By: Barbara McGowan

When asked to write a story about the beginnings of the Keithville Fire Department, I figured, “How hard can it be?”  My family had moved to Keithville in 1968, so I have about thirty-five years of knowledge at the get-go.  Right?  Wrong!

During those years, it seems I didn’t take the time to find out about the Keithville Fire Department.  You might call that apathy, and you would probably be close to the truth.  It’s not that I wasn’t interested or didn’t care.  I was, like so many other Keithville residents, busy with my life, and since no family members or neighbors were firefighters, my attention was elsewhere.

So, unless an emergency happened as it did on a few occasions—like when our neighbor collapsed after cutting down a tree…or the few times another neighbor set his pasture on fire---I didn’t give much thought about those folks who were busy trying to provide the growing community of Keithville with fire and EMS protection.  To make a long story short, I had to get out there and talk to a few people who did know.  One of those was Brandon Clingman.

I arrived at the home of Brandon and Alma Clingman in the middle of a beautiful April afternoon.  Mrs. Clingman was kind enough to call her husband from the barn where he had been doing some clean-up and reorganization work.  Since his name had been given to me as someone who knew about the beginnings of the Keithville Fire Department, I was looking forward to talking about old times with him.

When I asked ninety-one year old Clingman when he started fighting fires, he smiled and explained that as long ago as his twenties, he had a tractor and had always responded to those area fires near enough to him that he could get there with his tractor to plow around the fire to help contain it.

So when did the Keithville volunteers get together to start fighting fires, I asked.  He thought about that and said it was the early 1970’s when the bunch of guys that included Jim Clark, Gerald Morgan, Buck Sowell, John McGrew, Jim Clark, Jr. and himself got together and, with Billy Walker’s help and encouragement, decided it was time they took definite steps to provide firefighting equipment and manpower for folks in the Keithville area.

“We talked about it and ended up going to El Dorado where we bought an old used fire truck.”  Clingman said they didn’t pay much for it because it was already worn out when they got it.  But after they all worked on it, the truck ran and did a good job for them until it just finally gave up the ghost.  “There was room in the back of Bill Morgan’s Radio Repair Shop on the Old Mansfield Road, and he let us keep the truck there when it wasn’t being used,” he recalled.

After the group made arrangements with the telephone company to have the fire number ring simultaneously at all the firefighter’s homes, they were in business.  “The firefighters would each pick up the phone and go to wherever the fire was.”  To save time Jim Clark or Clingman would take the truck and meet the other volunteers at the location.  It became easier to get the firefighters to fires when firefighter McGrew’s wife started manning a radio station.  “She did a terrific job monitoring that station.  Each man had a radio and she served as the central point of information.”

 Where were they getting water to fight fires, I wanted to know.  “We put a 500 gallon tank on the old truck and eventually bought two other trucks with 1000 gallons and one with 2000 gallons storage.  We just filled them up out of my pond,” he said, pointing to the beautiful 20-acre pond rippling brightly in the April sunshine.  “We never did come close to pumping all the water out of it.”  We laughed.

Some time later, a metal building was built on the corner of Keithville-Keatchie Road next to where Jim Clark’s gun shop was at that time.  “That building was used for years and is still there,” Clingman added.

 “The volunteers kept fighting fires as long as one of them had enough money to fill up the tanks.  When it finally got too big for the volunteers to continue, the parish took it over,” he remarked.

When I asked who he remembered being the best firefighter during the early days, Clingman smiled and said he didn’t have to think hard to answer that one.  “Jim Clark, Jr. was young and more fit than the rest of us.  We called him ‘Little Jim’. He would get in there and do whatever needed to be done.  I’ve seen him hang onto the rafters by one arm, above a fire, and train a hose on the fire below.  That was not an easy feat, because a fire hose has a lot of pressure.  He always got the job done,” Clingman said.

A few days later, I caught up with Jim Clark, Jr. at his gun shop near Haughton.  He told me he got involved with the volunteers at about age 15 and agreed that it was 1972 or 1973 when the group took on the challenge of providing firefighting services for the Keithville area.

 “At one time our volunteer group maintained the largest fire district in Louisiana, stretching from the Texas line to Red River.  And we did it all without funding,” he said.  Taking matters into their own hands, the group worked hard putting on many fund raisers as the need for additional equipment increased.

“We rented the building where the old skating rink used to be at Linwood and Flournoy-Lucas Road.  Every Monday night, we sponsored Bingo to raise money for the department.  Another project was chicken dinners that group members cooked and sold as often as they could,” Clark said.

Clingman added that Shreveport was good about helping out when the Keithville firefighters needed additional resources, but at the same time, they helped Shreveport when there was a need.

“One of those times involved a train that was spewing fire all along the railroad track due to the fiber washer that the train rides on being on fire,” Clingman explained.  “It was heading into Shreveport setting fires along a ten-mile area.”  He said that Shreveport’s equipment was too sophisticated and couldn’t get on the track to fight the fire, but the volunteers got their 4-wheel drive, ¾ ton truck, straddled the tracks and used a 2000 gallon tank to fight the whole area that was burning.  “We kept hauling water till we finally got it out.”

One year during a particularly windy April when folks were clearing land in different parts of the district, seven fires got to going at the same time.  “Since we didn’t have but two trucks at that time, Shreveport and Greenwood both pitched in to help,” Clark said.

Maybe that was when Burn Permits came into being, I suggested.

At one time Keithville had as many as seven trucks in service.  “We bought the chassis, designed and built the trucks to our needs,” Clark added.

With Keithville volunteers working regular jobs and covering the increasingly large area, they eventually met with Springridge citizens and told them they would have to start their own group because it was too much for Keithville to continue handling.  The Springridge group agreed and Keithville gave the group one of the trucks as incentive.

“We also talked with folks in Stonewall and Dixie Gardens, and they agreed the need was there to start their own groups,” Clark said.

Clark and Clingman talked about the training they received that gave them an edge on knowing what to do in emergencies.  Both men said that LSU sent trainers out to work with the firefighters to teach them what they needed to know, and that the Shreveport and Logansport Fire Departments helped with training.

“We fought fires and did everything that needed to be done, from first aid to delivering babies,” Clark said.

As to the worst fire they fought, both men agreed that the worst was an apartment complex on the Mansfield Road.  “It was our first structure fire,” Clark said, “and we hadn’t been trained on what to do and when to do it.”

Clingman told about a situation that occurred north of Shreveport where the North Hearne Extension is located.  A waste paper company had a fire and got it put out, but when they started hauling the burnt debris by truck to a dump, much of it was blown off or fell off onto the neighboring streets.  “It was a mess because the debris was slick paper.  Cars were sliding on it and there had already been four or five wrecks.  The City called us for help, and we hauled 2000 gallons of water to the site and hooked it up to their fire truck for pressure to wash the debris off the streets.”  After spending four hours and refills amounting to about 10,000 gallons of water, Clingman said they got the area cleaned up and safe again for traffic.

Had either Clark or Clingman been personally struck by fire or emergency?  Clingman said he was, and the ironic thing about it, when it happened to him, he and his wife were out of town—visiting in Texas.  A neighbor called and gave them the news that lightning had struck the Clingman dairy barn and the resulting fire had burned it to the ground.

Both men remembered the time in 1975 when Jim Clark, Sr.’s house caught on fire.  While they were successful at saving the rest of the house, one room was destroyed.  Clingman was one of the firefighters and had gone to the fire dressed in his sheriff’s uniform.  “The ladder I was standing on fell and I landed in the big middle of the fire.”  His main thought at the time, he said, was to get his pistol out of harm’s way.  Other than a few bumps and bruises and a dirty uniform, he was not hurt.

Clingman talked about the camaraderie during the early days.  “During fourteen or so years that the volunteers were active, none of us ever argued about anything.  Jim Clark, Sr. served as Fire Chief the entire time.  We had meetings once a month and we discussed the activities of the prior month and decided what needed to be done.  We would talk until we agreed and that was it.  It was an excellent organization of a growing group of people giving their time to help the community,” he said.

As I put my notes together to write this article, I felt proud to have played a small part in bringing memories of a bygone era to light so that all of us can appreciate those firefighters who were there at the beginning, interest and brave enough to do what needed to be done.  They started a fine tradition of dedication, community service and participation that is continued today by firefighters, EMS, and volunteers of Keithville Fire District No. 6.




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