-grade crossing on Odenton Road, just to the east of the firehouse were raised. The State of Maryland decided to close Odenton Road on both sides of the railroad tracks and to upgrade Annapolis Road to the status of a state highway (Route 175). These plans included extending Annapolis Road to the east and constructing a vehicle and pedestrian bridge that crossed over the railroad tracks. This change was not immediately recognized as a big impact to the response of the fire company as there were alternate routes to get to Annapolis Road and the bridge over the tracks using Telegraph (Locus) Roads and the western end of Odenton Road. However, there was one problem that was overlooked. There was a spur off of the southbound main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad that ran in a westerly direction parallel to Odenton Road, passing behind the firehouse with grade crossings at Telegraph (Locus) Road and the western end of Odenton Road that terminated in Fort Meade. As the war buildup increased, freight trains bringing supplies into Fort Meade became much longer and frequently blocked off both access roads between Odenton Road and Annapolis Road at the same time. It was not unusual for the fire company to encounter a delayed response of up to 15 or more minutes waiting for the trains to move.
The only solution was to build a new firehouse in a more strategic location and in the spring of 1942, Odenton President Holland P. Watts, appointed a Building Committee headed up by Wylie L. Donaldson to relocate the firehouse.
In March 1943, two suitable parcels of property fronting on Annapolis Road were purchased. William Pumphrey, Sr. offered the company a fair price for the property and the old firehouse. Murray O’Malley stepped forward and expressed his willingness to underwrite a loan to the fire company for the cost of building the new firehouse. Due to the urgency of the situation, the new two bay station was constructed using the same plans and materials used for the old firehouse with few changes. However, once construction started, the supply of building materials available locally soon became exhausted because some construction materials were only available on a prioritized basis for those projects related to the war effort. In early September 1943, Mr. Donaldson wrote an urgent letter to the War Production Board informing them of the dire situation which had an impact not only on the community but also to Fort Meade. The fire company requested a priority rating to permit them to attain the materials necessary to complete the construction of the new station. The fire company was assigned an “AA’1” priority rating and the project moved forward.
A business failure down the road from the new firehouse resulted in a large, frame building being put up for sale that was the right size for a much needed fire hall. Arrangements were quickly made to buy the vacant building and move it several hundred feet up the road onto a new foundation adjacent and just east of the site of the new firehouse. The exterior of the building was painted blue and gray and became known as the Blue and Gray Hall.
The new firehouse with two bays was completed and the fire company started moving into it by the end of 1943. The next major addition came in August 1951 when a third engine bay was added.
In November 1945, a second new engine, a Chevrolet/Oren 500 GPM pumper was purchased.
In February 1946, the company decided to sponsor a weekly bingo game which continued for the next 50 years. The Blue and Gray Hall had proven to be a valuable fundraising asset for the fire company.
In January 1949, Chief Charles Eckman received Board approval to organize a Junior Fireman’s organization as a way of recruiting and training the young men in the community for future service of the fire company.
In the summer of 1949, the company resumed holding an annual carnival on the property adjacent to the new firehouse and in 1951 a fireman’s parade was added to the carnival. It was also decided to construct eight permanent carnival stands and a kitchen in the center of the carnival grounds. They were removed in 1986 when a new larger building, the Howard N. Phelps Pavilion, was constructed and dedicated to him.
In early 1950, it became apparent that the 1935 pumper was nearing the end of its service life. In March 1950, an order was placed for a FWD Model 140 G.K., 500 GPM pumper that was delivered in September 1950 and designated Engine No. 1. The 1935 pumper was temporarily placed out of service, but later was used as a reserve engine. Although the new FWD pumper was all red at the time of delivery, it was repainted in the current white/red colors at a later date. When removed from active service some 20 years later, it was put on display for several years at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville.
During the mid 1950’s, the fire company continued to prosper, thanks to the dedication of the membership. At the end of 1952, the company had about 120 members and was running just under 300 calls a year. In 1954, a radio base station was installed and mobile radios were installed in all of the apparatus.
In 1955, through the efforts of the Anne Arundel County Firemen’s Association, the county agreed to increase the annual appropriation and a referendum to collect a special fire tax was approved by the voters. This brought in additional financial assistance and was distributed equally among each of the fire departments in the county.
In early 1957, the company ordered a new 750 GPM FWD pumper with a 500 gallon water tank and the 1935 U.S. Fire Apparatus pumper was traded in. The new FWD, which became known as “Old 283” was delivered in October 1957 and served for 22 years.
In the late 1950’s, the company acquired a tanker and a utility truck. With this new equipment and only three short engine bays, the company was running out of space.
So, in October 1961, President Ratcliffe appointed a Building Committee, chaired by Samuel Ahmuty, Sr. to study the fire station situation and report back with their recommendations. The committee took their recommendations to the membership for a vote that was approved that included staying at the present location, building a new station with a large attached social hall, and not tearing down the present station. The Building Committee was able to acquire additional property in the rear of the present firehouse and by November 1962 they were ready to draw up plans for the new firehouse and hall. It would be built just to the east of, and attached to the old firehouse with the new hall in the rear of the new firehouse. The expansion of the station made it necessary to move the old Blue and Gray Social Hall to the rear of the carnival grounds where it would be used for a training classroom and small meetings.
Around 1962, early plans were being made to facilitate the pending changes in the county government. The Board of Fire Commissioners proposed the creation of a fifth fire district and the assignment of two paid firefighters to each volunteer station. Odenton voiced their opposition to both of these proposals but were overruled. To provide the volunteer fire service an input to the pending change in the County government, a Fire Advisory Board was established, comprised of one member from each of the councilmanic districts.
In April 1963, the construction contract for the new firehouse and hall was awarded and it was completed within budget by October 1963.
In 1965, the fire company purchased a used GMC brush truck and the 1945 Chevrolet engine was finally retired.
In 1965, the county officially changed over to a Charter Government headed by a County Executive. The Anne Arundel County Fire Department (AACoFD) was also established under the charter with its mission to recruit and train career firefighters to supplement the volunteer ranks, to centralize such fire-related functions as inspections training, dispatch along with establishing a chain of command for the fire ground operations. Odenton now operated under the AACoFD and no longer received direct fire tax revenues. However, they would continue to receive financial assistance from the county in the form of a grant based upon the submission of an annual budget request. At this time, the OVFC was given the number 28 for use on equipment and insignia.
There were also changes in the way new apparatus was procured. After months of prolonged discussion the fire company agreed to buy in on the county specifications and to be included in the bidding for several new pumpers built to county specifications. In December 1969, the company took delivery of an enclosed cab Seagrave, 1000 GPM pumper.
By the 1970’s, the needs of the growing community made it necessary to introduce some new emergency services to supplement the basic services already provided by the fire company. The company moved forward to train a sufficient number of members in Advanced First Aid and by November 1970, the company was ready to initiate an ambulance service.
The first ambulance was a used reserve ambulance that was used until a new ambulance was delivered. Two years later, a dozen members were among the first volunteers to be trained and certified as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) and by 1975, six of the EMTs went on to take advanced training and became certified IV Technicians.
In September 1973, a used 1967 Ford brush truck with a 250 GPM p.t.o. pump was purchased.
On the evening of November 25, 1975, the fire company experienced a disastrous accident with Engine 282 that was responding to a trailer fire in the Jessup area. As it was proceeding west on Route 175 through a poorly marked construction area, it went off the edge of the blacktop and into the shoulder area which had been excavated to a depth of a foot or more. The engine had a full crew, driver and officer in the front seat, two firefighters in the jump seats, and three firefighters on the tail board. Those riding inside the apparatus were thrown around the cab. The three firefighters on the tailboard were thrown off the apparatus onto the road. The engine, although seriously damaged, remained upright and by some miracle, all of the crew members suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Engine 282 was eventually repaired and put back in service.
In December 1976, the fire company successfully submitted the winning bid and won the bid on a package purchase of a used 1964 American La France 70’ Snorkel and a 1965 American La France 1250 GPM open cab pumper. After some extensive body repairs to both rigs, the pumper was put in service as E283 and truck service was initiated by Odenton in the middle of 1977 using the Snorkel. This apparatus (nicknamed the “lead sled”) came complete with its own set of mechanical and hydraulic problems.
In 1976, the company took delivery of a Seagrave, 1250 GPM pumper and started a tradition of dedicating its equipment to members who had shown several decades of continuous outstanding service to the fire company. This unit was dedicated to Samuel Ahmuty, Sr.
In 1977, the Ladies Auxiliary bought a Jeep, CJ-5, that was converted into a brush jeep with the addition of a winch, roll bars, and skid mounted pump.
In March 1978, the company was approved as the only volunteer provider of Advanced Life Support services and for several years Odenton operated the only volunteer paramedic service in the county.
In 1980, the company purchased a 1968 Jeep Military Truck from State Surplus and the members converted it into a brush truck.
In 1982, with the Snorkel in serious need of refurbishment, it was sold. Truck operations resumed two years later with the delivery of a new 1984 Pem Fab/Emergency One, 110 foot aerial ladder truck.
More equipment purchases followed during the 1980’s and into the 1990’s.
In 1984, the Ladies Auxiliary once again assisted the company in the purchase of a replacement CJ-7 brush jeep.
On January 11, 1987, the company had a Line of Duty Death (LODD) when Howard N. Phelps, Sr. died from a heart attack while working as a career firefighter at the Odenton station.
In 1988, the fire company took delivery of another Seagrave 1250 GPM pumper with an enclosed crew cab that was completely refurbished and upgraded in 2004. In 1993, the company purchased its first Rescue Pumper, an Emergency-One 1250 GPM pumper that was dedicated to Murray D. O’Malley, a founder and charter member.
By late 2003, the ravishes of old age, poor lighting, and lack of adequate heating had caught up with the old Blue and Gray hall and it was torn down and a modern training facility and storage building was erected in its place that was dedicated to John E. “Sunny” Rose, Jr. in April 2004. While the building is primarily used for training, it also serves to host small meetings.
In 2004, the fire company bought another Seagrave Rescue/Pumper as a replacement for the Emergency-One Rescue/Pumper. It was dedicated in March 2004 to Past Chief and President and Life Member Wylie L. Donaldson, Jr.
In 2005, a Seagrave 100 foot mid mount tower ladder was purchased replacing the 1984 Pem Fab/E-One ladder truck that had been taken out of service in 2003. Tower/Ladder 28 was dedicated to Past President and Life Member, Charles F. Olson.
Tower 28 had major mechanical problems during its two year stay in Odenton. In 2007, Seagrave agreed to buy back the Tower and Odenton ordered a new Seagrave 100’ rear mount ladder. During the period between returning the Tower and when the new ladder was delivered in 2008, Seagrave provided a reserve ladder in Odenton.
In 2011, a new Pierce Arrow XT was placed in service replacing the 1988 Seagrave pumper. This new unit, Engine 282, was dedicated to Robert L. Rose, Past President and Life Member of the company.
In 2012, the fire company purchased adjacent properties on Nevada Avenue insuring that the company has adequate room to build or expand its facilities when the need arises.
In 2015, medic unit service began in Odenton.
In 2016, property on Nevada Avenue was donated to the fire company. In 2017, a second property on Nevada Avenue was also donated to the fire company.
In April 2016, a major living quarter’s renovation was initiated to provide comfort and safety for the members. This project updated the kitchen and TV areas, created a new female restroom, expanded the female bunkroom, upgrades to the fire alarm system, installation of a fire protection (sprinkler) system, and replaced the old heating and cooling system.
In June 2016, the first John E. “Sunny” Rose, Jr. Memorial Training award was presented at the MSFA convention. The award is sponsored each year by the OVFC to recognize an individual who dedicates the most hours to Fire, EMS, and Rescue training during the year. Sunny dedicated most of his life to teaching others.
In April 2018, the company awarded the honor of “Chief Emeritus” to Wylie L. Donaldson, Jr. and “President Emeritus” to Charles F. Olson in recognition of many years of service while serving in their respective offices.
In 2018, the engine bays were renovated to address our increased responses and necessary updates for the safety of our members. The project included refinishing, resurfacing and sealing the apparatus bay floors, painting of all interior surfaces, installation of new energy efficient lighting throughout, new high capacity heating units with upgraded gas supply piping, commercial grade ceiling fans for better air circulation, and a video security system to enhance safety and security of the property and occupants.
Also in 2018, a state-of-the-art APS Firehouse Alerting system was installed. The system provides the station with a pre-alert, voice and visual, of calls being dispatched. This heads-up alert allows for faster response times by capturing data from the Headquarters’ computer aided dispatch system. The APS system also activates color coded ceiling lights as part of the pre-alert that indicates which piece of apparatus is being dispatched, turns on engine bay lighting for safety, and turns off the kitchen gas range supply to prevent a food fire when on a call.
Over the years, our leadership has risen to both the challenges of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association (AACVFA) and the Maryland State Firemen’s Association (MSFA). Eight of our members served as President of the AACVFA with the first member serving from 1936-1937. Twenty- two of our members were inducted in the AACVFA Hall of Fame which recognizes distinguished service of individuals. Seven of our members were chosen as AACVFA Individual of the Year for their outstanding contribution to the future welfare of volunteerism, within their company, to Anne Arundel County, and the State of Maryland. This is the highest honor of the AACVFA. David Lewis received this award three times and Wylie Donaldson, Jr. received the award twice.
At the MSFA level, two of our members served as President; Thomas L. (Tom) Tharp and David W. (Dave) Lewis respectively. Nine of our members were inducted in the MSFA Hall of Fame which also recognizes distinguished service of individuals. Three of our members received the Gladhill-Thompson award for outstanding contributions to the MSFA. This is the MSFA’s highest honor. One of our members received the Marbery F. Gates award for 50-years of continuous and faithful service to the organizations within the Association. Two of our members received the Robert H. Shimer Administrator of the Year award which recognizes the outstanding fire, rescue, or EMS administrative person. It is noted that Wylie L. Donaldson, Jr. is one of two people statewide (the other one is deceased) to receive all three of the MSFA top awards – Gladhill-Thompson award, Marbery F. Gates award, and the Robert H. Shimer Administrator of the Year award.
In 2019, Past President and Chief Wylie L. Donaldson, Jr. was awarded the National Volunteer Fire Council Lifetime Achievement Award. This is the first time a member of OVFC has been recognized for this national award.
In 2019, the History and Archives committee completed an expanded display wall in our social hall with pictures of the past and present Chiefs and Presidents of the OVFC. This is quite an undertaking and took countless hours to research who served when and to locate photos of each officer.
As we summarize the proud history of the OVFC, we would be remiss if we did not recognize two outstanding Life Members. Life Member William “Byron” Phelps who has accumulated 76 continual years of membership and still regularly attends the company meetings and fundraisers. Past President, Past Chief, and Life Member Wylie L. Donaldson Jr., who is the third generation of his family to serve this fire company and who has accumulated 67 continual years of active membership and still continues to actively support this fire company on a daily basis.
The OVFC is proud of our Ladies Auxiliary which continuously provides financial and other support to our operation and has faithfully done so since April 1936.
In summary, the OVFC has provided fire, rescue, and Basic Life Support Emergency Services to residents in a 25 square mile area for over 85 years. Our active volunteer members are encouraged to serve their duty at the fire station in eight hour shifts including overnight stays. The Company sponsors several fundraising events such as mail out drive, photo fundraisers, carnival, Bull and Oyster Roasts, Crab Feasts, and Food Truck Thursday’s to offset the expenses of maintaining our apparatus and facilities. With the average annual number of emergency responses exceeding 5000 calls, we are continually recruiting and training our volunteer male and female members to respond to the needs of a growing community which includes several schools, assisted living facilities, shopping centers, a major highway, and the main line railroad connecting Baltimore and Washington.