The following is only a partial history of the Monona Fire Department. Events and incidents were selected arbitrarily to illustrate the progression of the department and to highlight the wonderful work done by its members. Enormous gratitude is due for the efforts of Jo Hanson, Lois Pettey, Sharon Miller, Teresa Hamacher, Vicki Lippitt, Nora Lea Scovill and Sue Vollbrecht in compiling the department’s early history. Please contact Lt. Joe Miller regarding any corrections or additions. In the Spring of 1949, with still no water and sewer in several parts of Monona Village, new homes were beginning to take the place of World War II Victory Gardens. William “Bill” Penewell was one of these new builders. That particular spring, the Village was deluged with grass fires. One fire would be put out, and another would surface. Monona had no fire department at this time. Blooming Grove fought Monona’s fires at the cost of $100.00 per fire. Penewell became concerned about the grass fires and went to the Village Hall to express his concern. “What would happen if Blooming Grove and Monona had a fire at the same time”, he questioned.
The Village peers decided to set up a committee to start Monona’s own fire department. Bill Penewell, Vilas Trapp, Rollie Boden, and Paul Echman were appointed. Word of mouth got residents interested and soon there were 37 eager, young volunteers on the fire roster.
The wheels of government turned slowly, but in the summer of 1953 the department finally got their new Mack Pumper. Larry Klabunde built an addition behind his store (on the corner of West Dean Avenue and Monona Drive) to house the new truck. The Village leased the building from Klabunde. The fire siren was installed at the new station just outside the bedroom window of Mrs. Klabunde. It has been told that when they set off the siren, she almost jumped through the ceiling. Three fire phones were made available, one at Klabunde’s store, one at Harold Hippe’s Service station across the street, and one at the Fire Station. When the fire call came in they would blow the siren and all available personnel would dash off to the fire station. Harold Hippe and Larry Klabunde were the designated fire drivers.
“The paging system has certainly improved over the years. In the early years (during the 1950’s) a few wives of firemen were phoned from the fire station when there was a fire and they in turn had a list of 5 other firemen to call. It was later when all firemen were hooked-up by phone from the station and they all received the fire call. That was a good way of limiting the time our children spent on the phone. ‘No longer than 5 minutes in case dad gets a fire call’. The phone system was improved later so that even if someone was on the phone the alarm would beep into the call. Much later pagers were purchased and now every firefighter carries a pager.”
– Jo Hanson
Bill Penewell was made chief because he had experience fighting fires in the Navy during World War II. The City of Madison Fire Department sent two captains (Jack Boyle and Ernie Lerwick) to train the volunteers. By January 1, 1954 the men had passed their training and were ready to fight their own fires. The new truck carried enough firefighting gear for about 6 volunteers. The first to the station were the first to get the gear. The Village Crew (Gerhardt Tollefson, Harvey Becker, Al Butzine and Willard Schluter) were the daytime firefighters along with a few other members who worked in the village. For a few years, Everett Pettey was the only officer other than Chief Penewell.
The department’s first fire occurred at 2:00AM on cold January morning in 1954. The location was on Monona Drive behind Bock’s truck farm where Gunderson Funeral Home now resides.
“The fire was at a white two bedroom home. It had a fuel oil space heater which overheated and was burning in the living room – smoke, flames and heat. It took about a half-hour to put the fire out. We went outside; our turn out gear was frozen; we could hardly move. We had laid a line from Nichols Road to the engine. When we started to pick up hose, it was frozen and it was about 6 feet tall when rolled up. We went back to the station and tried to unroll the hose; we couldn’t. This was the beginning of our services to Monona.”
– Bob Brettell
When Klabunde was not around to answer the night fire phone, some of the volunteers would spend the night at the station. On cold nights, they would sleep in the hose bed of the fire engine instead of on the cot near the drafty doors.
In November of 1955 Chief Penewell had been promising the firefighters an unexpected drill. Early one icy Saturday morning the fire siren went off. Thinking it was a drill, the men slipped and slid to the station. To their amazement it was an actual structure fire. Carl Gausewitz’s house on the lakeside of Tonyawatha Trail was on fire. In the excitement, the firefighter manning the engine could not get water. Chief Penewell himself operated the pump, and the firefigthers managed to extinguish the flames that had spread to a neighboring home. The Gausewitz house was a total loss. Herb Gausewitz, who was in third grade at the time, recalled that his father had tried to escape out the door to the garage because the youngest son did not want to jump out a window. When he opened the door, flames singed his eyebrows. He shut the door and the entire family managed to escape through a bedroom window. Everett Pettey recalled that Ed Lottes and himself had taken a hose into the Gausewitz garage. The garage door came down on Pettey’s helmet, cutting off their retreat. Fortunately, Carl Gausewitz had driven a car through the adjacent garage door, and the two firemen were able to escape. The only casualty of the day was the family’s dog. After the fire, Chief Penewell’s famous saying was, “We’ve never lost a foundation or the lot next door.”
In 1957 Chief Penewell turned over the reins to Robert Brettell who had been elected by the members of the department. Chief Brettell served the department for 21 years. In 1959, the station was moved to its current location in the City Hall Complex on Schluter Road. A major factor in the move was the purchase of a Pirsch pumper. It would not fit in the garage behind Klabunde’s and Mrs. Klabunde did not want to add onto the building. University students were hired to “babysit” the truck.
In 1965, Monona, the largest of 13 area communities protected by volunteer firefighters, banded together with other fire departments to form a mutual aid pact. The purpose of the agreement was to ensure that adequate resources could be requested to handle large emergencies. Monona’s department already had a history of supplying personnel and apparatus to neighboring communities. In fact, Monona’s first mutual aid fire was in the summer of 1954 when the Town of Burke requested help with the Klein Greenhouse fire on East Washington Avenue.
Also in 1965, Monona purchased a Pirsch 75-foot Ladder Truck. Ladder 3, as it was called, was the only ladder truck in Dane County outside of Madison. For this reason it was often requested mutual aid and saw many fires.
In 1973, George Watson was hired as a full-time third assistant chief. The fire station was renovated that year, forcing George to carry out his fire department business in the basement of the library. The paid drivers lived in a trailer in the parking lot.
The first organizational meeting of the Monona EMS was held on the first Wednesday in November of 1977. The EMS went into operation on Friday, February 10, 1978. Seventy-eight people volunteered to staff the ambulance. Training sessions were held on the first and third Wednesdays of each month and on Thursday afternoons. George Watson served as EMS coordinator, and five full-time drivers were hired.
Chief Brettell announced his retirement from the fire department in May of 1978. The Police and Fire Commission appointed Gene Hanson as the new fire chief.
The department’s first “Jaws of Life” were donated by the Lions Club in 1978. On January 13, firefighters began spending their Saturdays in the lot behind Chief Auto Parts learning how to use their new Hurst rescue tool.
In 1980, Cliff Lein was hired to replace George Watson who had retired. Cliff served the department for nine years as the EMS coordinator and fire inspector. Cliff updated Monona’s fire code and initiated the 1982 fire prevention fair. The fair was held in Winnequah park where popular Sesame Street characters taught children about fire and burn prevention.
In January of 1983, Monona purchased a new 75-foot ladder truck from 3D apparatus at the cost of $202,000.
On July 11, 1983, tragedy struck the Monona Fire Department. Lt. Barry Johnson was killed when a dump truck ran into the side of the rescue van that he was driving. The accident occurred at the intersection of what is now Bridge Road and West Broadway. Monona EMT’s and Madison paramedics worked to save his life but were unsuccessful. He had been responding to a report of a grass fire behind South Towne Mall – a false alarm.
Fellow volunteer firefighters, in full dress attire, stood at attention in the Blooming Grove Cemetery as Barry was laid to rest. Reverend Harvey Schweppe, pastor of the Monona Methodist Church, comforted the family and friends saying, “A life is filled to overpouring, no matter how short it may be, when it reaches out to others in service.”
One of Monona’s most infamous fires occurred on Christmas Eve 1983. It was actual the second structure fire of the day. The wind chill was 80 degrees below zero while firefighters from eight departments battled a stubborn blaze along the lake on Tonyawatha Trail. Thick pillars of ice hung from trees like giant stalactites. Streams from fire hoses almost froze in midair. Firefighters worked in 5-minute shifts, taking shelter in the house of a gracious neighbor. The men would come into the garage with their arms extended and gloves curled as if still holding onto a hoseline. They battled the fire and the arctic conditions for 13 hours. Eventually, the exhausted crews decided to tie their hoses to trees so they could hide from the bitter winds. The house and two cars were destroyed. Six firefighters were treated for frostbite. Several lengths of hose were so thickly coated with ice that they could not be recovered until spring.
“EMT’s had to use hair dryers to thaw the ice on the buckles of fire gear before the firefighters could get out of their coats. In fact, two hair dryers burned out from use that night. Chief (Gene) Hanson praised the excellent job done by firefighters in containing the fire to only one structure in the worst weather conditions possible.”
– Jo Hanson
May 15, 1985 – A fire at Maywood Elementary School caused $100,000 in damage.
August 1986 – Chief Gene Hanson retired and was soon replaced by Chief Everett Pettey.
March 30, 1987 – Flames were shooting through the roof of South Towne Travel when firefighters arrived on scene. Fire caused extensive damage to three of seven units in the complex.
February 1988 – South Towne II fire. Flames gutted the Anchor Savings and Loan and four other businesses. Damage was estimated at $750,000.
March 4, 1989 – The trees hung white with ice; firefighters’ heads were bowed. Despite heroic efforts, two children ages 5 and 8 perished in an apartment fire on Owen Road.
In 1991, the police and fire departments, in a joint venture, organized and sponsored a Career Explorer Post. Sergeant Rich O’Connor served as advisor to 17 explorers, 7 of whom were interested in firemanship as a career. The Explorer Post allowed youth to participate in training with firefighters and to serve in a limited capacity on fire scenes. Several explorers went on to become active volunteers.
June 1991 – Firefighters responded to a boat fire in Squaw Bay. A resident with a boat ferried firefighters and a charged hoseline out into the bay to extinguish the fire.
July 1994—Monona Fire Dept. received Squad 5, a heavy rescue vehicle built by Salsbury. A plaque on the driver’s side memorializes Lt. Barry Johnson who died in 1983 while driving a previous rescue truck.
October 1995 – Chief Everett Pettey retired and Chief Robert VanEtten took his place.
December 23, 1999 – A fire in an eight-unit apartment building takes the life of a young boy. The boy’s mother, who was also badly burned, died several days later in the hospital.
July 2003 – A fire guts China One Buffet near South Towne Mall. The building was already fully engulfed when firefighters arrived on location.
March 2007 – Monona Fire Dept. received Ladder 3, a 95-foot Pierce mid-mount aerial
January 2010 – Fire Marshall Barb Tilley retired with 29 years of service to the department.
April 2010 – Chief VanEtten retired with 33 years of service and Chief Scott Sullivan was hired as a full-time fire chief.
May 2011 – A marsh fire on the south side of the beltline consumed approximately 100 acres. Twenty-eight apparatus from 12 area departments responded mutual-aid.
Summer 2011 – A new intern program was implemented to allow three individuals to receive firefighting and paramedic training while serving at Monona’s fire station. The department also begins its transition to a paramedic-level service.