The Town of Stanardsville has suffered some serious natural disasters—from flooding to explosions to fires—and each time residents banded together to help their neighbors. After many devastating fires that changed the landscape of the historic town itself, a group of residents met at the courthouse on April 6, 1959, to re-establish a fire company in Stanardsville. The Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) has operated non-stop since.
On March 18, the department celebrated 60 years of non-stop service at the annual banquet. Lt. Kyle Courtney was named Fireman of the Year and several members were awarded unit citations for their responses during the flooding in 2018.
From humble beginnings
In the department’s fire house off Celt Road hangs framed hand-written minutes from that first meeting, called by then-Mayor J.R. Breeden, according to the April 9, 1959 issue of the Greene County Record.
The company received help getting off the ground from the Elkton Volunteer Fire Company across the mountain.
The town donated $500 toward the purchase of a truck, a 1937 Chevrolet pumper.
“The pump can direct water up to a thousand feet,” the newspaper reported.
The first fire chief was Davis K. Watson and R.W. Bickers was elected as the first president of the fledgling fire department.
Bobby Rhodes said the first fire house was on Va. Route 230 on Reuben A. Breeden’s property This building, built in 1922, was also known as the “chicken coop factory,” he said.
In the late 1980s, the department was housed in the building that is now Lawson’s Garage in the Town of Stanardsville, with two trucks, a small kitchen and an activity area, said Doug Clay, SVFD president.
He said the building was rented to a day care during the weekdays and on Friday nights the department would hold Bingo. It was up to the firefighters to come in to remove daycare items and set up for Bingo, then set it right for daycare on Monday mornings.
“That’s how they made ends meet,” he said. “The county did not support us 30 years ago the way they do now. It’s taken a lot of hard work from people being very political to get the county to step up over the years to do what they’re doing for us now.”
Doug Clay said in the 10 years since the 50th anniversary, the department has lost the remaining of its founding members.
For the Clay family, fighting the fire king has become the family business.
It’s been nearly 43 years since Doug Clay, 56, joined the Ruckersville Volunteer Fire Department’s junior firefighting program and then volunteered there for several years. He’s volunteered at SVFD for more than 20 years, he said. His son, current Fire Chief Dustin Clay, 29, has been a volunteer for almost 15 years.
At SVFD’s 60th anniversary, Doug was given a shadow box to honor his years of service to Greene County.
“I started when I was 13. A lot of the guys didn’t believe me until I pulled out the Greene County Record newspaper article about the first six members of the junior firefighter program,” he said. “In the 1970s, when you lived in a small three-bedroom house with two brothers, two sisters, no video games and told every day to go outside, you had to find something to do.”
Doug Clay, who grew up in the Hords Hill subdivision less than a quartermile from the Ruckersville fire department, said there wasn’t as much to do. There were high school sports, but sports for younger-aged kids were not yet ubiquitous.
“You’d sit there and hear the sirens go off and my neighbor down the road was a firefighter and I’d see him go out in his old ford pickup truck,” he said. “Then I’d walk down to see what was going on.”
The junior firefighter program at Ruckersville was one of the first for the region.
Dustin Clay was one of the first two junior firefighters at SVFD at 15 years old. Then the state law changed and to be a junior firefighter a person had to be at least 16 years old, so he spent almost a year helping out before he could go out and do what he loves.
Both of the Clays are professional firefighters, as well.
The original fire company was formed in the early 1900s but then disbanded. The town faced four devastating fires in two years, in addition to numerous others. Twenty years after the reforming of the fire company, the town faced a major fire and explosion at the courthouse, originally built in 1839.
“I was in school when it happened. They wouldn’t let me leave school right away and I finally got to leave school and help fight the fire. It was chaos over there. There were probably 20-some fire companies here,” Doug Clay said of the Oct. 21, 1979 event.
The explosion was caused by back hoe operator digging next to the building who hooked a natural gas line.
“He broke it loose from a water heater but did not pull it completely out of the building,” Doug Clay said. “If he’d had pulled the line another six inches it would have been fine.”
Several people were injured when the building exploded.
The fire scene was so chaotic and one reason is that each fire department operated on its own radio frequency, he said.
“You couldn’t talk to each other. I remember one truck was charging the hose line that wasn’t hooked to another truck and they’re telling them to cut the water off and they couldn’t hear them. They had me run two blocks to cut the water off and run back and run back to tell them to cut it back on. There was so much fire and people injured,” Doug Clay recalled.
The tankers were operating for about 12-14 hours to put the fire out, and a fuel truck had to be brought up from Charlottesville to fill them up because they were pumping so much water and running out of gas.
Being centrally located within Greene County, SVFD answers calls as backup for both Ruckersville and Dyke volunteer fire departments.
Dustin Clay said the area has seen some more recent major fires that took a lot of manpower and equipment, as well.
In 2010, a man set his girlfriend on fire in the Town of Stanardsville, as well as the apartment they shared. Also in 2010, arsonists set Ruckersville Baptist Church ablaze. In 2016, a log home on Snow Mountain Road in Stanardsville was destroyed. Later in 2016, a family member set fire to a barn near Celt Store while children were inside, though they were uninjured. In 2017, four died in a house fire in Ruckersville.
On April 25, 2015, Dustin Clay was injured when a TV and dresser fell onto him while he was inside a burning building on Va. Route 230.
“They might not be major fires for some areas, but for here they are,”
Dustin Clay said.
In recent years, the department has faced declining numbers of volunteers and less fundraising dollars for various reasons.
“Our biggest challenge is people to fight the fire. We have the equipment. We just don’t always have the people,” Doug Clay said. “That’s something every volunteer fire department across the country is facing.”
The department has a large tanker, as does the Dyke fire company.
“You pull up with your engine with 1,000 gallons of water on it. Your tanker is behind it with 3,000 gallons of water on it. If you can’t put that fire out on a small house, something’s wrong,” Doug Clay said. “We have the equipment. We have good air packs, good hoses, good nozzles, it’s sometimes we’re just short of manpower.”
Dustin Clay said he’d like to see more young people joining, too.
“You’re happy because 10 join but you have that 20 percent rule—only two are going to stay and be productive,” he said.
Doug Clay said that’s why a lot of localities are providing staffing Monday-Friday because that’s the hardest to staff.
Both Clays said that’s a double-edge sword, as it’ll grow from weekday coverage to 24/7 coverage.
“I would prefer it to stay all-volunteer because there’s a sense of pride in your community,” Doug Clay said. “I wish every kid would volunteer in something. Go to the library and volunteer. Go to the senior center and volunteer. Go to the rescue squad or fire department. There are so many ways to give back. They would learn a lot and they would help someone.”
Dustin Clay said another problem is fundraising is down.
“We’ve lost the (Greene County) fair which was a big fundraiser, so we’re coming up with other things to do,” he said.
Doug Clay said the department could use volunteers in many different capacities—not just fighting fires.
“You can help with a breakfast we’re doing. It helps take the stress from firefighters having to work calls all night and wake and work the breakfast Sunday morning,” he said. “Want to come by and wash trucks with your kids on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon? Come on down. Or want to cut the grass? It’ll help. There are so many little things we have to do that take time away and we could use the help.”
“Doing it all, it wears people out,” said the younger Clay, who took a swift-run rescue training course last year after the 31 evacuations because of the flooding on May 31-June 1.
“I think what people need to understand is that this department has been here for 60 years because of the people who started it and the people who have been members—whether two years, five years or 20 years,” Doug Clay said. “That’s why this department is still here.”
Dustin Clay added, “You have to love what you do here, and we both do.”
The department is at 275 Celt Road in Stanardsville. The non-emergency phone number is (434) 985-4638. In an emergency, call 911.