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A history of the Betsy Layne Volunteer Fire Department
(as recorded by Jack Branham in July 1997)
The Betsy Layne Volunteer Fire Department was formed in the summer of 1947. Earl Hayes, the agriculture teacher at Betsy Layne, started a men’s club. Its purpose was to improve the things needed to better our living standards. We met twice monthly in the beginning and I recall Beckham Caldwell being the first president of the club.
At first, Earl Hays stressed the need for a family garden, and best ways to do it. He often clashed with Bill Layne’s ideas on gardening. The number of members present at meetings varied from ten to twenty that summer.
After a few meetings, at which various ideas were discussed, we chose four goals toward which the club should work:
1. Better natural service gas into our community Fred Williams, and later Hydrac Harmon, then Bud Rife, supplied a part of Betsy Layne and Stanville with natural gas service. I recall that our own cook stove would only light after 9:00 PM. With committee work seeking help from county officials, and with Ervin Stumbo’s help, all of our homes were offered natural gas from Columbia Gas Company within two years.
2. Telephone service At about the same time as the Men’s Club was forming, Paul Gearheart acquired his grandmother’s telephone system. I have heard that B.F. Elliott started it in the 1920’s and later sold it to Mrs. Roberts, Paul Gearheart’s grandmother. The Men’s Club supported Paul in any way possible. In 1957, the present Harold Telephone Company was dedicated. Paul has continued from the very beginning until the present, offering his vital assistance for the communication needs of the fire department.
3. City water into our community Still operating as the Men’s Club, we started meeting to discuss obtaining city water and began soliciting help through an application to the federal government for grant money to reach that goal. The first commissioners were myself as chairman, Walter Hall, and Ted Stumbo. We later added Pike county as far up the river as Coal Run. The two Pike county commissioners were Dr. Raleigh Myers and Landon Hunt. With help from U.S. Representative Carl Perkins, we were granted $700,000 along with a loan of $520,000. In 1968, we had a city water system completed.
4. Fire protection The Men’s Club voted to sponsor a volunteer fire department to be called the Betsy Layne Volunteer Fire Department. The names of the first members that I can remember are James George as chief, Glenn Blackburn, Oliver Williamson, Kermit Tipton, John Porter, Beecher Hardwick, Al Snyder, and me (Jack Branham). At the time of this writing, all these members are deceased but me. In early fall of 1947, Glenn Blackburn located a surplus G.I. truck that was available for purchase. Among ourselves, we raised enough money to buy the truck, a pump, and two hundred feet of one-inch fire hose. Although Hobert and Clarence Hayes were never members of the department, they did more work than anyone else in mounting the pump and tank, which incidentally was donated by Jack Tomlinson, who was new in the Betsy Layne area and later became a very active member of the fire department.
By November 1947, we had a small but proud fire department. Beckham Caldwell was still president of the Men’s Club and had a metal building across from the old Molly Layne store building in which he let us park the fire truck. The department bought the building and lot for $1,500 the next year and used it as a fire station until the property was bought by the state for the new four-lane U.S. Rt. 23. A trade was made whereby the fire department got its present site beside U.S. 23 in exchange for deeding the old site to the state.
In the early 1950’s, we bought a GMC truck on which Clarence and Hobert Hayes installed a front mount pump and fire hose. How excited we were to upgrade our equipment, even though we still only had a small 500-gallon tank of water available with which to fight fires. Then, in 1969, water availability improved tremendously with the installation of fire hydrants along the Sandy Valley Water District system. That old red truck served the community well unti 1974 when a new factory-built GMC Class A pumper was purchased and paid for with local donations and fund raisers.
We struggled financially for many years but, with the help from the community and from the county court, Eddie Clark, Bobby Branham, and Roger Osbone preserved to get the property tax district approved. With that tax base in place, many, many improvements have taken place.
I must praise those individuals that have contributed so much to the award-winning fire department that we now have. First, the tireless, stubborn, independent Jim George spent nearly 40 years working at or for the fire department. How Eddie and Bobby got him to retire is beyond me. Second, without Clarence Hayes, we could not have had a functional fire truck until 1974. Last and most importantly, the present leadership has exceeded our wildest dreams. The community is indebted to our volunteer fire department.
The four goals that a group of men planned fifty years ago came about by prayer and community effort.
***Sadly, Jack Branham left this earth on March 16th, 2000, to go home to Heaven. Six Betsy Layne firefighters were honored with serving as his pallbearers. Thank you, Jack, for years of dedication and hard work. You will be missed!