Staring into the faces of old friends from his past on Monday at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, Hylton Wright explained how he is the last one of the 1946 Mount Airy Fire Department that is still alive.
“I could tell you stories about every one of these men,” said Hylton as he looked at a blown up picture of the department on the wall. “I was the youngest in this picture.”
The photo was taken in front of the old police station located on City Hall Street. It was located beside the old fire department building. There were 21 members in the department in those days and D.G. Witt was the chief, Wright said.
All three of the fire trucks featured in that 1946 photograph are housed in the basement of the museum. Mount Airy’s first fire truck was a 1916 truck. The second and third trucks are 1926 and 1946 American LaFrances. The earlier two trucks have steering wheels on the righthand side of the vehicle, because they were made in France, he said.
He said back in those days, the man staying at the station would drive the truck and the rest of the firemen would drive their cars to a fire. He said the first man on the scene, typically the man driving the truck, would hook up the hose to the fire hydrant.
In those days they didn’t have the training or equipment firefighters have today. He said they only used a stream of water to put out fires.
Wright, who is now 88, worked for the telephone company when he decided to join the fire department in 1944.
“It was an honor to be in the fire department,” said Wright when asked why he decided to join.
As he walked over to the exhibit that has one of the old beds from the fire house, Wright talked about the bedrooms that were upstairs in the department where he used to sleep from time to time. He pointed to the pole that he used to slide down located in the corner of the fire department display. There’s another picture of him sitting around the fire house talking with other firemen there, too. He stopped to point out who everyone was in the picture as well.
Back in those days, he got paid $1.50 for every fire the department put out.
He said firefighters also didn’t have any fancy fire gear like firefighters have today, he said. There weren’t any air packs, they just got down low to the ground to avoid breathing in smoke. They did have boots, and coats that he referred to as rain jackets.
The most memorable fire he recalled was the tragic Flat Rock School fire in which one student and a teacher died, and 25 students were critically burned.
He also worked to extinguish a big downtown fire in the Sammet building, which was located between what is now the Old North State Winery and Brannock & Hiatt where the city parking lot is located.
Another memorable fire was when Mount Airy’s former hospital, Martin Memorial on Cherry Street, burned.
He also remembered working a factory fire in Galax, Va.
After serving in the fire department for 34 years, Wright said he still has a love of the service even today.
“This was a big part of our lives,” said his wife of 62 years, Betty Wright. “He still has the fire department in his heart.”
When the time comes that her husband passes away, she plans to make sure his fire helmet is placed on his casket along with one red rose.
Reach Mondee Tilley at email@example.com or at 719-1930.