by Mary Fox

The speaker for the evening at the Ellicottville Historical Society meeting on Oct. 8, 2014, was Mark Ward, currently superintendent of Ellicottville Central School. Ward shared his knowledge and experience as he spoke about the history of the Great Valley Volunteer Fire Company.

Mark’s father, Joe Ward, was a charter member of the Great Valley Volunteer Fire Department, formed in 1948. Mark followed in his father’s footsteps. As a member of the fire department since 1970, he served for 15 years as one of 10 different chiefs in the department’s 66-year history. Today, he continues his duties as line officer serving as an assistant chief.

Mark has written a history of the fire company, which he shared with the group.

“I grew up with it (the fire company),” said Ward “It will always be a part of my life. Thank God I took the time to sit down with my father and note it.”

The fire company was formed at a meeting in the old town hall, across from the Baptist church on Route 219 in Great Valley, where local citizens had gathered to discuss forming a lighting district. The speaker did not show up and the discussion turned to forming a fire company. Previously, Great Valley had to rely on Ellicottville and Salamanca for fire fighting

Seventy-six men signed up originally. Hanford Cooper and Harold Lounsbury are the only two charter members still living.

The original fire company started out with 600 feet of 1 ½” hose, a portable pump and a trailer, all stored in Bob Taylor’s barn behind the Evergreen Tea Room on the corner of Routes 219 and 98. The first hose cart purchased is now on display in the fire hall.

The fire company was formed in June 1948 and in October responded to its first fire at Chase’s Mill, across from the Mill Pond on Route 98. The mill had been closed for years and the wooden structure burnt readily. Debris from the fire started the Town Hall on Fire. A young boy, Jimmy Chase, lost his life in the fire.

In 1949, Charlie Zinc sold two lots next to the old Great Valley School. A 40’ by 40’ concrete building was built on the property to house the department’s first fire truck, a 1923 open cab American LaFrance Pumper purchased from the Houghton Fire Co.

The department’s first new truck was purchased in 1952, but the GMC/GPM 500 Young Pumper only held 500 gallons of water, which was hardly adequate for fighting a fire. Luckily, water was usually available from creeks.

Fundraising has always been a part of keeping a volunteer fire company going. Great Valley did all the usual fundraising projects, such as white elephant sales, but their greatest fundraiser in the early days of the company was Bingo. In fact, it got so big it had to be moved from the fire hall to Hartman’s garage in Salamanca. In 1956, the state passed a law prohibiting Bingo, as it was run by the fire companies, so the department continued for a time calling it “Dingo.”

Ellicottville Old Home Days was also a cause for celebration. Mark’s father noted that on one occasion 50 men marched for Great Valley in the annual celebration … quite a feat! The original uniforms were grey pants with a black stripe and white shirts.

In 1968, Great Valley celebrated its 150th birthday with a carnival, marking the start of the Great Valley Old Home Days. Bands came from all around for the parade. Old Home Days was celebrated until the late 1980s.

Started in 1975, the Great Valley Regatta is the fire company’s biggest fundraiser. The regatta was an offshoot of the original Birdwalk Regatta, which took place from the Birdwalk Restaurant on Route 242. Next year will be the 40th year for the regatta.

“It has been a tremendous moneymaker,” said Ward. “It has changed dramatically over the years to what it is today, but we adjusted with the times. It is now limited to 2,000 boats with over 3,000 people, a huge thing for us.”

In 1977, a rescue squad was formed in conjunction with the Ellicottville Ambulance, and in 1988, an ambulance was moved to Great Valley, which led to the formation of the Ellicottville/Great Valley Ambulance Service. The fire companies have an agreement to man the ambulances, but the service is a separate corporation from the fire companies.

During the early 1990s, a 40’ x 54’ addition was added to the fire hall to house more trucks. Facilities continued to be improved until the fire hall burned on March 26, 1995.

“Without a doubt, this is the most devastating fire to ever strike the Great Valley community,” said Ward. “

All area fire companies responded to the fire, but the fire had moved too quickly to stop. Several fire companies loaned equipment until Great Valley could replace the trucks.

“Six months to the day after the hall burned, we dedicated a new fire hall with two new pumpers, a tanker and mini-pumper!” said Ward. “Thanks to the foresight of the commissioners, months before, insurance had been updated to replacement cost and the insurance money paid for the entire loss.”

More land has been acquired since. The old Great Valley school was purchased with the intention of restoring it to its former condition but was beyond restoration. The land where the post office stands was also acquired and is rented to the U.S. Postal Service.

What a difference 66 years make! Today, the Great Valley Fire Company owns some of the most up-to-date fire equipment, with highly trained firefighting men and women, full ambulance services and seven certified scuba divers.

Great Valley can be proud of their fire company, which has persevered throughout its history to provide the kind of services the public expects and needs. Today there are 51 dedicated members. More men and women are encouraged to join.