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Remembering historic firehouse and friendship

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SNOQUALMIE - The backdrop for lifelong friendships isn't always friendly.

It was flames and smoke that brought together Lee Briggs, Ed Wentz and their tight-knit group of volunteer firefighters whose whole world, for a time, revolved around a little makeshift firehouse on River Street.

With the old Snoqualmie firehouse closing this month to send firefighters to the new station, the two retired volunteer firefighters recently met up at the firehouse to talk about days gone by.

At one time Wentz, a volunteer firefighter for 37 years, served as assistant to fire chief Briggs, a volunteer firefighter for 35 years. The Snoqualmie men started fighting fires in the Valley during the 1950s. Lee retired in 1989, while Wentz retired a few years later.

The old firehouse was built in 1955 by volunteer firefighters and whomever else they could find to help.

"It was all done by slave labor," Wentz said.

Through 1989 the station was run entirely by volunteer firefighters who had other day jobs, but always found a way to come to the rescue.

"We'd have to leave our jobs to go to the fire. A lot of other businessmen used to do that, too," said Wentz, who owns Wentz Electronics in Snoqualmie. "We had about 30 men and half were available during the day, which was pretty good as far as availability of firemen back in those days."

Every Tuesday night after the weekly drill the volunteer firefighters would get together and play cards. The fire station had its own social scene, with several parties and dances held at the fire station each year.

"Back in the 50s and 60s, people didn't have the kind of entertainment they have now with trips to Hawaii and RVs ... we had Halloween, Christmas and New Year's parties and dances in the summer. That was a big thing in those days. I'm still amazed at how long we could go. It was just a good group. We got along so well."

The "Firettes," an auxiliary group made up of the wives of the volunteer firefighters, would help plan all the events.

Wentz said what ultimately changed the volunteer fire service was the increase of "aid calls," or calls to non-fire related events. In the earlier days people would tend to those things themselves, he said.

"In the 50s, we didn't have an aid car. We weren't called for aid calls more than two or three times a year," Wentz said. "That's what really overloaded the volunteer firefighters. There got to be so many aid calls."

The firehouse has worn many hats over the years. At one point the 5,000-square-foot building was also home to the city's police department, city hall, jail and library at the same time.

This interdepartmental mingling made for some tense times, such as the day when the police heard the firefighters playing with a slot machine. The machine, which only took nickels, was turned over to the King County Sheriff even though the payoff was only $4 and the winner always had to buy beer for the rest of the group, which cost about $5.

There were no living quarters in the firehouse at the time of the volunteer force since the majority of volunteers lived within one or two blocks of the firehouse.

They had a special method for communicating a call to the station. In 1959 wires were strung from the firehouse to about 10 of the firefighters' homes just a few blocks away. When the alarm rang at the station, each house would receive the call at the same time. Wentz's wife, Cleo, would do about 90 percent of the radio dispatches from their home before the early 70s when the firefighters received beepers.

"It was kind of a challenge to see who could beat the other guy to the station to drive the truck," Wentz said. "We had a really good fire department. Within a minute we were all here."

Throughout the decades the small building weathered many changes, even surviving the 14-inches of water that streamed in during the 1990 flood. Also in the 90s, a wall was built in the back of the truck bay to partition off a three-bed sleeping area and one small bathroom. In the 60s, a hose tower was built and a shed behind the building eventually became the city's public works department for a while.

"It was a very small building for what it was used for," Briggs said. "And we didn't have a lot of equipment."

But somehow, between all the piecemeal improvements, they made it work and managed to have a little fun while the blazes were down.

"One year we had a beard growin' contest for Snoqualmie Days," Briggs said. "We had some raunchy lookin' firemen."

If the old firehouse is a charming reminder of Valley times past with its clock from the 1960s still hanging on the wall in working order, the new fire station up on Snoqualmie Parkway with its stained-glass art and modern design is a sophisticated step into the future. Still, the younger generation of firefighters, including Matt West, say they'll miss the old firehouse, which will become the city parks office this spring.

"We have a cool spot here. In the summertime you can open the doors and you get moms and kids walking by," said West, who has been with the fire station since 1995.

He said working in the new 17,000-square-foot facility will be quite a stretch from his days at the old firehouse.

"There will be lots of holes to get lost in so people don't know where you're at," West said.

On Feb. 12, the Snoqualmie Fire and Rescue Volunteer Association will hold a "Farewell Spaghetti Dinner" at the old firehouse to share memories before moving into the new fire station. Every one is welcome. Please RSVP at (425) 888-1551 by Feb. 6. The old firehouse is located at 38624 S.E. River St.

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