Sawmills and flames didn’t mix, as residents of South Stillwater soon found out, and bucket brigades were unable to save buildings from burning to the ground.
So in 1888, the village on the St. Croix River formed a real fire department.
On a recent afternoon at what’s now the Bayport Fire Department, four longtime firefighters leafed through stark black-and-white photographs and yellowing duty rosters.
In that history, many names appeared again and again: Hering, Radke, Bell, Eisenger, Hafeman and Wilmes, to name a few. They were generations of families who served in what could be Minnesota’s oldest all-volunteer fire department.
“Not everybody goes running into a burning building,” said Capt. Jason Severson, who’s served for 19 years. “Not everybody wants to do it. But some of us have to do it. We like that camaraderie, that brotherhood. It’s one of those things where you truly trust someone with your life.”
These days, on the eve of the Bayport Fire Department’s 125th anniversary celebration, that devotion to duty is all the talk. “Desire to serve, courage to act, ability to perform” is the department’s informal motto.
As fire departments throughout Minnesota have sounded an alarm over fading numbers of volunteers, Bayport has bucked the trend. The 19 certified firefighters and four probationary volunteers at the department — which never in its history has had a full-time paid position — handled 1,006 emergency calls in 2012, and 808 by the end of August this year.
“There are days when the call volume exceeds what you think you could handle,” Severson said.
Capt. Jake Eisenger — his father, Allen, is assistant chief and brother Josh is another captain — said he doubts there’s another department in Minnesota that takes as many calls with an all-volunteer crew. Although firefighters are paid small stipends per hour when they respond to calls — $10 for medical and $11 for fire up to five hours — everybody through the ranks, from Chief Mark Swenson down to new recruits, find themselves devoting hundreds of hours a year to training, drills, meetings and community outreach.
Just driving back and forth to fire calls reduces the firefighters’ net pay because they aren’t paid for mileage. Besides Bayport, they cover Oak Park Heights and two townships, Baytown and West Lakeland, over 36 square miles.
Also within their jurisdiction they have two prisons, a coal plant more than 11 stories tall, the massive Andersen Windows factory and Boutwells Landing, possibly the largest retirement complex in Minnesota. They also help with rescues on the St. Croix River, one of the busiest recreational waterways in the region.
On average, a Bayport firefighter can expect to respond to 30 fire and medical calls a week — in most cases, in addition to a full-time job elsewhere. Mike Bell, for instance, works in maintenance at Boutwells, but he’s also one of only two certified EMTs at the fire department.
Having served 23 years and seeing substantial upgrades in training and trucks, Bell wonders how early volunteers managed to pull 1,000 feet of hose six blocks by hand. Fires were announced by ringing a bell.
A book of department history compiled by William F. Hering recalls several fatal fires over the years, including houses that went up like torches and children playing with matches who set their clothes aflame.
In 1922, South Stillwater was renamed Bayport to eliminate confusion with its larger neighbor to the north. The new Bayport Fire Department would reduce the frequency of terrible fires and, over time, was able to respond faster with more efficient equipment.
All of Bayport’s firefighters, when fully qualified, are trained as medical first responders. That’s important, because medical emergencies dominate the calls to the department. Often someone is having trouble breathing or having a heart attack, and the Bayport crew frequently is first on the scene.
“There’s nothing better than someone saying ‘thank you’ when you save somebody’s life,” said Severson, whose other job is at Andersen Windows.