- [S106] The Mountain Press, 1 Oct 2012.
Upland Chronicles: Sevierville Fire Department began with volunteers
by CARROLL McMAHAN
Throughout history, fire has taken its toll on Sevierville. A disastrous fire on March 31, 1856, destroyed the courthouse and county jail along with most businesses, several residences and valuable courthouse documents.
On Oct. 28, 1907, six buildings on West Main Street were destroyed. Businesses located within those buildings included Sevierville Hack Company, Sevierville Hardware, M. Yett and Sons, and the Odd Fellows Building along with Ida Trotter’s Millinery, Caton-Lawson Drug Store and the I.A. Watson Building. The estimated damage was $40,000.
Known as the Mitchell Corner fire, another blaze burned eight buildings located at the corner of Main Street and Court Avenue on Aug. 24, 1925. The Mitchell Hotel was lost in the fire along with its barn and restaurant. Other businesses destroyed included John Christopher’s Shoe Store, Pete’s Place Restaurant, and McDonald Brown’s Barn and Coal and Feed Company. A cottage owned by Dr. Ingle went up in flames as well.
A fire on Sept. 20, 1935, which destroyed the Chair Factory owned by M.B. McMahan, was probably the catalyst for the formation of the first volunteer fire department.
Antiquated means of fighting fires such as bucket brigades were not effective in fighting dwelling house fires, let alone those that spread from building to building.
On Feb. 29, 1936, a group of men banded together to form Sevierville Volunteer Fire Department. Seventeen men were on the roster that year. Hugh C. Blair was the first chief and Joe Lampkin served as assistant chief.
The other charter members: Marion Atchley, Earl Connaster, Burt Ketner, Lee Ketner, Paul Knefel, Fred Lawson, George Lawson, Bill McPherson, Barton Murphy, Tom Paine, Albert Pratt, Edgar Rawlings, Carl Roberts, Ted Seaton and Tom Watson.
Huh C. Blair was followed by Bart Murphy, who served as chief for a brief time. Thurman Ownby was elected chief in 1954 and resigned in 1965. Jim Atchley became chief in 1965 and served in the position until he retired in 1996.
Mike Rawlings became chief when Atchley retired and served until he passed away on Dec. 31, 2011. Matt Henderson is currently serving as chief.
A 1935 Chevrolet truck and a pump, purchased by the men who established the department, got the department started. At the time the only other fire department in the county was in Gatlinburg.
In 1954 the Sevier County Fire Department was organized. Although each department owned and maintained equipment, the same volunteers fought fires for both.
In 1955, the city of Sevierville purchased a 1954 Chevrolet truck and a 500 GPM Centrifugal Pump. That same year the department bought a 6-by-6 gasoline tanker truck from the Sevier County School Board for $1. A portable pump and hose was placed on this truck. The truck was christened “The Monstrosity.”
Since the establishment of the fire department, the courageous firemen have fought thousands of fires.
In 1956 the Sevierville Feed Store burned. Ironically, the store was located on the old Mitchell Corner where the great fire of 1925 occurred. The fire department fought the blaze for six hours.
The department prevented the fire from spreading to the old Central Hotel across the street, but the grain smoldered for two months before a flood swept through the center of town and extinguished it.
In 1964 another difficult fire broke out at Sevier Farmers Co-Op. Water was pumped from the near-by Little Pigeon River, but because fertilizer gives off ammonium nitrate that can wipe out large areas in one explosion it was a long, hard- fought fire.
The old Sevier County High School on High Street was destroyed by fire on March 11, 1976. Although the rickety old building had been vacant for seven years, the loss was particularly hard for the school’s alumni who attached great sentimental value to the place.
Undoubtedly, the most dramatic fire since the great fire of 1856 was the Temple Milling blaze on Oct. 20, 1980. The gigantic blaze was the one the department had drilled for, but hoped would never happen. A total of 105 men with 12 trucks fought the flames. Seymour, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Northview and Walden’s Creek sent men and equipment.
The first call came in at 8:10 p.m.; by 10:10 p.m., the fire was under control. Constantly spraying water on its roof, this time the diligent firemen managed to save the historic courthouse.
The Prince Street fire hall was built in 1961. Other city departments, including the police department shared the building until 1972 when the other departments moved to premises on Park Road. The building was remodeled in 1986 when the city of Sevierville provided $40,000 and the county gave $10,000.
The cost would have been greater without the volunteer time put in by the firemen.
In the years before the Fire Department building was built, the trucks were parked in various locations such as the side of Temple Milling Company and behind Newman’s Café. During Word War ll, the practice of sounding the alarm every Wednesday at noon began in order to try out the siren. The tradition continued for several decades.
Also, for several years every caution light in the city turned red when the fire alarm sounded in order to allow the fireman a speedy exit.
In the early 1970s, the department obtained a mascot named Smoky. A Dalmatian puppy purchased from a Knoxville fireman whose Dalmatian had recently given birth to a litter was trained by Chuck Atchley. Smoky served the department for over a decade.
Today, the Sevier County Fire Department continues to serve the needs of the community. With modern equipment and stations throughout the county, the exemplary organization is a testament to those courageous 17 men who founded the Sevierville Volunteer Fire Department 76 years ago.
— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact McMahan at 453-6411 or email to email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- [S73] Rawlings Funeral Home, Book 2, 11 Feb 1981.
Blair, Hugh Curtis June 5, 1899 Tn Feb 11, 1981
Spouse: Houk, Robbie
Father: Clair, Hugh C.
Mother: Thomas, Julia Kate
Sons: Hugh [Red]
Daughters: In-Law Norma S. Blair
- [S34] In the Shadow of the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, (1993), 341.