This year marks a century since N.C. Fire Marshal Sherwood Brockwell came to Selma and helped the town launch a volunteer fire company.
“The first thing (the town bought) was a hand-pulled hose cart, not a horse-drawn, and some fire hose,” said current Fire Chief Phillip McDaniel, who has pieced together the department’s early history from Selma Town Council minutes.
“This is a good milestone, and it’s a tribute to this community, because they’ve kept this department going fairly strong,” McDaniel said.
The Selma Fire Department remains mostly volunteer, which the chief said speaks highly of the town and its residents. The equipment list has grown considerably over the years to keep up with the town’s needs, and today it comprises three fire engines, a ladder truck and a rescue truck.
In 1916, the fledgling fire department got a home in the newly-built Selma Town Hall and Opera House, which featured a clock tower that stood as a prominent uptown landmark until 1971. In 1968, the fire department moved to its current location at 201 N. Webb St., McDaniel said. That space has been renovated twice: once in 1987 and more recently in 2011, when the police department moved to another building and left room for the fire department to expand.
To this day, McDaniel said, the department’s biggest call remains the Catch-Me-Eye explosion in 1942.
The disaster takes its name from the popular tavern-cabin-service station on U.S. 301 near where the explosion occurred, according to the Johnston County Heritage Center’s website. After midnight on March 7, 1942, a truck carrying 30,000 pounds of munitions to Fort Bragg hit a car and caught fire. The truck eventually exploded, killing four and injuring many others.
The blast leveled the Catch-Me-Eye complex and the two-and-a-half story Hotel Talton, and it shattered windows a mile away at Edgerton Memorial Methodist Church. At the time, many locals suspected Nazi or Japanese bombs had caused the explosion.
“They thought maybe World War II had come to Selma,” McDaniel said.
To commemorate its 100th anniversary, the Selma Fire Department held a banquet in February where current firefighters swapped stories with their retired predecessors, McDaniel said. In all, about 150 people attended, including county commissioners, town councilmen, fire chiefs from nearby towns and representatives from state fire offices. Two retirees, Joe Moore and Joe Price, received honors for having served more than 50 years as volunteer firemen.
N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson could not attend because of a prior engagement, McDaniel said, but he more than made up for his absence. On April 2, Jackson invited the Selma Fire Department to Raleigh, where the Senate adopted a resolution recognizing and congratulating the department for 100 years of service to Selma.
One of the department’s full-time employees, fire engineer Brannan Barbee, said he has enjoyed learning the history of firefighting and how he fits into the legacy of the Selma Fire Department.
“It’s hard for anything now to make it, so for us to be here 100 years is amazing,” he said. “It’s been very neat going back through and seeing the changes, not just with the town or the fire department, but with fire service in general.”
The public will have a chance to take part in the centennial celebration during this October’s Selma Railroad Days Festival. The department always uses the event to teach about fire safety and prevention, McDaniel said, and this year, firefighters plan to do a little more talking about themselves and their history. Planning has only just begun, but McDaniel said he might also hold an open house that October weekend.
Looking toward the future, McDaniel declined to comment on recent news that Smithfield and Selma might consider merging their two fire departments to save money and improve service. Those decisions are up to elected officials, McDaniel said, but whatever happens, the Selma Fire Department will need more resources to keep up with growth in the area.
“The future’s going to have to hold some more growth of the department,” he said.
“There’s no telling what we’ll look like in another hundred years – the area or the department.”