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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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010114SWANSON.jpg

RETIRES—Village of Crivitz Fire Chief Stu Swanson officially steps down as chief Tuesday, Dec. 31 after nearly 40 years on the job. He is pictured with the Crivitz Fire Department's Command Vehicle. Swanson will remain with the department on a limited basis.

Swanson Steps Down As Crivitz Fire Chief

Tuesday, Dec. 31 marked the end of an era for Crivitz Fire Department. Stewart “Stu” Swanson, stepped down after four decades as Fire Chief and turned the reins over to Assistant Chief Rudi Jensen. Swanson expressed high confidence in his successor, who has been a member of the department under his tutelage for 11 years. Jensen officially became Fire Chief on Wednesday, Jan. 1.

Swanson said after 47 years on the department, 40 of them as chief, he is looking forward to going fishing and not having to worry about his pager going off. He celebrated his 70th birthday on Monday, Dec. 23.

“It’s time!” Swanson declared of his decision to retire. “I don’t get excited about getting up at 2 a.m. any more. I feel a lot more comfortable about stepping down with someone like Rudy coming in. He’s done well. He’s young and gung-ho, like I once was. We’re lucky we’ve got a good core of young guys who are stepping up and taking the challenge.”

Swanson does not intend to entirely cut his ties with the department. He and his wife, Sharon, will continue to live in the village. He will take care of fire prevention and inspections, perhaps serve as safety officer on calls, and help out Jensen and the department where he can. “It’s been rewarding, otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck around so long,” Swanson said. “I’ll be a “go-fer” for the department, as much as a 70-year-old can be.” He hopes to mentor young firefighters, and will continue doing fire prevention programs in schools.

Swanson said having understanding employers that allowed him to answer fire calls during his working hours, and having an understanding and supportive wife and family made it possible for him to serve so long on the department while holding regular full time jobs.

He retired from full time employment in September of 2011, after 34 years as maintenance supervisor at McVane Nursing Home and its successor, NewCare Convalescent Center. For years until the new fire department communications systems were put in place, one of the fire phones was located at the convalescent home because there was someone there to answer it 24 hours a day.

When Swanson joined the department in 1966 he was employed full time at Huntercraft, a machine shop located on Hwy. 141, where Frank Porth Chevrolet is today. Larry Steiner, his foreman, was assistant chief of the fire department, and Chief Ralph Just was a fellow employee. Just also was owner of the old Phillips 66 gas station across next door to Crivitz Lumber and across from the old Dime Store.

Family ties go deep in Crivitz. Just had gone to school with Stu’s father, Carl Swanson. Swanson’s interest in local history led to the discovery that, somewhat prophetically, he had been named “Stewart” in honor of A. J. Stewart, who worked as the railroad depot manager in the village and was one of the founding members of the Fire Department.

Crivitz was not yet a village when Swanson started with the department 47 years ago, when it was the Town of Stephenson Fire Department. They provided fire protection for part or all of the towns of Lake, Beaver, Middle Inlet, and Stephenson, which then included what is now the Village of Crivitz. Ralph Just was fire chief.

Steiner kept encouraging him to join the department, Swanson said. Steiner got him involved with helping at grass fires and helping out with the Fourth of July parade and fireworks. Things went on from there, and Swanson officially became a firefighter. That was in 1966, when Swanson was just 22 years old.

Trainings for firefighters were not easy to schedule, and many of the volunteers in Crivitz were business owners who could not get away for classes, especially in the evening. Swanson was invited to ride along with the chief and assistant chief, and because of that was able to attend most classes.

In 1969 Steiner resigned his assistant chief’s post. Fire Chief Just made Swanson his assistant chief. Then, in 1972, Just had a heart attack. Herb Buege, town chairman at the time, asked Swanson to take over as chief. Swanson said a lot of the guys with more tenure loved firefighting but did not care to take on the administrative responsibilities that went with being chief. Town Board members interviewed the other firefighters, and the consensus was that Swanson should become chief. So, in 1973, only six years after he joined the department, Swanson became fire chief, by order of the Town of Stephenson Board.

The department had 22 members plus four on the Auxiliary list. They boasted a 1948 Dodge Central Pumper with a 500 gallons per minute pump, a “tender” (tanker) homemade by members of the department from an old Town of Stephenson dump truck, a 1948 Ford panel truck used as an equipment van.

The “tender” truck had no heater, which made winter use more than slightly uncomfortable.

Swanson accomplished much during his tenure as chief, including his proudest achievements - getting fire trucks updated and completion of the new fire station in 2004. There were other accomplishments.

The Crivitz Fire Department was one of the first in the county to be trained and outfitted for cold water rescues. Swanson was successful over the years getting grants to replace Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), a new “Jaws of Life” hydraulic spreader tool, and a thermal imaging camera.

As to the new fire station, Swanson said their old quarters behind the village hall were getting so cramped that he had to walk sideways to get between vehicles. He told that to the village board during his campaign for the new facility, and still chuckles when he recalls that one of the trustees jokingly suggested instead of getting a new fire station, they should get a skinnier chief.

But the fire station was approved. The department moved into its new fire house across from the Post Office on Jan. 23, 2004, and soon will observe their 10th anniversary there.

Later, on the grounds of their new station, firefighters built a three-story training tower. Supporting poles for the structure came from a local utility transmission company where one of them is employed. The Crivitz department now opens its training tower for use by other departments, Swanson said. The nearest similar training facility is in the City of Marinette, nearly half an hour away.

Through the years, firefighters built much of their own equipment and built the facilities they needed. His family, like the families of many of the firefighters, always helped with fund raising events.

Swanson said one of the biggest challenges today is getting and retaining enough members. In most households, husbands and wives both work, and no one seems to have time any more. There are 18 active members, and he would like to have 25.

But Swanson said he is proud of their training programs, and proud of their equipment. None of that could have been achieved without the support of the village board.

Swanson said his priority when he became chief was to update the department’s equipment and get turnout gear for the firefighters. At the time, for the 25 members, they had six to eight rubber rain coats, about a dozen pairs of boots (half of them leaked), and six to eight old fiberglass helmets.

Boots at the time cost $40 to $50 a pair. They bought 3/4 length coats of cotton duck for about $160 each, and spent approximately $80 for each new helmet. Today, boots cost $300 a pair, coats and bunker pants cost are $1,600 per firefighter, helmets cost $160 each, gloves cost $40, and each breathing apparatus is $2,000.

The first new truck acquired under Swanson’s leadership was an American LaFrance with a 750 gallon pump, a foam system, and a 35 foot ladder.

Next they worked on improving the method of getting calls and summoning firefighters. On the old fire phone system, calls were placed to a number of fire phones at the homes of firefighters, and the wives would call three or four more on the list while their husbands headed for the fire station. Eventually a siren was installed in the center of the village. The county began its paging system in the 1970s, and Crivitz bought some pagers. Not all the firefighters had pagers, “but it was a good start,” Swanson said.

Today, there are hydrants in the village and an improved paging system. The department has a 1991 Spartan 1,250-gallon pumper, a 1998 Rescue pumper, a command vehicle and a 4X4 GMC truck for grass fires. In future he hopes they will get a 75’ ladder truck.

Ownership of the Crivitz Fire Department changed when the village reincorporated in 1974. The town kept the airport and maintained a garage at the village hall. The village took over ownership of the fire department. The new Village of Crivitz Fire Department continued to provide fire protection for a time for the entire Town of Stephenson, plus all or parts of Middle Inlet, Lake and Beaver.

Swanson said because of the huge territory the department covered they gained the questionable reputation of being able to save foundations, “and we took a lot of teasing about that.”

About 15 years ago the towns of Middle Inlet and Lake formed their own fire departments, and Beaver contracted with Pound. Town of Stephenson citizens, on a donation basis, organized a small fire department as first responders for the Thunder Lake area. Later the town backed a Twin Bridge Fire Department that merged with the Thunder Lake Fire Department to become the Town of Stephenson Fire Department.

About three years ago the Town of Stephenson ended its contract with the village for coverage of the 54 square miles of the town closest to the village. This cut the Crivitz Fire Department’s call volume in half and resulted in the sale of two of its tenders. The town continues to operate its town garage inside the village and has a fire truck stationed there.

The first major fire Swanson was called to fight was in the middle of winter at Thunder Lake Inn, about 20 miles west of the village. A young mother and daughter perished in that fire.

Among big fires during his career, Swanson recalls one at at Dama’s Warehouse, where Frigo Cheese Company rented space to store waxed cheese containers. This combination caused a very hot fire. There were no hydrants in the village. Coleman and Wausaukee fire departments responded to the call for help, and brought water to the scene for hours.

In the 1970s the Witt Propane building exploded, and that burned along with the leather shop next door. Swanson said he heard the blast, felt the rumble and saw the fire ball at his home about six blocks away.

There were lots of barn fires while Swanson was chief. He recalled one farm had hay fires two years in a row. The next year they put in a silo. No more fires.

Perhaps the most dramatic of the fires Swanson remembers happened in 1962, when he was a senior at Crivitz High School. Saint Mary Catholic Church steeple was struck by lightning and the building burned to the ground, changing the face of downtown Crivitz forever. That church was located where the parking lot and statue are today, and the new church was built on the opposite side of the street.

Swanson has lived in Crivitz all but the first four years of his life. He and his wife, the former Sharon Exquibel of Chicago, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in September. They have four children, son Peter of Stroika Lane, near Shaffer Park west of Crivitz, and daughters Shelley of Marinette, Sallie of Loomis and Cassie of Peshtigo. There are nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Swanson’s plans for the future, in addition to limited work with the fire department, include doing some extra fishing, traveling with Sharon, and enjoying deer hunting season. He is also active in the Stephenson/Crivitz Historical Society and Faith Presbyterian Church.

Swanson said his career as Fire Chief has been rewarding, but he would never have been able to do it without the support of his wife and children, and the Village Board.

“It will be different coming to Fire Department meetings as a member instead of as Chief,” Swanson commented. But he thinks the decision to retire is the right choice at this point in his life.


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