Harrison Township commemorates fire department anniversary

Western Bartholomew County residents will gather this weekend to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department.

The public is invited to the 4 p.m pitch-in picnic dinner Sunday at the fire station, located at 9441 W. Old Nashville Road, where seven of the eight former fire chiefs are expected to attend, said Tammy Mocas, chairman of the department’s board of directors.

“It’s going to be like a super-duper family pitch-in, where everybody is asked to bring a dish,” said Raymond “Al” Betz, the first Harrison Township fire chief and event co-organizer. “But mostly, we just want to introduce folks and give them time to reminiscence.”

The memories likely are to go back to a time in the early 1970s, when fire protection for the hilly township was still provided by East Columbus and Ogilville volunteers.

But due to a rapidly growing population, strong concern emerged that both departments were headquartered nine miles away from the center of Harrison Township, according to records from the Bartholomew County Historical Society.

Efforts to create a new department were spearheaded in 1976 by then-township trustee Carroll Green, as well as Harrison Lake residents Dick Johnson and Gordon T. Ritter, according to archived news reports.

Just one month after a steering committee was formed amidst lukewarm support in December, 1976, there was a significant house fire in 17 degree below zero weather at Harrison Lake.

Firefighters from three faraway departments had extreme difficulty reaching William Hunt’s lakeside home on the ice- and snow-covered roads. In addition, former East Columbus Fire Chief Bill Maze was injured when a ceiling fell on top of him.

While damage from the Jan. 17, 1977 blaze was extensive, the fire proved instrumental in gaining strong public support for creating the new department, Ritter told The Republic that year.

The Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department was formally organized April 21, 1977.

Four months later, groundbreaking for a $74,000 fire station took place on Sept. 21. By the end of that year, the department boasted a new firehouse off State Road 46 on Old Nashville Road, as well as 17 firefighters.

Today, the department has 20 volunteers and five full-time paid firefighters, Mocas said.

But the department’s untold history (until now) involves several companies and individuals that provided time, money, talent and valuable property without compensation, Betz said.

That would include a tanker donated by Johnson Oil Co., the fire station’s design by architect Frank Miller, and land provided by Miller and Company, Betz said.

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What: 40th anniversary celebration of the Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department

When: The picnic pitch-in dinner will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: The fire station at 9441 W. Old Nashville Road

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While other rural departments have traditionally sponsored fish frys to raise money, the Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department broke the fundraising mold in 1978 by launching an Omelet Brunch that was conduct each year for more than 20 years.

The event became enormously popular, attracting an average of 1,500 patrons every fall and raising about $12,000 annually.

But by the end of the 1990s, the fundraiser was so big that organizers had to recruit 15 people to chair different committees, as well as start planning six months in advance. When the department was unable to recruit a sufficient number of new volunteers, the Omelet Brunch was abandoned in 1999.

Five years later, a different fundraiser titled “Beyond the Brunch” debuted at the Harrison Lake Country Club with an auction, live music and other attractions. The 13th annual event is planned for September.