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Memories haunt razed fire hall in Kittanning

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Members of Kittanning Hose Co. 1 pose with the Lange chain-driven motorized fire engine purchased in July, 1912.
Ten-year-old Kaden Carney of Kittanning carries a sledgehammer that he was using to break bricks, helping his father, in the lot that was the orginal home of Kittanning Hose Co. 1 on the 200 block of South Jefferson Street in Kittanning on Tuesday.

KITTANNING — For a century and a half, the tall red brick building along the 200 block of South Jefferson Street had been a hub of activity – first as a church and later as a social focal point housing Hose Co. 1 fire department.

Now all that remains is a gap in the street and a diminishing pile of bricks being hauled away to make space for a tire service parking lot.

Yet it is likely that memories of the building will live on in the community long after the space is cleared of rubble for AAAA Tire.

Sean Westlake, owner of the tire service, bought the condemned building from the borough in March for $1,000.

A portion of the building appeared in the 2002 movie “The Mothman Prophesies” which had been partially filmed in the borough, Westlake said.

Days before its demolition in May, Westlake picked through the fallen plaster and debris which littered the floor. He held up a 19th Century gas light fixture which had been found in the rafters.

The corroded stamped tin ceiling above his head and the remains of a wooden staircase were just some of the last visible reminders from the building's former glory days.

“This building is packed full of history,” Westlake said.

In addition to the light fixture, Westlake said he found empty bottles from Elk Brewing Co. which had been located along Oak Avenue.

An old suitcase containing a jump pack and instructions also was discovered in the dilapidated structure.

The three-story building was originally a Presbyterian Church under the leadership of the Rev. Joseph Painter and was erected around the mid-1850s.

Pete Harmon, a borough police officer and local historian, said a fire damaged the church building near the turn of the 20th Century.

Rather than reinvesting in the structure, the congregation instead decided to sell it to the borough in 1900.

According to information provided by Harmon, the fire hall was dedicated on Oct. 8, 1900 – a little over a decade after the company formed in 1889. And it became much more than a fire station, it was also a social hub for the entire community, Harmon said.

A 1914 edition of an Armstrong County History notes: “The interior (of the hose house) is handsomely decorated and contains a dance hall, parlors, engine hall and pool tables on the ground floor.”

Harmon said that local artist and Co. 1 firefighter Bill George, had painted murals on the walls of the second floor depicting people dancing.

Esther Choncek, whose grandfather was one of the first firefighters to serve at Hose Co. 1, recalled attending dances at the fire hall while she was a junior at Kittanning High School.

“I remember being so nervous,” said Choncek.

“And I remember walking up those wonderful wooden stairs.”

She also recalled the French dance instructor Francois Lefevre who taught classes at the fire hall.

“One of my friends still remembers how great some of those Ford City boys were at dancing,” she said.

Hose Co. 1 was the first fire department in the borough and was established on the lower end of town, said company President Paul Holzwarth.

The current fire station at 208 S. Jefferson St., is right next to where the original building stood.

He said Hose Cos. 4 and 6 were founded later and were located on the upper end of town across the railroad tracks, which is now part of the Armstrong County Rails to Trails corridor.

Holzwarth recalled that when he joined the department in 1960, a local man named Casey Hurst lived on the third floor of the building.

The fire company let Hurst stay there as a sort of caretaker until his death in the early 1970s, said Holzwarth.

“They (the firefighters) watched out for him and he watched out for the fire house,” he said.

And although some residents think Hurst was a character known as Casey the Clown, that is not the case, said Holzwarth.

At one time while Hurst was still living, the fire company organized a street fair, said Holzwarth.

Some of the guys came up with a gimmick to help promote the event, painting signs with a figure called Casey the Clown – which ended up making Hurst pretty mad.

Holzwarth said the firefighters drove around town with a Casey the Clown sign on the back of a fire truck and blared music from a phonograph to advertise the street fair.

Those painted signs, which were housed in the recently razed building, now hang in the current Hose Co. 1 fire hall next to the empty lot.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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