It all began with a fast-moving fire just off Kings Highway in Swedesboro.
“The fire spread so rapidly that nothing could be done to save Ford’s hall, the residence of Kate Gill, and the shoe shop of James Makelva,” reads the historical record. Groups of onlookers quickly formed a bucket brigade in an attempt to halt the fire’s destruction.
The year was 1893 and the events of that day led to the formation of an organization that has been dedicated to protecting the community for over a century. The group is the Woolwich Fire Company, and they’re celebrating their 125th anniversary this year.
“The company is 125 years old,” said the company’s chief, David Valichka. “It’s been an icon. It’s been in the center of town for 125 years. We’re a standing icon.”
That fire in 1893 made it clear to community leaders that more needed to be done to bring the town into a more modern age of firefighting and prevention. The next few years saw committees formed and options explored for the formation of a true fire company, and the purchase of firefighting equipment including a firetruck.
It was on August 8, 1898 that the company was officially organized, and its first members selected. “The formation of the fire company was the final step in providing protection for the citizens of Woolwich Township, which included the town of Swedesboro,” according to the company’s history section of its website.
Fast forward 125 years and the company is still going strong. Woolwich and Swedesboro became separate entities along the way, but the Fighting 25th still serves them both.
“I am in awe of the history of the fire company, and how it has evolved over the years to become the best and most respected fire company in Gloucester County,” said Swedesboro Mayor Tom Fromm. “Theirs is truly an amazing story and history lesson about Swedesboro.”
Fromm said the intertwined history of the company, and the community it serves, has put it at the top of the list of important institutions in town. “The Fire Company has been an amazing resource and source of pride for the Borough for as long as it has been serving our community,” Fromm said. “I consider the Woolwich Fire Company, the Marge Dombrosky Library and our churches, to be cornerstones of our community.”
Fromm said it was difficult for him to express just how much the town owes to the fire company.
“When we were going through some difficult times, the fire company had Swedesboro’s back and made it clear that they would always protect our residents and properties,” the mayor said. “For what they did I am forever in their debt, and my respect for them is enormous.”
If you’ve been around town in Swedesboro in recent weeks, you may have noticed a new addition that stemmed from an effort to show some of that gratitude. Banners featuring past fire chiefs and company history highlights now fly from the light posts lining both sides of Kings Highway.
The Borough of Swedesboro has placed flags commemorating past fire chiefs on poles in downtown Swedesboro as a way of showing their respect for their dedication. Photo by Joe D’Aquila
“We thought the banners picturing every chief in the history of the fire company would be a unique and fitting way to show our love and respect for their dedication over the last 125 years,” Fromm said. “We were able to get high quality pictures of each of the chiefs, and MJ Corporation was able to make the awesome individual banners of the chiefs and various fire apparatus used over the years.
“Paul Vollmer on our Public Works Department took the lead on making sure the banners fit perfectly and got them installed. They really came out great, and I think the fire company appreciated the gesture.”
Chief Valichka, who proudly adorns one of those banners, spoke a bit about the history of the department he’s led since 2017. “From day one, when that original company started back 1898, it used to be in Borough Hall,” Valichka said.
“If you look at the Borough Hall, when you come in off Lake Drive at the light there, you’ll see two round arches in that building. That’s originally where the fire apparatus used to be. They would exit out that side.” The fire company was housed on the first floor there beginning in 1915.
Photo courtesy of Lois Stanley, Russel Shiveler Jr., and the Swedesboro-Woolwich Historical Society.
The current firehouse on the opposite side of Kings Highway from Borough Hall, was opened and dedicated in 1974.
Valichka, who has been with the department since it was then recognizing its 100th birthday, back in 1998, highlighted some of the notable events over more recent years as well.
“From Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to the attacks of September 11th, our local company has been on call to help out when needed all throughout the region. Our ambulance was up supporting at Ground Zero,” the chief said.
Even more recent was Hurricane Sandy, when Company 25 headed to the shore to lend a hand. “Our company assisted Brick Township when they had lost half of their town to the storm,” he said.
Valichka said, “None of this would be possible without the dedication of the company’s volunteers”. “Our members continue to give 125 percent of their time,” he said. And the service provided by the company has evolved over the years.
In their year-long celebration of their formation’s anniversary, the organization has taken to social media to highlight important facets of the company. One recent post highlights the contributions made by the women of the company, something that likely would not have been so prevalent back in 1898.
“The fire service owes its gratitude to the women on the front lines and behind the scenes keeping the organization running,” the post reads. “The Woolwich Fire Company recognizes the service of its women members through the years.”
The post, made to recognize Women’s History Month, includes an excellent video featuring interviews with the female members of the company who discuss why they joined and what service through the firehouse means to them.
In another recent post, the company highlights the training its members now receive on how to handle calls involving individuals with autism.
“Items like sensory kits as well as making members more aware of their surroundings and how to act when responding to someone on the neurodivergent spectrum and even recognizing that communication may be difficult and accepting that just a smile could mean all the difference in making the connection to make their day better,” that post reads. “We strive to better ourselves to help better you and the community.”
The company plans for their celebration of the 125th anniversary to last throughout the year. They are currently selling commemorative challenge coins and T-shirts to mark the anniversary and to raise funds to keep the company going for the next 125 years and beyond.
“The guys made up challenge coins, a 125th anniversary challenge coin and a regular station challenge coin,” Valichka said. “We just got our 125th anniversary shirts in for all the members plus some we can sell out to the community and our supporters. That’s been a big hit.”
Another fundraising effort tied to the anniversary celebration has been a partnership with the Swedesboro Brewing Company.
“The brewery designed a beer for the 125th anniversary, Lager 25,” Valichka said. “From what I understand that’s been selling pretty good for them.” A portion of the proceeds from sales of the beer will be donated to the company.
The company also plans to be in attendance at a number of upcoming community events, where the public can learn more about the company’s history and show their support. Upcoming events include Swedesboro Day on Sept. 30 and a fire prevention open house planned for October.
Valichka said they have a banquet coming up for the company’s membership in October at the Creekside in Woodstown, where the company’s volunteers will be recognized for their continued service. “It’ll be a good night to celebrate,” Valichka said.
For more information about the company, their history, and their anniversary, find them on Facebook or visit www.woolwichfd.com.
By Joe D’Aquila