150 Years of Service: McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 marks milestone

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McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 was incorporated in 1872. This early image shows the department at a parade or celebration near Triangle Park. Firefighters will celebrate the 150th anniversary similarly on June 25, with a parade at noon. (Photo courtesy of McGregor Historical Society)

Tom Sauer (left) became a firefighter in 1985 and has been McGregor Hook and Ladder’s chief since 2020. Dan Bickel, also a long-time chief, is the longest serving member, having joined in 1974. The two—standing behind the early triangle fire alarm first used in 1874—recently reflected on the department’s 150-year milestone. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

In a town as rich in history as McGregor, it’s not surprising early fire department artifacts exist today. That includes the original ladder cart and 1927 fire truck, the first McGregor ever purchased. A display at the McGregor Historical Museum (shown here) has an early helmet, jacket and leather bucket. The firefighters also have the original minute book, older badges and helmets and other memorabilia.

Thirteen individuals made up the original McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1. Today, 25 men make up the crew, and there are several honorary members, said chief Tom Sauer. The department is shown responding to a fire in McGregor last year. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 marks its 150th anniversary this year. It’s a milestone Dan Bickel and Tom Sauer said is a tribute to decades of community support as well as dedicated service from both fire men and women.

 

“If you look at McGregor, there’s been a lot of institutions in this town that come and go. Kiwanis Club, Masonic Lodge, different churches. We’re the only service organization that has been here and is still here,” reflected Bickel, who joined the department in February 1974 and was its long-time chief. “We have a purpose and a responsibility to the community, and we take it very seriously. That’s the binding cement that keeps everything together.”

 

“We had our banquet earlier this year, and when I announced to everyone this was our 150th year, it got emotional. It’s really something to be proud of,” added Sauer, who’s served since 1985 and took over as chief in 2020. “But it’s not really the department itself—it’s the guys who contribute to it.”

 

— — —

 

McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 was incorporated in 1872, following over a decade of concern from citizens.

 

As early as 1858, the North Iowa Times printed: “McGregor now numbers over 2,000 inhabitants. The town is principally built of wood and is compact enough to burn like a tar kiln. Yet we have no engine, no hook and ladder company, no bucket company.”

 

According to McGregor historian Lena D. Myers, the town decreed in 1863 that “no more wooden buildings could be erected on Main Street below 4th Street” and it purchased 12 dozen, two-pound pails for fire fighting. In 1869, the council passed an ordinance regulating the use and possession of gunpowder in order to reduce fire hazards. 

 

Fires continued, though. Myers noted one disastrous 1865 event totaled $100,000 in property loss, while another in 1870 resulted in $30,000 of damage.

 

“McGregor, in the old days, the buildings were all wood frame. They were never intended to last 150 years. And McGregor burned down a couple times,” Bickel shared. “Finally, after the Civil War, they said, ‘We need to do something about this.’” 

 

Before the creation of the hook and ladder company, Bickel said a steam operated pump truck was loaded on a flat car at Dubuque and brought north to McGregor.

 

“Well, you can imagine, by the time it got here, there wasn’t anything left to do,” he said. “So they organized their own fire department and the city put in an ordinance that you had to rebuild out of brick. That brick and the tin ceilings in some of these buildings have saved a lot of them. The tin keeps the fire from spreading—for awhile anyway.” 

 

According to Bickel, the fire department’s “hook and ladder company” name came from the big hooks firefighters would throw over window sills to pull buildings down. 

 

“The guys all got on and pulled the building down because they needed to make a fire break. We still have the hooks,” he quipped.

 

In a town as rich in history as McGregor, it’s not surprising other original artifacts exist today. That includes the original ladder cart and 1927 fire truck, the first McGregor ever purchased. A display at the McGregor Historical Museum has an early helmet, blouse and leather buckets. The firefighters also have the original minute book, older badges and helmets and other memorabilia.

 

Although sirens have long replaced them, the department bell is still on display in front of the fire station on Fourth Street and the triangle alarm is in Triangle Park.

 

According to the North Iowa Times, the triangle was first used in 1874. It replaced a trumpet, which was apparently stolen, and created at a cost of $39.79.

 

The first meeting of McGregor Hook and Ladder was in part of the building that was once the Milwaukee passenger depot at the lower end of town.

 

“They had 13 members who showed up to be part of McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1. McGregor was big enough at that time there could have been another fire department,” Sauer explained. “And we’re still number one.”

 

— — —

 

McGregor Hook and Ladder is a private, non-profit corporation, which differs from many fire departments.

 

“We manage the fire department for the cities of Marquette and McGregor and Mendon Township. We contract with them to provide services, and they provide us with housing and a budget. But we actually own everything in the fire house—every truck, every boot, every coat is owned by the men themselves. That’s another reason they’re so proud,” Bickel explained.

 

He estimated the city of Marquette gave up its fire department and joined McGregor Hook and Ladder over 20 years ago. 

 

“That was hard for them to do, but it worked out and we got some really good firemen from Marquette,” he added.

 

The fire department holds an annual door-to-door fund drive to raise money, and also conducts a letter campaign to the rural area. Although early department fundraisers included dances, which Bickel said “could be quite colorful,” efforts today include a fish fry and a UTV timber ride.

 

The second annual ride is planned for Sept. 4, and Sauer hopes for a good turnout.

 

“The first year, we had 160 units,” he said.

 

Bickel stressed all money the department raises is invested in equipment and training. 

 

“We’re working on a new truck right now,” he shared.

 

— — —

 

Sauer said the fire department ranks swelled to 35 members at one point in the early days. Today, 25 men make up the crew, and there are several honorary members, including Bickel. More volunteers are always welcome.

 

Bickel called it a long-term commitment—and it’s not for the faint of heart. He referenced a saying on the fire house wall that reads: “If we don’t do it, who will?” 

 

“Well, that’s a really good question,” he said. “We’ve done all kinds of strange things. We have looked for people who’ve wandered away from the nursing home, looked for lost kids at Pikes Peak, body recovery on the river, a plane wreck once, bomb threats. It could be gas leaks, carbon monoxide detectors, car wrecks, train derailments, barge fires, grain elevator blowing up, tornados—we’ve done it all over the years.”

 

“We may not be perfect,” he added, “but we do the best job we know how.”

 

What’s kept firefighters responding to calls year after year when faced with those hard days? Sauer and Bickel said it’s a responsibility to the community and to each other. It’s one that hasn’t changed from the department’s inception 150 years ago to today.

 

“A few of our members have joined after seeing what we do on scene. They want to be part of that,” Sauer stated.

 

“You develop a camaraderie between the group and you don’t want to let the group down. It’s a team effort and everyone understands that,” Bickel continued. “They want to do something for their town, and this is something they can do.”

 

— — —

McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 will celebrate its 150th anniversary this Saturday, June 25, with a parade in McGregor at noon. Others are welcome to participate, and can line up behind the MFL MarMac Middle School at 11:30 a.m.

 

“The parade is something the group all wanted to do. Whoever wants to come,” Sauer said. “Nauti Marina, at the foot of Main Street, said afterward they will have music and a food truck. We don’t plan any afterward celebration, just meet there if you want to.”

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