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Fire chief reflects on 34-year career

by Larry S. Chowning

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Bill Thrift has stepped down after serving 34 years as MVFD chief.
January 1, 2010 marked the end of an era as Bill Thrift stepped down after 34 years of service as chief of the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department of Urbanna.

“My success as a fire chief in Urbanna has been because of the people who were around me,” said Thrift this week. “We’ve had some tremendous people in this department since it was founded 70 years ago.

“When I started in 1963, Boyd Loving was fire chief, Charles Bristow was president, Paul Feitig was treasurer, and Steve Wilson was assistant chief,” he said. “They were a bunch of good people and everyone worked hard to establish a good fire department.”

Thrift recalls his first or second year with the company. The firemen went to fight a furnace fire on Taylor Avenue. “It was a floor furnace. We put hoses in two or three windows and we were fogging the house. We didn’t have any breathing devices or any decent turn-out gear to get inside, and we didn’t know the fire was confined to just a floor furnace.

“We didn’t need to be hosing through the windows, and we learned something that day,” he said. “We realized we needed more training, so in 1964 several of us went to Williamsburg and took some classes.”

Thrift passed the basic fire training class and every year thereafter he and members of the department attended fire-fighting training classes in Yorktown, Williamsburg and Newport News.

“We kept going to school annually for a long, long time and we took a variety of different classes,” he said. “The classes enabled us to become good on-the-scene firemen and eventually I ended up being chief.”

When Thrift started, the fire department was using old equipment. “We started with a 1944 pumper, and then we bought a 1946 Ford fire truck. Later, Buster Ferguson gave us a truck body and we had an oil tank welded onto it for a water tanker,” said Thrift.

“When I joined, that’s what they had for fire-fighting equipment,” Thrift said. “People like Les Newbill, John Pitts and Taylor Carneal were willing to teach me how to use it. From then on, I learned how to operate those pumps.

“Back then, everyone was using wood stoves and we had a couple chimney fires a week. In the spring everyone was trying to burn the world down with brush fires,” he said.

The worst fires Thrift remembers were at Norton Food Company in Urbanna, the old Christchurch School gymnasium, and at Rosegill, the colonial home of the Wormeleys near Urbanna. 

“We’ve had three big fires at Christchurch School. The one in the gym was in the basement. Students had caught a bunch of mattresses on fire and we fought that fire for four or five hours, but we saved that building.”

“What saved Rosegill was that there was a (swimming) pool right by it so we could pump water from there,” he said. “We also had help from other departments. Tappahannock was there with its ladder truck, and when the fire broke through the roof, we were up high with water waiting. It was a big save, but I thought for a while we were going to lose it.

“With Rosegill, those were the days when the fire chief went inside and fought fires. But now, the fire chief’s job is to direct and coordinate the fire fight,” he said.

In later years, Urbanna Market was one of the largest fires. “We had good equipment then and plenty of water and trucks from all the surrounding counties,” said Thrift.

“The firemen in Deltaville, Hartfield and Water View have been so much help and it’s gotten to the point that we have to work together because none of us have enough of anything to fight some fires alone,” he said. “Like New Hope Church when that burned. West Point fought that thing like crazy and then we and others went in behind and helped.” (New Hope United Methodist Church is on the border of King and Queen and Gloucester counties and burned in 1981.)

The MVFD upgraded its equipment while Thrift was fire chief. For years, the company raised money by running the Rappanna Theater and playing bingo. In 1992, the company bought a $280,000 fire truck. “We had enough money from bingo and the theater to pay for most of it,” he said.

When the theater’s furnace blew up in the 1990s, the fire company decided to sell the building and lot. The firemen used insurance money from the fire and proceeds from the sale and put the funds in high-interest-bearing certificates of deposit.

“Old Paul (Feitig) was a shrewd operator and he kept making sure the certificates were getting top interest,” said Thrift. “We were making fabulous money on bingo.”

The Oyster Festival Beer Garden on the Urbanna Firehouse grounds has been the main fundraiser for the last 18 years for the fire department. “We had good years in the 1990s, but now everything is too small and too expensive,” he said.

“I wish everyone the best, but I’ve done my time,” said Thrift. “I’m planning on taking some time off and playing some golf.”

Thrift praised the fire department’s ladies auxiliary. “They’ve been so much help and in the last five years have jelled and come together,” he said. “It’s taken a team effort from so many people to make all this work.”

Thrift has been a member of the Middlesex County Emergency Services Committee since it was created. Middlesex County Administrator Charles Culley said Thrift brought a tremendous amount of fire knowledge to the table while on the committee. 

“We could always count on Bill,” Culley said. “He came in and answered phones after storms. You are not fire chief for as long as he has been and not be good. 

“Bill was one of the lead persons when we started working on getting 911, radios and our communication services together,” said Culley. “He’s been at the forefront of doing all that. He’s a good behind-the-scenes type person who gets the job done.

Urbanna Town Administrator Lewis Filling said, “I don’t know if people realize that Bill’s commitment was far and above normal volunteerism, and I don’t think the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department would be what it is today if he hadn’t been there all those years.”

Ray Burch has replaced Thrift as fire chief. Burch worked as assistant fire chief under Thrift for 20 years.

“Bill has given so much time to the fire department,” said Burch. “He has been tremendously dedicated to the company and the community. I want to thank him for all the help and knowledge he has passed on to me.”

posted 01.06.2010

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