SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
One of the reasons people don’t like history is that it doesn’t get personal enough.
Just as some students learn to hate reading because it’s presented as a chore rather than a joy, others hate history because to them it’s just a bunch of dates and big, sweeping, unconnected movements. Hitler, for instance, appears in most history books as a caricature: A madman in a moustache, screaming at a podium. (I mean, he’s standing at the podium, screaming. Not screaming at the podium. What did that podium ever do to him?)
And Yet Hitler was a painter – an artist, if not a great one – who fought valiantly in World War One and apparently loved dogs. He was an evil person, but a person, and possibly had more redeeming qualities than Saddam Hussein. Maybe Saddam was a cat lover?
Almost a quarter of a century ago, without even realizing it, I went on a search for a remarkable man. At the time I didn’t realize I was looking for him, but when I found him it made my historical project take on a human dimension.
It was the mid 80’s, and I was a young volunteer firefighter who, based on a few clues I’d stumbled upon, suspected the hundredth anniversary of my fire department was approaching. I asked around, and haunted the microfilm collection at the Noble County Public Library, and eventually located the date I needed.
Not that the date itself was all that much work for me. In fact, most of the big discoveries I’ve made were actually someone else’s discovers. In this case Bob Gagen, Noble County Historian at the time, presented me with a clipping he uncovered.
When I learned the Albion Fire Department was founded on May 4, 1888 – just a couple of years away at the time – I determined to write a history of the AFD. Because of my innocent belief that it would be an easy job, I didn’t start researching in earnest until late 1987, so I didn’t have much more than a 25 page article by the time we celebrated our centennial. Still, I was on my way.
It was a detective story, and those of you who’ve ever been firefighters understand that it was also a family history. It was also a joy – a huge, eye straining, exhausting, frustrating labor of love, punctuated by a number of jump-in-the-air “aha!” moments that usually led anyone nearby to back away slowly.
Time went by, and life went on. Many times I’d spend an hour or two – or three – after work, going through those microfilms. I got married, had kids, got divorced, worked extra jobs to pay for the divorce, and did all those other things that make up a life.
Then, not long ago, a fellow firefighter named Bob Brownell reminded me that the 125th anniversary of the Albion Fire Department was coming up.
Had it really been a quarter of a century since I began my often interrupted quest?
I had a rough draft – an incomplete rough draft, since it ended in the mid 80’s – a box full of notes and papers, and a manuscript that wasn’t even digital. In fact, I started the thing with a manual typewriter, and had to spend time transferring it to a computer file. There’s an irony, for someone looking into the past.
Still, it’s there. Like much of history, the book was an unplanned byproduct of a series of seemingly unrelated events.
I had names: everyone from George W. Worden, the first recorded Albion resident to be injured in a fire (when the courthouse burned in 1859) to a list of most chiefs, to the names of many firefighters. Some of the people I’d heard other stories about, some were just names.
As time went by, I came to realize that one name was all important to the story, and I needed to learn more about him. At least I did have the name itself, a remarkable feat considering he lived and died in the 19th Century. Historical documents often are sparse on details: After all, they’re written for the present, not the future, and there’s a tendency for people of the time to assume everyone who was interested already knew the details. Still, the name was there, if nothing else – the name of Albion’s first fire chief, A.J. Denlar.
As often happens when researching history, getting one detail just led to more questions. Okay, so A.J. Denlar was Albion’s first fire chief, great. But what made him qualified for the role?
The firefighters were all volunteer, so what did Denlar do for a living? Did he have firefighting experience, or were all the volunteers going into the fire cold (so to speak)? What the heck did A.J. stand for?
And where was he buried?
That may seem like a small thing, but I started getting the strangest feeling that A.J. Denlar wouldn’t be real to me until I could see where he was laid to rest. Thus began my quest – which wasn’t much of a quest, because I was saved by the internet.
I wonder what Denlar would have thought of that?
Next week I’ll reveal what I discovered about a remarkable man who lived in a remarkable time. Not Hitler – Denlar.
But meanwhile, I’m dedicated to finishing this story, so if any of you have any old stories, names, or even photographs from Albion’s flaming past, contact me via internet, or just track me down around town. I usually emerge from my burrow in late February.