“A privately operated fire department is to begin serving residents of Fountain City, Smithwood, Inskip and Halls Cross Roads May 15.” (Knoxville News Sentinel, April 13, 1941)
Interest in a Fountain City Fire Department (FCFD) was stimulated when the city of Knoxville amended its charter to require a payment of $300 for each call to a fire outside the city limits.
The FCFD owners, attorney James B. Brown and Charles Ward, announced that they had ordered one truck with a portable water supply, a pumper, ladders, hose and other equipment at a cost of $5,000.
The department was to be operated on a subscription basis at 50 cents a month per household. Non-subscribers would be charged $25 for each fire.
The truck would be stationed at Thompson Brothers’ Garage in Fountain City and the department would be operated 24-hours per day with a crew of four men.
By 1953, the department had become one of the state’s best rated privately-owned fire companies but it was to take another major step when Robert T. “Bob” Russell Jr. (1912-1969) acquired the company and expanded to three complete units. The two-story building housing the department was at 4311 North Broadway.
The lead unit operated an Oren truck mounted on a big, fast, especially-geared Ford chassis with the latest in firefighting techniques available (straight stream, fogging or foam). A Hale high pressure portable pumping unit supplied a forceful stream of water or fire-smothering fog. Pyrene foam was available for burning gasoline, oil, paint, lacquer or other inflammable liquids.
Unit No. 1 was manned by Chief Russell, Ray L. Cassidy, Tom Cassidy, John W. Bailey and B.G. Hutchinson who were all veteran firefighters.
In an unusual event for its time, a female caused quite a stir when she attended the 1953 Tennessee State Fire School in Murfreesboro. She helped haul the heavy hoses and climbed the tall ladders and met all the requirements. She became co-owner and assistant chief of the FCFD. The pioneering lady firefighter was Mildred Qualls Russell, the wife of Chief Bob Russell, who became the first of several family members to join the firefighting team.
Also in 1953, a Nashville chain was operating the Woodvale Fire Department on Broadway only two blocks north of FCFD. When its owner, Robert L. Jones, had to retire for health reasons, Chief Russell acquired the Woodvale unit. With Woodvale’s 1,000 subscribers added to the 1,200 subscribing to the Fountain City Department, the company had more than doubled and they now had four well-equipped trucks on duty.
The expansion required more help with administrative tasks. Someone was needed to process the contracts, send renewal notices and handle information to subscribers. Chief Russell found a person who had taken a commercial course, worked in the office at Sears and for the government at Fulton’s. Mrs. J. Crawford Turner Sr. (the former Aileen Qualls, Chief Russell’s sister-in-law) was the young mother of two who was hired. She could mostly work at home just a few blocks away. Periodically, her children, Crawford Jr., 7, and Kitty Lou, 5, would visit the station with their mother. Crawford shinnied up the fireman’s pole and slid down again while Kitty Lou climbed on an engine to pet the department’s Dalmatian, Julie.
When the Turner twins, Rachel and Nicholas, arrived in 1959, Mrs. Turner relinquished her job to Mrs. Robert G. “Bob” Russell Sr., the former Elaine Clonts, who had recently married into the family. Bob Sr. had been working with his father for some time.
By 1954, there were five Knoxville suburbs with private fire departments (Chapman Highway, Bearden, Norwood, Asheville Highway and Fountain City). Fountain City was the largest with an estimated population of 20,000 at the time. Its department was adding a truck that year to be stationed on Rutledge Pike to serve the Holston Hills/Chilhowee Hills area.
During annexation negotiations with the city of Knoxville in 1960, the subscribers to the Fountain City Fire Department numbered 4,000 and the department employed 11 firefighters (the Holston Hills unit added seven more). The city proposed that the annexation would occur early in 1962 and that the FCFD would need to provide services for a year while a new fire station was built and equipped.
Chief Russell observed, “We’re planning to close up at midnight, Dec. 31 (1962). I have a building for rent, a good bit of equipment to sell and 18 men for hire.”
Only one of the 18 opted to take the civil service exam required for employment as a Knoxville firefighter. Chief Russell’s son, Bob G. Russell Sr., took the exam and passed it with high marks. He was employed for 31 years, mostly at Stations 15 and 16 (Chilhowee Hills and Fountain City).
To perpetuate the record and the outstanding careers in firefighting established by Chief Bob T. Russell, Aileen Q. Turner, Mildred Q. Russell, Elaine C. Russell and Bob G. Russell; Chief Russell’s grandson, Robert G. “Bobby” Russell Jr., has now served for 29 years with the Knoxville Fire Department, presently stationed at Station 16 in Fountain City.
Surely few families have had as many long and effective firefighting careers protecting the community’s homes, schools and businesses as have the Russells, now for three generations.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Elaine C. Russell, Carol Springer, Joanna Bouldin and Rachel T. Nielson for their assistance with the graphics and text for this article.
Retired optometrist and active historian Jim Tumblin writes a monthly series called “Fountain City: Places That Made a Difference” for KnoxTNToday.com.