Rural Fire Protection Origins – Guilford County

How did rural fire protection begin in North Carolina?

That’s been a nagging question for a few years now. We posted this historical perspective from 1977, with excerpts from a state government document. 

But how about some details? What were the developments among individual counties? We’ve asked inputs on our Facebook fire page, in this posting. That’s where a discussion is unfolding. 

And, we’ve got some data to share on Guilford County, and its early rural fire protection history…

Guilford County

Guilford was one of the first counties to address “the problem of rural fire protection.” They started discussions in 1939, pressed their General Assembly reps to introduce legislation, and by the middle of the next decade, had three “community fire departments” operating: Bessemer, Guilford College, and Oak Grove.

Here’s a detailed history by way of the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record, from 1939 to 1948. Let’s start at the end, with a great recap in a GR story from September 16, 1948. From there, we’ll go back to the beginning.

What happened after 1948, both in Guilford and statewide? To be continued!

Click to enlarge:

Full text:

Guilford College Fire Department Result of Legislative Enabling Act

By Robert Register, Record Staff Writer

No longer need rural residents stand helplessly by while their property goes up in smoke because city fire trucks will not cross corporate lines to aid them. Rural fire protection is available for Guilford communities with initiative enough to plan it. It has been available, in one form or another, for several years, with few takers.

Two acts of the North Carolina General Assembly the oldest back to 1941, provide the means which rural residents [of Guilford County] may organize or provide fire protection. Or, if a community has money enough, it can step right out and set up its own fire department without reference to those statutory channels.

Three Units in Guilford

There are now three rural fire departments in Guilford. The one in the Oak Grove community, south of Greensboro, was set up with only token aid from the county. One in Bessemer was created as an adjunct to Bessemer Sanitary District, a special tax area. Only the one at Guilford College was formed by means of powers vested in the county commissioners to promote rural fire protection. 

As such, the Guilford College department stands as a model for other communities which will need county aid, and county commissioners stand ready to help those area that help themselves.

Fire protection for its rural areas is no come-lately concern of Guilford County. But it was only 1 1/2 years ago, with the emergency of organized interest at Guilford College, that a workable plan was evolved and tested.

Given Serious Study

An earlier county administration, as long ago as 1939, gave serious study to the rural fire protection problem. it came up with a plan which, at first glance, was even more effective than the one finally to emerge. It was thought then that the county government, given legislative authority to appropriate funds for the purpose, should purchase fire equipment for blanket rural protection.

But that plan never paid off. Then–as later when the same approach was tried again–county leaders found it impossible to make necessary arrangements with city fire departments. A basic assumption of the plan was that county-owned equipment could be placed in city stations in return for rural protection when needed. Through no fault of their own, the city departments were unable to enter into such an arrangement. The reason was that the additional area thus taken on for protection would throw city insurance ratings out of kilter; insurance underwriters turned thumbs down.

The concern for rural fire protection shown by the county administration under the late George L. Stansbury did, however, pay off indirectly at a later date. In the 1941 General Assembly Representative S. B. Caveness was instrumental in obtaining passage of a bill giving rural Guilford communities authority to set up their own fire units.

Under the Caveness act, the process is set in motion by the signing of a petition by landowners holding a majority of acreage and tax value in the district concerned. On presentation of the petition, the clerk of Guilford Superior Court is empowered to appoint temporarily three of the district residents to a fire commission. It is the duty of those men, serving without compensation, to study costs and plans for a community fire department until commissioners can be regularly elected.

When the commissioners submit their report, the clerk is authorized to call a special election in the district, the county bearing election expenses. Registered voters of the area then go to the polls to vote on whether they shall float a bond issue to be paid for by a special tax and to name three commissioners. Once the special tax is thus approved and the commission elected, the county tax department will levy the tax.

Still On Books

That statute is still on the books and can be used by any community in the county. But no community has ever utilized it.

Because no move was made to take advantage of that bill even though the need for rural protection continued to grow, county commissioners in the 1945 General Assembly obtained an extension of the act. That extension, in essence, puts Guilford County into the rural fire protection business. It authorizes county commissioners “in their discretion” to furnish fire protection to rural communities under such rules as  they prescribe. But it sets at $15,000 the limit which commissioners may spend in setting up fire protection facilities.

Those 1943 provisions were originally due to expire July 1, 1948, but the commissioners at the 1947 General Assembly had them extended to July 1, 1951.

It is under the authority of that act that the model department at Guilford College had been set up. The community first had to incorporate a volunteer fire department to do business with the county. The county then used $5,000 of its allotted fund to buy fire protection equipment in the government surplus market and to back construction of a Guilford fire station.

Under a 1947 contract drawn up between the county and the community, the $5,000 amounts to an interest-free loan repayable by June 30, 1949. In the meantime, the equipment is technically the county’s. If the community defaults on repayment, the county retains the equipment–but, under the provision of the statue, may let it remain with the community for use there.

Use of $5,000 at Guilford [College] and the loan of $500 for auxiliary equipment to the Oak Grove Fire Department leave $9,500 in rural fire protection funds still with the county three years after the enabling act was passed. Several communities have made advances about protection but none has carried through as has Guilford College. Pleasant Garden now has an option of $5,000 if residents there decide by October 4 to set up a department.

Earlier the Fairmont community west of High Point asked that it be granted funs but later withdrew the request. Preliminary advances were made by leaders at Summerfield, Rankin, and Allen Jay but never followed up. Rankin leaders, as a matter of fact, advanced a protection plan calling for city-county co-operation, one similar to that which could not be set up back in 1939. The original obstacles to it still exist.

Still Hopeful

But despite the slow spread of rural protection ideas, county commissioners are still hopeful that other communities will emulate Guilford College. Under the law, of course, the sums advanced by the county up to the $15,000 do not have to be repaid by the communities. But unless communities do pay sums obtained, the plan cannot perpetuate itself. County leaders point out that they cannot continue to appropriate sums, taken from taxes paid by urban and rural residents alike, for excessive rural use. The $15,000 nest egg is an exception established by law. But a multiplication of that sum could arouse the justifiable ire of urban residents who find themselves paying city taxes for their own fire protection and county taxes to help pay for the protection of their rural neighbors.

There is, however, still time for rural communities to get in under the statutory wire. The county has enough of the $15,000 left to aid the communities.

Back to 1939

1939, Oct 11 – GDN – “Rural Residents Are Urged To Remove All Fire Hazards” – Chamber of Commerce advises small communities to organize fire departments, during Fire Prevention Week. The week is an excellent time for “rural communities without adequate fire protection” to organize them, or arrange for help from fire departments from nearby towns. “The prosperity of the farmer and the safety of his family rest to an important extent upon dependable fire control” and “although progress has been made in controlling farm farms, there remains much to be done in the development of efficient systems of rural fire protection.”

1939, Nov 7 – GR – “Two Proposals For Rural Fire Protection Advanced” – County commissioners considering two plans, to provide fire protection to rural property owns.

First, if possible, indemnify cities of Greensboro and High Point against injury to firemen while answering calls outside corporate limits. There was a temporary agreement in place, between the cities and the county for answers calls, that indemnified firemen, which had just expired. However, Greensboro provides protection through contracts to Hamilton Lakes, Starmount Forest, and Pomona.

Two, that the county purchase two trucks designed for rural firefighter, one for each city. They could cost about $3,000 each. They would require a crew of “several men”, also furnished by the county, for day and night duty on a two-platoon system. Each city would furnish storage space and garage/repair service. The county firemen could utilize training provided to city firemen. Also, a recent National Board of Fire Underwriters survey found that the two cities each need two more trucks. If the county bought two trucks, both could assist either city, in the event of an emergency.

Also, the city managers have offered to the county $175 per call as a flat rate charge. The offer has been extended until January 1.

1939, Nov 25 – GR – “Rural Fire Protection” – Editorial that notes, according to the state’s attorney general, compensation insurance would cover “firemen fighting fires in a residential district outside corporate limits or in neighboring communities.” They’d also be covered by the firemen’s relief fund. The state is quoted from the October issue of Popular Government, a monthly “organ of the institute of government.”

1939, Dec 12 – GR – “The Evident Neat For Rural Fire Protection” – Editorial about the need for rural fire protection, noting the “near-loss last week of an Oak Ridge dwelling.” The fire was noticed by a motorist, smoke and flames “rising from the roof of a house occupied by two elderly ladies of the village.” The nearby Oak Ridge Military Institute was in session, and classes were dismissed, and “the cadets joined others of the community in forming a bucket brigade.” The county commissioners have received the suggestion that “one possible solution to the problem” is “hand-operated wheel equipment, carrying [a] chemical tank and hose” that could be provided to “those communities more distantly removed from cities.”

1939, Dec 22 – GR – “County Is Not Empowered To Have Fire Department” – Attorney General has informed county commissioners that they have no authority under the law to “establish and maintain an independent fire department for the benefit and protection of rural Guilford property owners.” However, there is Chapter 364, of Public Laws of 1939, Creating a State Volunteer Fire Department. Under Section 8, “a county desiring to accept the benefits of the act is authorized to do so and levy taxes for this purpose.” Which means, apparently, a county can become member of the state fire department. [ What was this entity? Was it ever created? ]

Also about the 1939 act, from the GR on January 23, 1941, members of paid fire departments of any municipalities were forbidden to answer calls outside of their territory, “unless there is a working agreement between the city and the county.” Prior to this act, in Guilford County, city fire trucks answered calls outside the city limits “and within reasonable distance of Greensboro.” This was done “voluntarily” and with the only compensation from “donations as owners of property involved” saw fit to give. 

1940, Jan 2 – GR – “County Has Legal Right To Cooperate With City In Fire Protection Work” – Attorney General clarifies his prior statement. The county does have a right, under the law, to “co-operate with city fire departments in providing protection for rural property.” This clarification opens the way for continuation of efforts to reach a city/county agreement.

1940, Feb 4 – GDN – “Public Pulse” section – Letter to editor, that includes such notes as: about 60 days ago, a “a delegation from the rural sections of the county” met with commissioners in their regular meeting, and asked that the board “make some provisions” to provide rural fire protection. They were told that no funds were available. Then, thirty days later, “all rural Guilford taxpayers” learned that the county found money to increase the salaries of several employees. There were also emergency loans for community recreation centers. He notes “in all friendliness” that the people of the county should “join with other economic groups in getting rid of” any county official who are obstructing this goal.

1940, Feb 25 – GDN – “Rural Areas Not Likely To Get Fire Protection” – Recap of the issue, including this additional information about the $175 flat rate proposed before January 1. The city managers suggested a plan for Greensboro, High Point, and Gibsonville firemen to answer calls within a radius of 7.5 miles. This would “bridge the distance in a portion of the county,” but leave out other areas. Also noted of a recent fire in High Point that destroyed a home within 1,500 feet of a hydrant. The High Point Fire Department declined to answer the call (and/or “were not permitted to leave the city limits”), based on recent disagreements between city and council officials, over who pays for calls outside the city limits.

1940, Mar 3 – GDN – “Public Pulse” section – Letter to editor, “it’s inconceivable that Guilford county commissioners can take the stand they have taken unanimously in postponing rural fire protection.”

1941, Jan 3 – GR – “Rural Fire Protection Proposed” – Legislative bill drafted to create a rural fire department to protect property outside Greensboro, High Point, and Gibsonville, and provide assistance anywhere in the county as needed. Would be introduced on January 8. Bill empowers county to create and equip the fire department, to employee personnel, purchase equipment, provide storage, etc. The county would also be authorized to enter into contracts with the cities, and vice-versa. The firemen would also be protected for compensation in case of injury and death.

The bill also “makes it mandatory” that the county commissioners create the fire department, notes the GR on January 25, 1941.

1941, Jan 23 – GR – “Rural Fire Issue Is Studied By Officials” – Conference of public officials has been called at [Greensboro?] city hall, to consider the proposed legislation. Conference will be attended by members of the city council, county commissioners, the High Point and Gibsonville mayors, and members of the Guilford delegation to the General Assembly.

Major issues include:

  • Urban taxpayers should not be “called upon to contributor” to services that don’t serve them. This is a “double levy” since they’re already paying for their own fire department.
  • Rural residents, who choose to live outside the city, should not expect to have the “same advantages and protection as provided for city dwellers without paying for them.”
  • If the county accepts the agreement with GFD and HFPD, some rural areas would remain unprotected, as they’re farther out than a “reasonable radius of their corporate limits.”
  • To protect all rural areas, a county-funded fire department would be needed.

1941, Jan 25 – GR – “Plan For Rural Fire Protection Is Studied Here” – At a discussion today, the legislative bill was approved in principal, but “condemned in certain detail” both by city councilmen and “other members of the county’s delegation to the legislation.” Principal objections were the “plan’s mandatory nature, the unlimited taxing and spending power vested in county commissioners, the burden placed on city dwellers (who pay the bulk of the county’s taxes), and the compensation for use of city fire equipment.”

The chairman of the county commissioners presents a map showing a possible solution, and representing more than a year’s study of the issue. GFD, HFPD, and Gibsonville FD would cover a five-mile area around their cities. Then, small trucks or trailers, “outfitted at about $500 to $700 each,” would be stationed at Oak Ridge, Pleasant Garden, Monticello, and the airport. These would be manned by volunteers, and also responsible for a five-mile radius. That would leave a small section in Greene township, and “another above the waterworks,” that would require more special protection. Monies would come from a special one-cent tax levy. About $4,000 would be needed, to equip the “rural outfits.” The rest of the estimated $14,000 net would be paid to the city departments, for answering calls.

1941, Feb 1 – GR – “New Fire Plan Being Studied” – City and county officials are discussing a new place. Individual communities, from a “city block” to “an entire rural area,” would petition the commissioners for a rural fire district. County officials would hold an election for the property owners. If passed with 51 or more percent of votes, officials would work to administer the necessary tax. The plan would “work similar to the Bessemer sanitary district program,” which provided fire protection to that community.

Also notes that the legislative bill, while drafted, has not been introduced, yet. Objections were also raised, noting that a county-wide tax on rural fire protection would mean “city dwellers pay double taxes.” The rural rate would be one-cent, while Greensboro residents pay a 17-cent rate, and High Point residents pay a 36-cent rate. The bill suggests a tax that doesn’t exceed one-cent.

Fire losses in the county were reported by Experience of Farmers Mutual Fire insurance, with 13 total losses averaging $502, and 28 small losses averaging $53.

1941, Feb 2 – GDN – “Two Solutions Seen To Rural Fire Issue” – The two solutions are noted. One, allowing any locality or community to create a fire district through a 51-percent or greater property owner petition. Or, requiring the mandatory creation of a county-established rural fire department. Redrafting of the original legislative bill is likely.

1941, Feb 4 – GR – “Rural Fire Plan Not Given to Legislature” – Reports that a bill introduced in the general assembly by Guilford legislators last week was not related to rural fire protection. Rather, it provided for the creation of the Bessemer sanitary district. The bill was statewide in scope, and allows communities to create sanitary districts, and empowers the districts to create police and fire departments, and “engage in other government functions.” This bill was needed before the rural fire protection bill, otherwise rural fire districts would have to be created as sanitary districts, which have their own special requirements.

1941, Feb 24 – GDN – “Caveness To Present Substitute Fire Bill” – Guilford representative Shelley B. Caveness will introduce a new bill for rural fire protection in Guilford County, that would allow any locality or community to create a fire district, by the aforementioned petition procedure. If the majority of property owners favors a fire district, county officials would appoint a temporary board to manage the affairs of the fire district, until the next general election, where a permanent board would be installed. The fire district would decided if it wanted to contract with a city fire department, or create its own department. Bonds could be issued, and taxes would be collected. The bill requires that board members are not compensated, that the fire district “run its own affairs,” and that a “district’s area [is] contiguous.”

1941, Mar 28 – GR – “Fire Protection Law Depends On Voters” – The legislative bill, known as the Caveness rural fire protection act, was ratified in the closing days of the session. The bill authorizes the creation of fire protection districts in rural areas of Guilford County. The provisions include:

  • Process starts with a petition signed by majority of property holders.
  • Those are “resident freeholders” or owners of “more than half the taxable value of the land.”
  • Petition goes to Clerk of Superior Court, and includes the district’s area in acres, boundaries, and total assesses valuation.
  • However, no land will be included without owner’s consent.
  • Clerk appoints three-member fire protection district commission.
  • Commission determines best method of protection, and advises Clerk.
  • Clerk calls election, noting boundaries, proposed protection method, and three people for “fire board.”
  • If passed, “fire board” serves without compensation.
  • They have authority to create a fire department, hire personnel, purchase equipment, etc.
  • The rural firefighters will have the same “rights, privileges and immunities” as municipal firemen, when operating on calls in the county.
  • District can issue bonds if organize a fire department, to levy an annual tax, if they contract for service with a city.
  • Taxes would be collected and kept in separate fund by county treasurer.

[ Though reported as ratified, the legislative authority was not immediately utilized in Guilford County. Was the country’s entrance into World War II after December 7, 1941, a factor? Three years later, county citizens again pursued legislative actions for rural fire protection. See below ]

1941, Apr 15 – GDN – “Gilmer No. 3 to Ask For Fire Protection” – Second organization meeting for rural fire protection in Gilmer precinct No. 3, scheduled for tonight, has been postponed, so that they can present the issue to the [Greensboro?] city council today. The three named commissioners of the fire district will ask the city to provide fire protection at a stated cost. Also at the meeting, the Bessemer district will also inquire into “the rural fire matter.”

1941, Apr 22 – GR – “For Rural Fire Protection” – Residents of “Gilmer precinct No. 3” are the first rural community to pursue a fire district. After a meeting of the residents, a delegation appeared before city council last week. A committee was named to make recommendations and “serve as a guide” to the creation of the proposed fire department.

1942, Apr 9 – GDN – “Big Bessemer Project is Complete – Fire Truck and Equipment Will Be Purchased” – B. Lee Fentress, county attorney, and who handles all legal matters for the district board, notes that they’ve “obtained a priority rating for purchase of a fire truck and equipment to cost $3,500” and that they’ve starting planning to organize a volunteer fire department. See this web page, for a history of the Bessemer Fire Department.

1943, Oct 10 – GDN – “Note on Fires” – Editorial, “The longstanding question of rural fire protection in Guilford forges to the front again with formal inquiry from a Guilford College citizen as to what arrangements for such protection might be worked out for the area in which he lives in view of destruction of a nearby home, with fatal results for four [residents], by flames resulting from a navy plane crash.” [ On September 14, 1943, the plane crashed into the home of Oliver Knight, killing four members of the family and the pilot, who was found on the lawn, with an unopened parachute lying nearby. ]

“The Daily News is confident that nothing will come of the buck-passing to which the county commissioners resorted in instructing the county manager to take the matter up with the war department. That department of the federal government is too busy running a war just now to take over the matter of fire protection, even near airports, if it were amind.”

“Far as the federal government has gone in assuming the functions and prerogatives of local governments, frequently on instigation or urge of the latter as would be true in the current instance, it has not yet reached the point, even under the incentive or excuse of wartime emergency, where Washington is providing such purely local services as police and fire protection. The responsibility rests directly upon the county authorities themselves, as it is to the county that residents of Guilford College and other rural communities pay their taxes and look for protection. It never will make sense for county authorities to say they can do nothing about protecting property on the tax books, to represent the anomaly or anticlimax of sending somebody out to investigate a fire after it has wrought its havoc but taking no action whatever to combat that fire and keep loss to the owner and to the county at a minimum.”

“There are likely to be more and more from crashing airplanes in expanding aviation and other postwar trends, including readjustments of civilian industry and the continuing merger of municipal and rural interests and developments. The Daily News’ own answer to the problem is consolidation; but that we know to be a long way off, or until the fires which have to be put out are built under the politicians and vest political interests themselves.”

1944, Aug 6 – GDN – “Oak Grove Fire District Former” – Secretary of State Thad Eure yesterday issued a certification of incorporation to the Oak Grove Fire District, “organized for the protection of property in an area south of the city.” The corporation already had 60 or 70 members. The district covers some 140 homes and “a group interested the venture” has already purchased a “fire truck with a 500-gallon booster tank.”

1944, Dec 29 – GR – “Fire Fighting Plans Studied” – State Fire Marshal Sherwood Brockwell gave a talk on rural fire protection to agricultural committee members of the chamber of commerce. He noted that “no really effective system or practical solution has yet been found for rural fire protection.” Some methods being employed in counties in the state was enactment of a special tax, “voted in by the people of the various school districts, to pay for the protection to be furnished by a nearby town.” He noted that system was in effect in Stanly County. Rural fires comprise a third of nation’s fire losses each year, he noted.

Following his talk, a committee was appointed to work with Guilford County’s legislative representatives in “obtaining a suitable enabling act which would be put into effect in this county to insure rural areas of fire protection.”

1944, Feb 5 – GR – “Board Offers New Fire Plans” – County commissioner asks the board to ask for legislative authority to authorize the county to “spend a small amount of money over a three-year period to finance a system of rural fire protection on a trial basis.” Several groups were invited to attend, including the Greensboro and High Point chambers of commerce, the local governments of the cities, and the county board of agriculture.

The commissioners agreed to appoint a committee to study the issue. They proposed a three-year trial plan, with the county buying fire equipment, and they would “farm it out” to certain communities “as a means of proving or disproving the worth of organized fire protection for rural sections.”

Under the legislative act passed in 1941, various communities could establish a “special fire district by voting a special tax to be levied and collected by the county.” No community in Guilford County, however, had “yet adopted this plan.”

1945, Feb 6 – GDN – “County Seeks Right To Spend Funds To  Provide Rural Fire Protection”

1945, Feb 6 – GR – “Fire Protection Bill Is Approved”

1945, Jul 25 – GR – “Guilford Ask For Fire Truck” – Guilford College held an organizational meeting last night “in the interest of community fire protection” and a committee will “file a formal petition” with the county commissioners. On Monday, the Board of Commissioners approved a $15,000 appropriation for rural fire protection. Guilford College wants to purchase a “booster truck with a carrying capacity of several hundred gallons.” Some 100 or more people attended the meeting. The two commissioners, who also attended, told the group that the “board would look upon the request with favor.”

“Under the enabling act passed by the recent general assembly, the county is authorized to expend not more than $15,000 directly arising from a taxy levy between July 1 of this fiscal year and July 1, 1948.” The legislative act leaves distribution of the monies to the “discretion of the commissioners,” and most of whom “seem to be of the opinion that the sum will not provide protection for more than three communities.” And that rural fire protection “is more likely to be successful in widely populated rural sections.”

1946, Feb 25 – GR – Letter to the Editor

1948, Sep 16 – GR – “Guilford College Fire Department Result Of Legislative Enabling Act” – See beginning of this posting.

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