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Dayhoff: A brief history of fire company carnivals, a summer tradition in Carroll County

Fire company carnivals along with the annual 4-H & FFA Fair and Westminster Fallfest have historically added family values to summers in Carroll County. One of the great community traditions in Carroll County for more than the past century has been the fire company carnivals held almost every week all summer long.

Of course, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our traditions and most of the events in Carroll County that provide us with a high quality of life have simply unceremoniously been canceled or greatly altered in 2020. It has been a hateful year full of surprises. More like the plot from a horror movie.

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Throughout time, Carroll countians have come together to celebrate family and friendships at dances, suppers, picnics, parades, concerts and theater events, church socials or end of summer harvest celebrations.

The carnival and fair food fulfills an important part of the Carroll County nutrition pyramid while the rides and entertainment are a great diversion from summer chores.

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The carnivals also serve a greater community purpose by providing an important source of fundraising for all 14 Carroll County fire companies.

A view of the Reese carnival from the top of the Ferris Wheel on July 18, 2003. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Carroll County fire company carnival season has ended without a single carnival being held. The first Reese Fire Company carnival took place in 1949 at the Sandymount Elementary School. The Reese Volunteer Fire Company was incorporated on April 7, 1948.
A view of the Reese carnival from the top of the Ferris Wheel on July 18, 2003. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Carroll County fire company carnival season has ended without a single carnival being held. The first Reese Fire Company carnival took place in 1949 at the Sandymount Elementary School. The Reese Volunteer Fire Company was incorporated on April 7, 1948. (Kevin Dayhoff)

One of the first mentions of a firemen’s carnival occurs in the Nov. 21, 1896 edition of the old Democratic Advocate newspaper in Westminster: “THE WESTMINSTER FIREMEN, They Have Arranged for a Parade on Thanksgiving Day, the Dedication of the Town Clock and the Unveiling of a Memorial Tablet… Next Thursday is Thanksgiving Day.... The Firemen’s fair and festival will be in full blast, and an excellent dinner will be served there…” More research is needed to determine when the Westminster Fire Department carnivals stopped.

Years ago, Westminster came together in September for an event sponsored by the Retail Merchants Association, called “Westminster Days.” The Retail Merchants Association had a luncheon meeting at the Charles Carroll Hotel. An Aug. 29, 1947 article in the Democratic Advocate describes a big parade on Thursday evening along with two days of downtown merchant sales on Sept.25 and Sept. 26, 1947.

According to the current Westminster Fire Department President Dan Plunkert’s remarks at the recent virtual Big Money Raffle, it was in 1961 that the fire company began its well-attended annual dinner and raffle event. Only in the early days, the fire company gave away a Cadillac instead of a multi-tiered raffle for money.

This year the top prize was $10,000 and it was a virtual event held on July 30 instead of during the month of May. Thanks to the hard work of the Community Media Center, the drawing was held live and broadcast over the company’s website at westminstervfd.org, Facebook, and the CMC YouTube channel.

Another early fire company carnival was held in Hampstead in May 1899.

One of the larger carnivals is the Reese carnival. The first Reese Fire Company carnival took place in 1949 at the Sandymount Elementary School. The Reese Volunteer Fire Company was incorporated on April 7, 1948.

According to an article in the Carroll County Times on July 21, 2020 by Cat Righter, “Gamber and Community Fire Company has canceled its 2020 carnival as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, officially ending Carroll County’s fire company carnival season without a single one being held….”

Rhett Kirsch, 4, of Gamber and his father Rob ride shotgun on a roller coaster on the opening night of the Gamber fire company carnival Friday evening, May 24, 2019. Gamber was the last company to cancel its carnival this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rhett Kirsch, 4, of Gamber and his father Rob ride shotgun on a roller coaster on the opening night of the Gamber fire company carnival Friday evening, May 24, 2019. Gamber was the last company to cancel its carnival this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dylan Slagle)

The Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Co. No. 1 first formed in 1823 after preliminary discussions began in 1806. Mt. Airy Volunteer Fire Company considers its founding year as 1921. It purchased the carnival grounds in the 1950s. Hampstead Volunteer Fire Company was formed in 1900 after preliminary work dating back to May 1899 — when it purchased its carnival grounds.

Manchester purchased its carnival grounds in 1937. Manchester's Fire Engine and Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 incorporated in 1893. The Taneytown Volunteer Fire Company was organized in 1897. However more research is needed to determine when it began its first carnival.

Pleasant Valley Fire Company had a few carnivals in the 1940s. The carnivals only lasted a few years because the company switched gears to public suppers, which were more successful. It was 1931 when 30 residents joined together to start a fire company in Pleasant Valley.

Lineboro started a popular fundraiser in the 1990s — an October hayride. The Lineboro fire company was formed in 1915. The Union Bridge fire company formed in 1887. It began its carnival in 1937.

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The sun sets on the opening night of the Hampstead fire company carnival August 12.
The sun sets on the opening night of the Hampstead fire company carnival August 12. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

The New Windsor Fire and Hose Company No. 1 came into being in 1908. In 1948, the fire company re-organized… It had its first carnival in 1948. Harney began its carnival in the 1950s. Harney was home to about 250 people in 1951 when the volunteer fire company organized in town.

Sykesville Freedom District Fire Company - Sykesville's fire company started in 1933, the same year it held its first carnival. Gamber and Community Fire Company organized August 22, 1963 and incorporated on May 11, 1964. Gamber started its first carnival shortly afterwards in the late 1960s. The Winfield and Community Volunteer Fire Department first formed in 1964 and held its first carnival the following year in 1965.

Meanwhile, I would like to order a hot dog and a grilled cheese sandwich with a large order of fries and a chocolate milkshake. I have really missed the fire company carnivals this year. I am in withdrawal.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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