History of First Responders – Peninsula Township Fire Department

Researched and Written By Karen Rieser

Feature Photo by Scarlett Piedmonte

It was 1943, seventy-seven years ago (2020), that a group of civically responsible men from the Cherry Center Grange came together to fight fires in Peninsula Township. The mission of Ray Heller, Roy Hooper Sr, Claude Watson, Stanley Wood Sr, Harry Heller, Isadore Lardie Sr, John Lardie, Oakley Lardie, and Arnold White was to protect the peninsula’s residents and property from fires. An auxiliary was also established to provide coffee, food, blankets, etc. For a great many years, it was Gwen Watson, of Watson’s store in Mapleton, that ran the auxiliary’s relief efforts.

The Cooledge fire of 1943, remembered by Oakley Lardie, was one of the first. It was fought using a bucket brigade. The men managed to save the furniture but were unable to eliminate the fire. It was evident that more had to be done, so the firefighters returned to the Cherry Center Grange and agreed to begin the Peninsula Volunteer Fire Department. It was decided a firetruck was needed, no more bucket brigades. After having spent four or more years in the military in combination with their collective farm experiences these men could build or repair almost anything, and that is exactly what they just did, they built a firetruck!

To create the truck, the men topped a Chevy truck chassis with a spray tank and added a pump to construct the finest firetruck on the Old Mission Peninsula. The truck was stored in the Fire Barn located just north of where Station #1 stands today. The volunteers also bought their fire gear, paid to equip the truck, and did their training.

The first fire in which the truck was used, was a Sunday morning chimney fire that spread to the cedar-shingled roof of the Kielmurray home. The truck and the men were able to extinguish the fire, the only loss, a pair of Oakley’s pants.

So, just how did this fledgling Peninsula Volunteer Fire Department operate?

Notification of fires depended on the telephone company. It was in the early 1900s that the Old Mission Peninsula had access to phone service through the Mapleton switchboard of the Peninsula Telephone Company. When a fire was realized, a call was made to “Central” or the switchboard at the Mapleton Office. The operator, in turn, would call each volunteer using one continuous ring as a signal that it was a fire call. A report of the fire and its location was made over a party line. Once the phone system was converted to rotary dial, ten red fire phones were located in the Mapleton area. A volunteer was called, and the fire with its location reported.

Not everyone was happy with using a phone for either reporting a fire or being apprised of a fire. It has been said that a farmer persuaded his hired man to put a phone in his home. As the phone was being installed the hired man grumbled to the installer, also a volunteer fireman, about having to have a phone. The installer wisely informed him that he did not have to use the phone but might be glad to have it to report a fire. Later that day, a fire was called in. Low and behold, it was the hired man who had been burning brush, and the fire had spread. And yes, the telephone installer arrived in time to help fight the fire.

Most of the volunteer firefighters were farmers who spent three-fourths of the year in their fields. Many times, it was the siren located at the fire department atop of a forty-foot pole that gave the first indication that there was a fire. Two short blasts sent the men south of Mapleton while one long blast had them travel north of Mapleton.

It was in 1947 that the Peninsula Volunteer Fire Department was turned over to the township. A fire district was established, and a special assessment levied to support the fire suppression services. A new Reo fire truck and Cadillac ambulance were purchased. It was in 1960 that the Reo was joined by a Ford Truck with a high-pressure pump. As the population of the peninsula grew, so did the need for more equipment. In 1974 a four-wheel-drive rescue/brush truck was added to carry extrication and rescue equipment. In 1977, once again, the firemen using their creative skills built a portable hydrant truck. The hydrant truck was the first truck in the county that could pump water from the bays into a tanker truck.

Where to house the growing number of firefighting vehicles? In 1946 Station #1 was constructed in Mapleton. As the department grew in 1984, Station #1 was remodeled, providing more room for the growing number of fire department vehicles.

It was soon realized that an additional firehouse was needed at the southern end of the peninsula. A site near East Shore Road on Center Road was chosen for Station #2 to be built in 1976.

Eventually, the Fire Department could boast of nearly forty volunteers. In 1975 the Peninsula Volunteer Fire Department sent several members to the first Emergency Medical Technician course that was offered in Grand Traverse County. The number of emergency calls increased and in 1989 the township hired a full-time Fire Chief as well as a second EMT.


Time brings about change in both the needs of community residents and the ability to meet those needs. The Peninsula Township Fire Department is no exception, and they have risen to the occasion.

It was December 2017 that Chief Fred Gilstorff was hired to organize, modernize, and install new Advanced Life Support services for the Peninsula Township Fire Department and community residents. As of October 2018, Advanced Life Support training and capabilities were available to deal with serious life-threatening medical needs. Of the 516 calls in 2018, the majority were medical.

There are now twenty-two firefighters employed both full and part-time. Among them are seven paramedics, ten EMTs, twenty-two firefighters, and two trainees. The number of calls rose 34% between 2017 and 2018. It is expected that with each passing year, a 5-10% increase will be realized. Currently, Chief Gilstorff would like to increase the number of volunteers available to the department and continues to look at interested applicants.

The next step was to evaluate available equipment and replace it as needed. A 25-year old engine has been taken out of service to be sold and replaced by the state of the art 2020 Spartan Engine. The new engine sports a larger fire pump (2000 gallons per minute) and a mobile Jaws of Life apparatus. A new tanker truck that can be used from 34 access points on the peninsula is equipped with a vacuum pump allowing water to be retrieved from 78 feet away rather than the 10-15-foot span of the old tankers.

A third fire station is planned for the northern tip of the peninsula. Responding to a call in the north area of the peninsula can take from ten to twenty minutes. A fire doubles in size every minute and seconds if not minutes can be a matter of life and death in a medical emergency. Consequently, at present, the residents on this portion of the peninsula have an insurance fire rating of 10 (worst possible) and may pay higher insurance rates. This situation is unacceptable to the current Fire Chief.

The Peninsula Township Fire Department provides Medical Services, Fire Emergency Services, and Police Services. Both Stations #1 And #2 are manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The department provides Advanced Life Support and Basic Life Support. It is your 911 call that will bring these services to your location.

Fire Emergency Services are provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week by firefighters and on-call firefighters. Services are available for structural and wildfires. Fire prevention education is also part of the job. Again, call 911 for emergency service.

Police Services are provided by the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department through Deputy Brian Abbring. Deputy Abbring has a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from GVSU and attended the Police Academy there. Brian also works as an Evidence Technician. The magic number is again 911 for emergency services.

Becoming and remaining a firefighter is not an easy task. Degrees in Fire Science and Criminal Justice are expected. Experience in the military is also helpful. Training is a way of life for a firefighter, a minimum of 10 hours a month. Bodies must maintain their strength and stamina; therefore, physical exercise and bodybuilding regularly is a must. One of the most critical aspects of fire and or police work is teamwork. Without this, all else loses meaning.

The future of the Peninsula Township Fire Department holds more changes, more advances, and more work. The course for the future is outlined in a ten-year strategic plan put in place by the township trustees and its constituents.

There is no question in my mind that the services provided by the Peninsula Township Fire Department are of paramount importance. The only difference between experiencing safety or tragedy and or life and death is understood in the two seconds it takes for you to call 911 and the arrival of the red trucks.

We want to hear about your business or organziation that makes an impact on our community! Please contact pam@gathergrandtraverse.com with story suggestions or visit here for more information.

One thought on “History of First Responders – Peninsula Township Fire Department

  • February 10, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    Great tribute from then to now. Growing up across the street from Station #1 saw much action and of course, my dad Jack Solomonson, often drove the fire truck meeting up with the other volunteers at the scene. Jack loved to tell that story of the hired man being quite befuddled that the man that installed the phones also drove the fire truck!


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