Put out the fire

Milledgeville volunteer firefighter retires after 54 years

MILLEDGEVILLE –áJames Brubaker learned at an early age to be ready when the time comes for him to help solve a problem.

Brubaker, 79, was a freshman backup quarterback on Milledgeville High School’s first football team in 1954, and remembers coming onto the field for one or two plays that year.

He kept on solving problems when we worked as a serviceman for John Deere dealerships in Carroll County for 48 years. It was at one of those dealers where he decided to become a volunteer firefighter for the Milledgeville Fire Protection District, where he served for next 54 years before hanging his gear up one final time this summer.

“I’ve been surrounded by great people ever since I’ve been on, but these last bunch of young guys, and women, have treated me pretty well,” he said. “They were always good to me.”

Brubaker last was called to a fire last year. By that time he handled much smaller duties than his early days on the squad, and much younger men and women handled the larger work.

“That didn’t bother me,” he said.

Brubaker worked at the Meyers and Litwiller John Deere dealership across the street from the 1939 fire house on 15 W. Fourth St. when he acted on a suggestion from good friend Chuck Lancaster to lend a hand on a volunteer squad of nearly 50 men.

That was in June of 1964.

“They just needed people, like we always have, so I put my name in,” he said.

Brubaker remembers his first call: a barn fire in rural Lanark. However, it didn’t take long before he was on scene at one of the town’s largest fires. Just 3 months after signing up, he helped fight an apartment fire above the old Post House building on Main Street. “The Garr fire” involved a young man who killed his parents and set their home ablaze.

He also was on the scene, with many other area departments, in 1971 when the Miami Hotel was destroyed in a large blaze in downtown Sterling.

“You didn’t know what it was until you got out there,” he said.

One of Brubaker’s longtime partners on the volunteer squad is Greg Miller, who also is Carroll County’s Emergency Management Agency Coordinator. Miller joined in 1976 and remembers when his supervisor, then an assistant chief, led the fight to put out a fire set by a lightning strike at the town’s Masonic Lodge.

“Through all of the training that we had, Jim had two crews and we walked in and put it out,” Miller said. “He kicked the piece of metal that was on top of their office so that we could get into it, and it was pretty much out.”

Brubaker saw many transitions at the department in his 54 years. Fire trucks had open cabs. Clothing had no reflections and helmets had no padding. The department’s first radios were hand-me-downs from Northwestern Steel and Wire in Sterling. His department merged with the Coleta volunteer force about a decade ago.

Technology has changed greatly, and Brubaker was always one willing to try out the newest apparatuses, Miller said.

“A lot of the equipment you have today is a lot more modern than what we had back when I got on,” Brubaker said. “The whole fire fighting situation has changed.

“With the plastics and the fabrics that you have in the houses now, and in the cars, you got to have an air pack on to fight a car fire. Really anything, anymore.”

The number of volunteers has dropped in many small rural departments, Miller said, it is the same in Milledgeville, where its LED message board sign asks passers-by for help.

If one can dedicate plenty of time to helping and keeping on top of the latest technology, Brubaker said that is how one can be a successful volunteer.

“It takes a lot of dedication,” Brubaker said. “It takes a lot of time and training, because anymore you got to have quite a bit before you can really do things. Now it’s just constantly ongoing training, especially with the ambulances and the EMTs.

“It involves a lot of time, especially until you get your probationary out of the way.”

Brubaker retired in 2007 from John Deere’s Curtis and Sons dealership in Lanark. Now that he isn’t on call anymore, it doesn’t extend any retirement plans. In fact, the department hasn’t taken his keys away; he still pops in and uses a treadmill there to help with his knees, which were replaced a few years ago.

To get there, though, he has to walk past a set of steps that lead up to the department’s lobby. He’ll continue to climb those steps from time to time.

“They always get to work as quick as they can,” he said. “The employees we have here in town appreciate that a lot. They help us out a lot, they really do.”

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