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Published: Friday, 6/16/2006

Montpelier welcomes firefighters

BY CARIN YAVORCIK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONTPELIER, Ohio - Sirens will blare all day today in Montpelier.

Thousands of firefighters are converging on the community, brandishing hoses and adding their numbers to Montpelier's 34-member volunteer force.

The occasion, however, is not one for tragedy, but celebration - the village is playing host to the 132nd annual Northwest Ohio Volunteer Fireman's Association Convention, a full weekend of firefighting festivities.

Montpelier last hosted the event in 1995, when the community of approximately 4,300 celebrated its sesquicentennial. This year marks another anniversary - the fire department's 125th.

Fire Chief Dail Fritsch said the event is not only a great way to mark the anniversary, but it's also an opportunity to show off the community.

"We've done a lot of revitalization uptown," he said.

In addition, Montpelier has a new K-12 school building, where the convention will have its delegates' meeting. Representatives from 300 volunteer fire departments will decide on locations for the association's various events next year and vote on business issues.

"We might have more attending this year because they're going to vote on raising dues," Mr. Fritsch said.

But the convention is hardly all business.

Festivities kick off this afternoon, with a waterball contest at 4, where departments form opposing teams and each try to force an overhanging steel ball to the opponent's side by shooting water from fire hoses.

Waterball is followed by the convention Queen Contest at 5 p.m. and a fun night, where firefighters can cruise around town in their department rigs, meeting old friends and making new ones. According to Mr. Fritsch, the cruise is a favorite convention event.

"It's just a bunch of grown-up kids, coming in here to blow their sirens and have a good time," he said.

The Montpelier Fire Department will also be showing off some of its more unusual vehicles - two hazardous materials trucks painted with flames by one volunteer firefighter who also works in a body shop. The department also has a fire truck equipped with an aerial ladder, unusual for a town of Montpelier's size, said Mr. Fritsch.

"It was supposed to be a big thing for '95, but it didn't get here for the convention," he said. "It came a month later."

The celebrations will continue on Saturday morning after the delegates' meeting. A parade is planned, complete with area bands, fire engines, and a Life Flight helicopter flying above the town. The helicopter will land at the Montpelier Fairgrounds and will be open for tours.

All festivities are open to the public: Families and children are welcome, said Mr. Fritsch.

Alcoholic beverages are confined to a designated area and are not allowed on the trucks.

Displays and vendors will set up at the fire station. Shirts, badges, and emergency vehicle light bars will all be for sale, and several Montpelier organizations will also have fund-raisers, selling dinner and snacks. As a cap to Saturday evening, the association will be raffling off a 2006 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle.

"We hope for everybody to have a good time - and no fires," said Lauren Hendricks, a member of the Montpelier force. "We're all going to be tired come Sunday."

Some firefighters keep coming to the convention even after retirement. Joe Hinkle retired from the nearby Edgerton, Ohio, force in 1992 after a childhood case of polio "came back with a vengeance," but he hasn't missed a convention since his first in 1967. He said it's not any specific event or game that draws him to the convention, but the collection of people that he meets there.

"I like talking to the older ones, reminiscing. Once a year - it may be the only time you get to see them," he said.

In the course of nearly 40 years, Mr. Hinkle has kept all his convention mementos, from ribbons to programs, all neatly organized and stored in books and boxes. Now, he has an entire room devoted to volunteer firefighters association memorabilia, filled with belt buckles, badges, hats, and even a full-sized fire hydrant. His oldest piece dates to 1878, an invitation to a tournament in Delphos.

"I'm a collector," he said. "I didn't know I was, but I kept everything that had to do with the fire service anything that I got my hands on." He's acquired most of the collection through buying and trading, sometimes on the Internet but mostly through hearing things from various people.

Mr. Hinkle will be in his element this weekend in Montpelier, where he will set up a display of his most interesting pieces, including a program from Montpelier's first convention in 1965. He'll also exhibit the oldest convention memorabilia in his collection - a 1902 ribbon from Defiance and a 1926 program from Wauseon.

"It's amazing what you can get once you start," he said. "Once people got to know I collected, I could go up to them and they've all been really nice to me."

Mr. Hinkle said it's hard to explain the sense of camaraderie at conventions.

"It's a brotherhood. We learn from the experience of what other firefighters went through, meet old friends. A brother can be a woman firefighter or a man firefighter, it doesn't make any difference. We're all in the same situation."



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