A Brief History
Ralston Engine Company No. 1 began in 1941. Ed Gardner and some neighbors met at the old Ralston Post Office — now the General Store Museum. They talked about fire protection for the community that was developing in the valley west of Mendham center, a mile and a half up the hill. The Mendham Township Committee agreed with the need and passed a resolution founding the company in 1942.
Twenty-six charter members formed the squad. At the start, their equipment consisted of Indian pumps, brooms, fire pails and enough uniforms for 15 men. Later in 1942 the squad obtained its first fire engine — a 1928 American La France chemical truck with 40-gallon tanks. The chemicals were kept at the General Store and the truck was parked in Le Moyne Page's garage on Ironia Road.
The original 2-bay firehouse began in 1947 with a grant from the Township of $10,000 for foundation and plumbing. All other work was done by the volunteer firemen and their wives over a twoyear period. They worked evenings and weekends and raised all the money themselves. When it was finished and dedicated in 1949, the firehouse was valued at $22,000.
The squad's second home, the current 4-bay firehouse, was dedicated in June of 1947. It cost $235,000. Until that point, most of the labor was donated by the volunteers. Their contributions continued. They completed the upstairs meeting rooms themselves. One resident donated the plumbing for a lavatory. A fireman gave a kitchen range. A neighbor provided carpeting at cost. The Ladies Auxiliary gave a commercial dishwasher. The First Aid Squad donated $2,000.
In their first year over seven decades ago, the Ralston volunteers answered five fire calls and initiated a program of weekly drills and instruction. These continue today. Currently, the company responds to fire calls about two hundred times a year. Drills and classroom training sessions continue with increase intensity since equipment has become more sophisticated and demanding.
Ralston was one of the first companies in New Jersey to invite women to join, train and participate as firefighters. And in 1973 the company pioneered a Junior Fireman Corps to encourage capable young volunteers to participate under senior supervision in critical training and fire-attack tactics.
The Mendham Township budget includes an allocation for Ralston which covers a portion of the company's total expenses. The remaining required funds are generated by an annual fundraising drive which is written and produced and publicized by the volunteers.
A chronicle is informative. But in all historical summaries there is heart behind the history. The heart of the Ralston volunteer firefighters came with the new society that rose bright and hopeful out of the dark days of World War II. The nation's gratitude to men and women who returned from duty was an unprecedented act of appreciation. The GI Bill made higher education special training available to all. Government supported housing loans helped to create suburban communities coast-to-coast. Roads linked them, and a Federally subsidized highway system transformed the automobile into an ordinary household expectation for everyone.
The population grew and moved and prospered and resettled. And what were once small farm communities or stagecoach stops became the large communities we now call out town. Ralston. Brookside. Mendham. Home.
At a house fire some years ago, one of the Ralston volunteers was cleaning gear when he noticed a child sobbing next to her mother. Beyond them, their house was now safe and ready to be occupied. He kneeled and asked why she cried. "My pussycat," she said. "I can't find her. I think she's inside." He assured the child he would find her pet and waved to another volunteer to go inside with him to find the cat. Within minutes they returned with the cat. It was frightened but unharmed and safe. The child wept with happiness. The mother reached to shake the firefighter's hand. With gratitude, she called him a hero.
He touched the child's head, then looked at her mother and said quietly: "Thank you, m'am. But I'm not a hero. I'm just your neighbor."
By Fred Vanacore