The word that has struck terror in the hearts of mankind since time began, sounded in the streets of Fuquay Springs on an afternoon in March of 1946.
On that afternoon Davis “Red” Stanton, then a 24-year-old builder, was about the business of overseeing construction of Fuquay Springs’ first water plant on Railroad Street.
“Hey ‘Red’, turn those pumps on as fast as you can. We’re going to need all the water we can get.” The words were shouted-or maybe they weren’t ‘shouted’-by the late W.L. Rowland, who then held multiple titles in the government in Fuquay Springs, including that of fire chief.
He was calling on Stanton to turn on the pumps in the partially completed water plant to help fight a Main Street fire which had begun in the old Wade’s Theater.
Stanton turned on the pumps. Rowland asked him to bring along any laborers he had on the construction job to help fight the fire. Stanton had about six men on the job. He and they headed for Main Street.
They joined Rowland and other volunteers racing to the old sheet metal building on Spring Avenue which housed the town’s only fire truck. They struggled to get the doors open.
Then, to their dismay, they saw that the long-idle fire truck, about a 1934 model, had four flat tires and a chicken nest in the driver’s seat.
It was a desperate time.
Rowland commandeered all the muscular men he could find and together they lifted the fire truck and carried it about a block to Main Street.
But the fire department’s troubles had only begun. As the ancient hoses were uncoiled, the men discovered they had dry rotted. The fabric came apart in their hands.
The fire continued to spread.
Suddenly there was good news. A fire truck arrived from Raleigh and firemen began pulling out hoses only to find that the recently installed modern fire hydrants on the Main Street of Fuquay-Springs had new-fanged, modern couplings. The Raleigh hoses wouldn’t fit.
The fire continued to spread down Main Street to the Proctor Barbour Company (hardware and equipment).
Good news again. A fire truck from Durham arrived. This one carried adapters so its hoses could be attached to the new hydrants. Finally, about an hour and a half after the first shouts of “fire” had sounded through the streets, water could be poured on the blaze.
While the fire, which destroyed all the businesses in one block of Main Street except the Bank of Fuquay building, had to be called a tragedy by anybody’s definition, the experiences of the volunteer firemen that day, looked back on a quarter of a century later, appear a comedy of errors.
That was the assessment of Stanton, who returned to Fuquay-Varina on business last week and began reminiscing with townspeople about that eventful day in 1946.
Larry Stephenson, who heard the tale told, was reminded of the Keystone Kops.
Stanton’s memories of Fuquay-Varina are particularly poignant, not only because of the fire but because the contract his company received to build the Fuquay water plant was its first following World War II. A Raleigh native, Stanton had served in the war and returned home to go into business with a brother-in-law as the Connell Building corporation. The best he can recall the contract to build the water plant was for a price between $35,000 and $40,000.
He remembers particularly how very difficult it was to find parts such as large valves just after the war. He remembers doing a lot of “scrounging”, running down parts the government might have declared surplus and offered for sale.
Before the water plant was built, Stanton said he thinks the Town’s water system consisted of wells, a pump and an overhead storage tank. He said he remembers that Rowland would turn on the pump to fill the storage tank, then turn the pump off until the tank needed refilling. He doesn’t remember there being any water treatment.
The force of gravity as the water came down from the overhead tank sent it flowing through the few lines, which then existed in town. At the time the Connell Building Corporation was constructing the water plant, another contractor was installing additional water lines and hydrants.
Last week Stanton stopped by the old water plant and observed that in outward appearance it had changed little since it was built some 38 years ago. The plant has not been used since the town began purchasing water from Raleigh about 1976.
Stanton, who recently retired after 27 years with the Federal Housing Administration, was in southern Wake County to purchase a six-acre tract of land on which he plans to build a retirement home.
He and his wife currently live in Jacksonville Beach, just outside Jacksonville, Fla. Stanton says he has lived in major cities all over the south during his career but he hasn’t found one he likes as well as Raleigh.
He’s looking forward to returning home.