WFD to mark 125 years on Saturday

WORTHINGTON -- Get a bunch of retired firefighters together, and it's a sure thing that the stories will keep coming and coming. That's what happened last week when Rick von Holdt, chief of the Worthington Fire Department since 2001, was joined b...

WORTHINGTON - Get a bunch of retired firefighters together, and it’s a sure thing that the stories will keep coming and coming.


That’s what happened last week when Rick von Holdt, chief of the Worthington Fire Department since 2001, was joined by retired WFD firefighters Bruce Duba, John Pellegrino and Chip Peters at the fire station. Considering the department is marking its 125th anniversary with a day-long celebration on Saturday, there’s plenty to look back on.


Pellegrino, for his part, acted as a maintenance man who would eventually make a business out of a portion of his efforts for the WFD.



“Don Linssen and I used to fill fire extinguishers for the fire department,” Pellegrino remembered. “But all that corrosive chemical would get in the air … and one truck was getting rust on it from all the chemical. They (city of Worthington) decided they weren’t going to

keep it going, so Don and I took it over - that must have been 1978 or 1979.”


Pellegrino sold that business about eight years ago, he said. Duba, who was assistant fire chief from 1988 to 2000, said he, Pellegrino and Curt Berger were the last ones to perform fire inspections for the city.


Duba, like several others who served in the WFD, has kept firefighting a family tradition. Duba joined the WFD in 1978, following in the footsteps of both his grandfather and father.



“The day my dad retired, I got on,” Duba said. “We were on 59 continuous years, and 67 total years as a family. There were other families that were on there, too - the Ahlbergs, Flynns, Oberlohs.”


With Gary Oberloh being the father-in-law to Philip Benson - and Philip having a father, grandfather and uncle on the WFD - that makes more than 100 years for the Benson family with the department, Von Holdt said.


Von Holdt, who succeeded Peters as chief, followed his father to firefighting, too, starting with the Round Lake department before joining the WFD in 1995. His brother, Brad, is also part of the WFD, while his son, Josh, is a firefighter in Sibley, Iowa. Von Holdt’s other son, Zac, recently applied to join the Worthington crew, too.  


“I was a little intimidated coming from Round Lake to Worthington,” recalled Von Holdt, who moved to Worthington in 1981 and worked at the time with Peters at the Nobles County Co-Op Oil. “We had very minimal calls in Round Lake (from 1978 to 1981) - not much to get your feet wet.”



Peters joined the WFD in 1981 and was chief from 1990 to 2001.


“I worked at the co-op with Turtle Carlberg … and he signed me up (for the fire department),” Peters said. “I can remember after being signed up, there was a fire call that ran through the alley a block way. Even though I was at a younger age, I was still out of breath.”


Each of the retired firefighters look back with wonder on a long day of firefighting in January - they couldn’t recall the exact year. After battling blazes on West Lake Avenue and 14th Street, the weary crew returned to fuel up the trucks.


“It was a very cold night … and Ron Bass came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Paging the Worthington Fire Department, flames are through the roof at the Crippled Children’s School.’ It was, ‘shut the pump off, we gotta go.’”



“Then, after the Crippled Children’s School fire, we had to go out to the vets’ center for a rooftop unit,” Duna added.


Talk of another frigid January night brings back another set of memories.


“It was January, and we were in a blizzard,” Duba said. “There were singers who had been at the auditorium who came down to stay at the fire station … and it was about midnight when the call came in.”


The fire was at Bass Market (where United Prairie Bank stands now), which was owned by Ron Bass’s mother.



“We tried to mask up, but there was so much snow and ice and we couldn’t make the masks work,” Peters said.


“We tried but the door open with an ax, but that wouldn’t work,” Duba added. “Everything was frozen.”


“We heard there were minus-70 degree wind chills … but Lampert Lumber opened up so we could warm up,” Peters said.


Firefighters were on the scene for between six and eight hours, Duba estimated, and Pellegrino recalled having to return to the site later in the day for flare-ups.



There were other memorable Worthington fires that came to mind in the conversation between the men - the Silverberg’s blaze in 1971, fires at Habicht’s and the cannery during the 1960s, and the fire Michael’s Steakhouse (now King’s Wok) in the early 1990s. The “bumper place” where Forrest Jennings sold Luverne bumpers was also the site of a big blaze; also remembered were fires at Lange’s Bakery and Exclusive Cleaners.


Years ago, of course, firefighters dozed overnight at fire halls; Duba recalls sleeping at the city’s old fire station on Fourth Avenue near the present Mick’s Repair as a kid and then at the station on Third Avenue while on the WFD. Worthington’s new fire station on Second Avenue opened in 2012.


Many things have changed, of course, from the days Duba slept at the Fourth Avenue station up to today. For one thing, the fire hall on Third Avenue that opened in 1968 cost about $250,000 to build. That’s less than a new truck costs to buy today.


And while firefighters don’t stick around to catch some z’s like before, there’s still the same designated number of members - 36 - on the crew at a time, as Von Holdt is in the process of narrowing down several new recruits to get to that magic number.


There will be recognition of Peters, Duba and Pellegrino - not to mention all the community’s retired firefighters - during the anniversary celebration. The full schedule of events includes: 1 p.m. -- Beer garden opens; 2 p.m. -- Fire truck and emergency vehicle parade; 3 to 5 p.m. -- Firefighter Challenge and Children’s Firefighter Challenge; 7 p.m. -- Raffle Drawing; and 8 p.m. -- Live music by the RUDE BAND. Food vendors will be available all afternoon.

Ryan McGaughey arrived in Worthington in April 2001 as sports editor of The Daily Globe, and first joined Forum Communications Co. upon his hiring as a sports reporter at The Dickinson (North Dakota) Press in November 1998. McGaughey became news editor in Worthington in November 2002 and editor in August 2006.
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