Book captures history of 'Firefighting in Willimantic'
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Fri., Dec. 14, 2012
A love of history first brought Peter Zizka and Michael Tirone together. Zizka runs a website featuring historic Willimantic photographs. He’d been struck by how many old photos there were that featured the city’s firefighters. Zizka, who has served as a volunteer firefighter himself, contacted Willimantic’s former fire chief, Ronald Palmer, about putting together a collection.
Tirone grew up in Willimantic and moved away, but has been a firefighter for most of his adult life, working for Electric Boat, the submarine base in Groton, and the City of Norwich. Tirone had played a small part in putting together a book for the Norwich Fire Department. “We were all kind of thinking about these things, and Mike brought it together,” said Zizka, as the two sat in the main room at the Windham Textile and History Museum, on Dec. 8, to promote “Firefighting in Willimantic,” their recently-released Images of America book.
The two contacted Arcadia Publishing about the project. “We basically auditioned for them,” said Tirone. Once they got the go-ahead, the pair brought together firefighters from Willimantic’s past and present, including Joseph “Al” Beaulieu, a firefighter for 37 years who retired as a captain. Once they contacted retirees, “more pictures came out of the woodwork,” said Beaulieu. The men estimate that they amassed between 500 and 700 photographs in total, which needed to be distilled down to approximately 225. “Then we had to do captions,” said Tirone. Identifications were provided mainly by retired firefighters. “They remembered all of the details,” said Zizka.
“This is how you remember,” said Beaulieu, pointing to a photograph of an engulfed building, circa 1979. It was the Shell Chateau bar and restaurant, located approximately where McDonald’s is now. “See that guy there,” said Beaulieu, pointing to a firefighter on the roof of the building. “That’s me.” Beaulieu was a young firefighter, not even an officer at the time, when the call came in for the Shell Chateau. But with all higher-ranking firefighters out of town, “I was the senior officer that night,” said Beaulieu.
Beaulieu recalls that the fire started in the loft of the building. “When we got there, people were still at the bar,” he said. The department did its best to combat the flames. But when the situation became too dangerous, Beaulieu made the decision to pull his men from the building.
“A surround and drown,” said Beaulieu and Tirone in unison.
Some of the men’s favorite photographs feature animals. There is a photo of Beaulieu carrying a cat out of a home. There’s a firefighter with a helmet full of rescued kittens. There is a firefighter handing a small terrier to a grateful homeowner. And there are numerous photos of Dalmatians and other canine mascots who have inhabited the city fire station over the years.
There were originally four separate departments serving the city of Willimantic, with firefighters working as volunteers. In 1926, the departments consolidated, and firefighters became paid employees. “Things were a lot different back then,” said Beaulieu, pointing to a photograph of the Melony Block fire, dating back to 1908. The men fighting the fire wore top hats and rubber coats. “You got close enough to the fire, the radiant heat would turn your perspiration to steam and cook you,” said Beaulieu.
With a goal in mind of completing “Firefighting in Willimantic” for this year’s Fireman’s Sunday memorial service in October, the group completed the bulk of the work within four months. “We got it done, but it was tough,” said Zizka.
“I think the most rewarding part of the whole thing was the reactions of the retirees,” said Tirone. “Every firefighter that was at the service loved it. They were so happy to see the book. For me, that was what made it all worthwhile. These are the guys I looked up to as a kid.”
“I remember you walking by the firehouse as a kid,” said Beaulieu.
“Firefighting in Willimantic” is available at the Windham Textile and History Museum, at the Jillson House Museum, and from Amazon.com. It is also available at the Willimantic firehouse at 13 Bank St., and 100 percent of the proceeds return to the department for books purchased directly from the station.