Notes from Glen Ellen: The Bucket Brigade and Bill Murray

A century ago, the Glen Ellen Volunteer Fire Department was simply a bucket brigade.

The first fire truck was a 1924 Model T. Automobiles were so scarce on Glen Ellen’s dirt streets in the 1920s that former Glen Ellen fire chief Bill Meglen, in “Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen,” recalls his mother had to teach some firefighters how to drive the new truck and, at times, drove the firetruck to fires herself. It was paid for with donations from the local Women’s Club, donation jars, bingo games at Mayflower Hall, dances held in the Chauvet Hotel and Forty-niner Day celebrations.

Volunteers back then were called by phone or word of mouth. Until the 1970s, when county dispatchers were organized, according to Chief Peter van Fleet, housewives would have “fire phones” at home to call in volunteers. Years later, volunteers were summoned from home by the cry of the powerful siren mounted on the roof of the current firehouse. Later, pagers and, more recently, cell phones mustered volunteers from their beds. Now there are professional firefighters on duty 24 hours a day at the firehouse, and nearly two years after the 2017 wildfires, Glen Ellen is grateful.

The first place the early trucks were kept was a garage behind the Poppe store. Then, a property just north of the Garden Court Cafe on Glen Ellen Avenue (now Arnold Drive) was the firehouse. The third place is the current firehouse built in 1968 on the curve where Arnold swings to the right on its way up to Highway 12.

Several Glen Ellen families have been part of the fire service for generations. The Derickson family on Sonoma Mountain has a station on their property where a fire truck is housed for a fast response to a Sonoma Mountain burn. Jim Norrbom, his son Bob, and grandson Bobbie Norrbom, Jr. have all been firefighters. The Meglens were active in the early days, and more.

The firehouse has been the heart of social activities for decades in Glen Ellen. In May, the Mother’s Day Breakfast is held in the engine bay, while parents and kids flip pancakes, scramble eggs and fry bacon.

Every spring, eggs are dyed in pastel colors behind the station to be hidden in the high spring grass at Dunbar Elementary School for the eager egg-hunters to pursue Easter morning.

The Firefighters Barbecue and Dance is held every summer, including last Saturday, June 29. Festive lights are scalloped above the many long tables on the firehouse apron while bands play in the engine bay, and grilled ribs are relished. People have danced here since 1939 and it is the longest-running firehouse event in the Sonoma Valley.

Finally, one of the favorite booths at the Glen Ellen Village Fair is the Firemen’s Beer Booth. Lagunitas donates the suds, and a good time is had by all.

The first chief of the Glen Ellen Fire Department was Julius Pancrazi and then Ralph Horne. Bill Meglen was third, followed by Jim Norrbom.

In June, Glen Ellen lost one of its star fire chiefs. William (Bill) Murray was 90. Murray was impressive. With his beautiful white hair, impeccable dress and warm demeanor, he was the epitome of a gentleman. He and his wife Nancy moved from San Francisco to Sonoma Mountain following his retirement after 30 years at the San Francisco Fire District. He was then convinced by out-going Chief Win Smith to serve another 20 in Glen Ellen. Always elegant, Murray treated his volunteer firefighters with respect and encouragement. Never arrogant, he was a man of class and kindness.

Among other innovations, according to Chief Matt Atkinson, Murray standardized the panels in all the engines, so that no matter which engine firefighters found themselves in, they would know the location of the pump controls. He also renovated the firehouse to be energy-efficient.

There are two portraits by Bill Sweeney of honored chiefs in the firehouse. One is of local boy Win Smith. The other is of Bill Murray.

Above all, Murray was respected by the men working under him for his support, and appreciation of the young volunteers he trained. It was known in San Francisco and Glen Ellen, as Ritch Foster shared, that if you were “Bill Murray-trained” you had status, as you had been trained by the best.

As Fire Captain Jim Kracke says, “He was a hell of a guy.”

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