While the jury’s still out on whether they’d approve of putting 125 candles on a cake, local firefighters are celebrating a major anniversary for the Excelsior Fire District this year.
Fire inspector and unofficial historian Kellie Murphy-Ringate has spent months perusing old photos and piecing together the history of the department. Scott McGinnis of the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, a professional historian who’s helped with the project, notes that Excelsior was considered a Minneapolis suburb as early as the 1890s, when the railroad came through. But the community—and its fire suppression strategy—has changed a lot over the years. The first fire apparatus, McGinnis says, “had no drive train, no horses—there were crossbars pulled by firemen to the site of the fire.” The technology was terribly antiquated, even when it was implemented in Excelsior.
Thankfully, the department and its equipment have come a long way. But they’re still just as central to the community. “We’re like an insurance policy. People pay a premium through their tax dollars, but fortunately very few submit a claim. But when they do, they have high expectations,” says chief Scott Gerber, who’s been with the department for 10 years. “This business is about people. It’s a great honor to think about what our ancestors started, and that we get to build on that.”
Excelsior Fire District Through the Years
Excelsior Township has an official hook-and-ladder company, according to the Minnesota Annual Report. “It was literally a big iron hook and a really heavy ladder,” says Murphy-Ringate. “After a fire, the chimney would often be left standing, and they’d pull the chimney down for safety purposes.”
The Excelsior Bucket Brigade is organized. And yes, they actually have buckets. “When there was a fire, everybody would come out to pass buckets and put the fire out—they’d get water from the lake, cisterns, ponds—they’d throw snow on it. There were livery stables everywhere in those days, horse troughs; people got water wherever they could,” says Murphy-Ringate.
The first mention of the Excelsior Fire Department is found in the Village of Excelsior Council minutes.
A hook-and-ladder truck and chemical cart.
The first recorded fire is at the feed storehouse of Apgar and Nash (226 Water St.). Around the same time, George Elmer Munger becomes fire chief and organizes the Excelsior Volunteer Fire Department. It holds its first annual dance and 100 people show up. (Tickets were 50 cents.)
A New Year’s Day fire starts in Farrow Grocery Store,
leaving only two of the buildings on the west side of Water Street. A
bell tower is built, and soon after, the bell cracks and has to be
replaced. Herbert Morse fishes one—from the steamboat Belle of
Minnetonka—from a junk pile.
The Excelsior Fire Department gets the first horse-drawn, gasoline-powered pump (fire engine) in the state of Minnesota.
A horse cart at the site of the Sampson Block fire.
The area’s first motorized fire truck tops out at 40 mph and costs $8,884.23.
The Red Owl fire at 205 Water St.
The three-day EFD Fire Festival raises funds for a new fire station at 339 Third St.
The department is the first to install two-way truck radios, and it holds its first-ever smelt fry. Apparently it was a hit, because the annual tradition went on through the late ’80s.
Engine No. 5.
Wayne Stern joins the department. His sons Kim and Kevin, and grandson Alex, are still in the department today.
Danceland—where the Rolling Stones once played—burns
down. “It was not the biggest fire in the Excelsior Fire Department’s
history, but it just may be the most infamous,” says Murphy-Ringate.
Firefighters Skip Sweeny, Bonnie Morse and Javk Urbia.
Lorraine Langer donates the department’s first rescue boat in memory of her husband, John, who had drowned the winter before. The same year, firefighters’ metal helmets, long rubber boots and coats are replaced with bunker coats, pants and more modern fire helmets.
Residents can now dial 9-1-1 instead of seven digits for emergencies.
The center bay of the station is modified to accommodate a new aerial truck with a 65-foot ladder and a nozzle that can spray 1,000 gallons of water per minute. Eight months later, it gets a workout when a fire starts above Ace Hardware and threatens Water Street.
The Excelsior Fire Department becomes the Excelsior Fire District, serving Excelsior, Deephaven, Greenwood, Shorewood and Tonka Bay. Mark DuCharme becomes the first full-time chief.
The Excelsior Fire District and the South Lake Minnetonka
Police Department move into the South Lake Public Safety building. It
has six drive-through bays, administrative offices, an emergency
operations center and training spaces. A 24-foot Boston Whaler rescue
boat is docked on Lake Minnetonka.
Station No. 2 opens next to Deephaven City Hall, the LRT Trail and Village Hall Park.
Station No. 1 is dedicated to John “Skip” Sweeney who served from 1950 to 2005. (Five generations of Sweeneys have served in the department.)
From left, assistant chief Dana George, Scott Nelson, captain Alex Stern, John Barnes, fire inspector Kellie Murphy-Ringate, battalion chief Pat McCarthy, Mark Roufs and David Hoo.
Happy 125th birthday, Excelsior Fire!
Party with the department this month and participate in one (or more) of these community events.
September 10: Anniversary Open House
Stop by for a tour at either station, a parade of historic fire trucks and firefighter water fights. A time capsule celebrating the department’s 125th anniversary will be on display.
September 12: Tapping History
These monthly events are sponsored by the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society. Enjoy a beer at Excelsior Brewing Company (421 Third St., Excelsior) and learn about the Excelsior firefighters of yesteryear.
October 6: Fire Prevention Open House & Safety Fair
This annual event features demos and safety tips, the only fire truck rides of the year, and free dinner. There will also be an appearance from mascot Sparky the Fire Dog. “He’s more popular around here than Mickey Mouse,” says Murphy-Ringate. (This year is Sparky’s 65th birthday, by the way.) Kids are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite superheroes.
Excelsior Fire District Station No. 1
24100 Smithtown Road, Shorewood
Excelsior Fire District Station No. 2
20227 Cottagewood Road, Deephaven
*Historical photos courtesy of the Excelsior Fire District