Old time fire fighter reminisces about past
When the Montclair fire house opened for business 30 years ago, Hoseman Nate Glaser was on duty.
We found him on duty there again last week, spry as ever, and with a rich storehouse of memories of the annals of Engine company 24.
Nate Glaser can remember when the little pond in Montclair playground was a swamp used for commercial frog raising, when the site of Montclair firehouse was a county school, when he could have bought his choice of lots in the Montclair business section for $800 or less, when the highlight of the week in the hills was the Sunday visitation by bus of prospective real estate buyers who were treated to a festive picnic in Shepherd canyon, then asked to sign on the dotted line.
“Why, who would have thought there would ever be a business district in Montclair?” Nate ask. “I thought if there was ever going to be any business it would be out Thornhill way. There was nothing in Montclair but a grove of gum trees and the bus barn where Roeber’s is.”
Nate says that while Montclair fire house was under construction a temporary shack was set up on the corner of LaSalle and Moraga, right where the freeway cut is now. The main work of the fire company in those days was fighting grass fires, many of which they had traveled six or eight miles to reach, and locating the fire house in Montclair brought the firemen a little closer to the fires.
They still had to travel a long ways, and there were few roads and little water. Nate told us that the firemen stored water along Skyline in 50-gallon barrels that had been confiscated from bootleggers and they often fought grass fires by dipping the water from these barrels with buckets. The territory of Engine company 24 extended from the hills back of the Hotel Claremont at the Berkeley line all the way to the municipal golf course near Lake Chabot.
We looked over the Company 24 daily log book of 1927 with Nate, and his memories came flooding back.
The Montclair fire house, he said, was Oakland Fire Chief McGrath’s pride and joy. The artistic new building was on its way to becoming a show place.
Many of the early entries in the log book reported that the Chief stopped by with bulbs, shrubs, trees, etc, for the garden. The next entries naturally showed that the firemen got busy and planted these things. “Right out in front.” Nate asserts, “so the Chief could see them.”
Nate pointed out a healthy redwood tree. “The chief panted that. For years it looked like it was going to die. We were real worried and nursed it along. Finally we ran a water line up here for the aviary, and the tree got plenty of water. Then we all breathed a sigh of relief. The tree made it.”
Nate told us about the early day firemen at 24 who where responsible for the landscaping and planting. There was Jack Barry, who died recently in Casadero where he had retired. Jack was responsible for the aviary. He had finches and a large collection of parakeets. The aviary also contained a little fernery and a stream of running water.
Les Parks, who is now retired and living in Placerville, and Nate did most of the work on the fish pond. The concrete bench, fish pond fountain, and the large concrete urn in front of the fire house, where donated by Michael Longo, a public spirited citizen who operated a concrete garden accessory business on College avenue.
Two other firemen who did a great deal of the planting and landscaping were Hazen Haley and John Baratini. Both of these men are now retired also.
Horsemen Glaser remembers distinctly the cold winters at Montclair fire house. The house first depended only on a fireplace for heat, and the men clustered around it to keep warm Later the fireplace was boarded up and a small Franklin stove was installed. The men were still cold. Then a large pot-belly stove was put in the center of the main room with a chimney hole cut in the roof, but the men used so much coal in this that the city finally installed a furnace and central heating system which is in operation today.
Nate Glaser’s own personal history with the Oakland fire department dates back a few years further than Montclair. He joined the department in January 1920. He was serving a the Company 21 on Piedmont avenue when he was transferred to the new house in Montclair. He told us a little of his experiences, which include fighting the big Berkeley fire in 1923, and having a tree fall on him while fighting a grass fire in the hills near the present Broadway low-level tunnel.
“Everyone thought I was done for. After I recovered from being stunned by the blow from the tree, I looked out from the branches and I could hear everyone talking above me. ‘Poor old Glaser’s gone,’ the were saying, but nobody was trying to ge me out. So I crawled out, and you should have seen their faces!”
Nate is regularly stationed nowadays at Joaquin Miller fire house, Company 25, but occasionally fills in at Montclair, his old station. He lived in East Oakland near MacArthur boulevard. Last year he lost his wife, but he is prevented from being too lonely, he says, by a flock of devoted children and grandchildren. And as for the Oakland fire department, they won’t know how to get along without him!