Two Platteville firefighters will be honored Monday for their half-century with the Platteville Fire Department.
Dick Klinger joined the PFD in July 1963, two months before Ron Boldt joined.
“Somebody had to do it,” said Klinger.
“I had a fellow worker, and he stayed on me until I did it,” said Boldt about joining the department.
“We did everything,” said Klinger. “No training, except by the chief.”
“We learned by the seat of our pants,” said Boldt. “We didn’t have the training they have now — we didn’t have firefighting uniforms, we didn’t have any training. We had boots and a rubber coat — if we had enough to go around. There was never enough to go around.”
Klinger and Boldt will be honored at the fire department Monday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m.
Klinger, 74, and Boldt, 72, have stayed in the Fire Department through six fire chiefs and five decades of change, beginning with where the Fire Department is located.
“Somebody’s got to volunteer to do it,” said Klinger. “And we enjoy the people we’re with.”
“If we had a problem, we wouldn’t do it” five decades later, said Boldt. “It’s fun watching the younger members step in, learn and take charge.”
Change over five decades goes far beyond locations. When Klinger and Boldt joined, the fire station was on the north side of the Platteville Municipal Building. The fire station on East Main Street opened in 1965.
Fire calls were dispatched by a phone tree. Twenty firefighters would get a phone call, and each had to call two other firefighters not on the line. The other dispatching system was the fire siren, when “the siren would go off and you’d go to the station and hear what the call is,” said Klinger.
The police station in the Municipal Building also had a red light that was lighted for fire calls, “then everyone would know something was going on,” said Boldt.
And then firefighters would ride to the fire, some standing on the back of the trucks hanging on to ropes and the back rail.
“It took one ride on the back of the truck in the country, and if you weren’t dusty when you got on, you were dusty when you got off,” said Boldt. “That was a learning experience, and one you usually didn’t duplicate unless you had to.”
The department had ladders on trucks, and then a ladder truck — “a 40-foot ladder with tripods, and you’d crawl up,” until an aerial truck was purchased, said Klinger.
The method of fighting chimney fires was to clean the chimney with cleaner chains after the fire, said Boldt; “otherwise you’d be back there.” Chimney fire calls were one of the larger groups of the fire department’s 350 to 360 calls per year at the department’s busiest.
The Fire Department was as close as Platteville got to an emergency medical service until Platteville EMS formed in 1983. Platteville’s three funeral homes used their hearses as ambulances, and the Police Department purchased a hearse for an ambulance in 1966, but firefighters would do what passed for emergency medical service at the time until police officers became EMTs.
“Back then we were not only firefighters — we weren’t what you’d call EMTs, but we had an inhalator,” said Boldt. “The inhalator was the only emergency piece of equipment there was back then outside of the hospital.”
In those days, the Fire Department had not only more members, 60, but a waiting list of two to three years to join as people left the department.
“People do not have enough time to volunteer” now, said Klinger. “With all the training required, it’s difficult to volunteer.”
As with all volunteer firefighters, Klinger and Boldt juggled their job and family responsibilities with firefighting. Klinger was a door-to-door milkman whose route went as far west as Potosi, and later owned three grocery stores.
Boldt was the second-generation owner of Pioneer Ford Sales.
“There’d be days where you went to work without any sleep,” he said.
Boldt occasionally sold the department trucks, and serviced fire trucks whether or not they were Fords.
“There’s more equipment” on the trucks now, said Boldt — “not necessarily bigger, but better.”
The trucks now are equipped with many more lights — strobe lights, revolving lights, even wiggling lights — than are shown in old fire truck photos. Platteville fire trucks have always been red.
Klinger and Boldt experienced only minor injuries in their five decades each in the Fire Department.
The number of fire calls has decreased over the years. Boldt credits better building codes, and Klinger credits “education of people and little kids in school.”
“Kids have gained an understanding of the fire service,” said Boldt. “I think that’s made a big difference.”
The two have been at several fatal fires in their 50 years. The first was at a rooming house at Carlisle Street and Chestnut Street in the spring of 1963, when “we weren’t even volunteers then,” said Klinger.
“The ones you really remember are kids; however, you remember them all,” said Boldt. “I won’t ever, ever forget our first ones with kids. It’s just like it was yesterday.”
Boldt and two other firefighters pulled a child out of a swimming pool. The child was not breathing and blue, but they brought the child back to life.
“You never forget that,” said Boldt. “He was so little, we had to rub his stomach to get the water out.”
The way firefighters deal with death on fire calls is different today.
“They talk it out,” said Klinger.
“We didn’t do that years ago,” said Boldt. “Death was death. They started having sessions talking to people at least 15 years ago. Everyone could say their piece, get it off their chests. That seemed to help a little.”
The list of large fires over the years includes the Rountree Hall fire, which they said was the biggest and longest fire in terms of time on scene, and the Chicago’s Best fire one year ago.
The most memorable non-fire call probably was the night firefighters were called out during UW–Platteville students’ march from campus down Main Street to protest the Vietnam War. Two fire trucks were heavily damaged.
“You ever been on the back of a truck when people are throwing rocks and bricks at you?” said Klinger. “The mayor ordered us to hose down the kids. The kids were trying to block [the former Highway] 151. All we did was made them madder.”
“I was on the back of the truck, and all of a sudden I was really hurting, and I looked around, and I was the only one left on the back of the truck,” said Boldt. “As I ran to get in the truck a brick came through the door window.”
Firefighters also serve as storm spotters, going to locations around the Fire Department’s area to spot tornadoes and other severe weather. The 1984 Barneveld tornado, which destroyed Barneveld’s fire station, prompted fire departments to pull their trucks out of fire stations to minimize potential damage to the trucks.
One night, they saw five funnel clouds around the Mound.
“They only rock a little bit” when the storm meets the truck,” said Klinger.
More experienced firefighters are now assigned as engineers, to drive the trucks and run their equipment. So what is driving a fire truck like?
“The biggest thing is you want to get it there in one piece,” said Klinger. “You don’t do anybody any good if you wreck it. We try to drive very defensively.”
“I guess you call it somewhat of a thrill,” said Boldt. “When you’re in the seat of the truck, you’re responsible for everything that happens around you. You are liable.”
In the days before Main Street reverted to two-way traffic in 2002, fire trucks got to go the wrong way west on Main Street for emergency calls.
“You go up the middle,” said Boldt, “and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea. I always felt the safest on that street. In all the years we never had a problem going against the traffic.”