In the early days of the Monelison Volunteer Fire Department, long before cellphones or social media, the system for alerting volunteers to emergencies went through a local hotel.
Since it was a 24-hour-a-day business, when a fire or other incident happened the call would go to the person working the desk, who would then notify three department members. Those three would call another three and so on until all 30 or so volunteers were reached.
“By the time they came to the end of the list the fire was probably over with,” said Ernie Cash, a longtime volunteer of more than 45 years.
The former department chief recalled that story and more during the organization’s 60th anniversary celebration Saturday in Madison Heights. The event featured volunteers and their loved ones reminiscing along with games, food, music and fellowship.
The department started in 1959 following the City of Lynchburg announcing it would no longer provide fire protection to Madison Heights. Concerned citizens and business leaders held the first meeting in the effort to start the organization in July 1959 at the former school on Phelps Road in Madison Heights, Cash said.
The headquarters next to Amelon Elementary School was built a year later and the department began running calls in the early 1960s. The department’s first fire truck, Engine 5, still remains on site, Cash said. He recalled the sacrifices those charter members and founders took to start the agency, saying some took out mortgages on their home and passed around a hat for collections to buy gas following calls.
“They did a fantastic job to build this place,” Cash said. “Back then it was more difficult because they didn’t have the resources we have today.”
Amherst County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jimmy Ayers said the charter members were the foundation of the department and established a tradition of volunteerism the current members are keeping alive.
“They receive not one dime for the nights, days, holidays, whatever it may be,” Ayers said. “When the need arises they are there to serve us. We as a community, we have to support them. We have to recognize what they do and the sacrifices they make for us every day so we can feel safe in our homes and feel secure knowing in our time they will be there.”
Gatherers applauded when the names of all the department’s chiefs were read and honored a moment of silence for Mack Crouch and Aaron Coppedge, two members who died in the line of duty, and Tim Pigg, a fallen firefighter in the Amherst Fire Department.
Cash, a cancer survivor who still teaches in the fire service and is no longer on the active roster, said he is honored to have known every chief in the department and worked under all but two of them. Reading from a personal scrapbook he kept on the agency, he spoke of the dances in the fire station’s second floor and fundraisers that had members sending out 8,000 letters.
He said the “Monelison” title came from combining Monroe, Elon and Madison Heights and recalled the addition of two fire stations, one on Littleton Lane in Madison Heights in 1967 and another in Elon in the mid-1970s. Cash paused while remembering Crouch, who died from injuries sustained in battling a brush fire in 1964 and Coppedge, who died from a structure fire in 1980.
Cash referred to firefighters as a “special breed” and recognized their family members who stood by them while they served long hours away from home.
“A lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, has gone into this department,” Cash said.
Assistant Chief Jason Friend, who has served roughly 19 years, said without the support of the community the department couldn’t continue and thanked all who have given toward it.
Friend said the department now has close to 30 members. The agency also thanked Nancy Peters for a donation that Friend said allowed for recent improvements to the second floor of the main station. The enhancements completed in early 2019 include a men’s and women’s bunkroom, a fully furnished updated kitchen and showers for men and women as well as a washer and drier, according to Friend.
The department is open to new members and Friend urges residents to consider volunteering if they want to make a positive difference in the community.
“If you’re looking for a paycheck it’s not here. But if you’re looking for a reward knowing that you went home every day to help somebody, that’s where your reward is,” Friend said. “That’s why I do it.”
Pat Day, the department’s first female firefighter who joined in 1986, was among gatherers Saturday. She and her husband, Lee Day, a former chief, were the first husband-wife duo to serve in a county fire department, Cash said.
Day said she has fond memories of volunteering and spending much time serving the department along with her husband.
“I love helping others,” she said. “It was better than getting paid.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.