Independence, Inyo County, California

Startup of Independence Fire Department

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By Edward Rosenberg

The election of the first Board of Fire Commissioners in Independence, in 1931, was held in a way that could have only taken place in an era when expediency prevailed over the law. It was a period in Inyo County history, never to return, when there was a more personal touch in government, a time of direct action.

Edwin B. ‘Red" Austin, now an Independence businessman, who was a member of that first commission, recalls quite vividly how it all came about.

He was an employee of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. One day he received a telephone call from Superior Court Judge William Daniel Dehy, who was a man of stature in the community, and a telephone call from him most certainly would not be about any trivial matter. Austin recalls that he spoke with the voice of authority: "Eddie, I would like to see you in my office at 3 o’clock this afternoon!"

Young Austin was in the throes of suspense as he made his way to Judge Dehy’s chambers. Had he unknowingly run afoul of the law, to be summoned before the bar? Arriving at the judge’s chambers, the judge seemed affable enough, and two others, residents of Independence, Allie Robinson and Van Lutzow, were present. Judge Dehy did not keep them waiting long to reveal what he had in mind: "Gentlemen, we have long needed a Fire Commission in Independence, and yesterday an election was held, in the courthouse, and you have been chosen to serve. The terms are for one, two and three years. I have three straws in my hand and I ask you each to draw one".

Austin got the longest straw and the three-year term. The judge then explained their duties. They were to check the equipment and to take steps to get money from the County. Judge Austin had not only selected the candidates, but he had "campaigned" around the various offices in the courthouse with a box of candy as an inducement.

For "Red" Austin it was the beginning of an active association with the Independence Fire Department for 25 years. He received a citation on February 17, 1956, signed by Fire Commissioners G. E. Gillespie. Henry O. Schmidt, Paul Passage, and Fire Chief Richard I. Puddicombe. But Austin never did actually retire from the Fire Department, although he no longer fights fires. The urge is still here and today when the siren wails, whatever, the hour, "Red" responds, not unlike the traditional old fire horse. There are times when his wife, Martha, thinks "Red" is following his impulse a bit to the extreme, as when he hops out of a warm bed in the small hours of a cold night, lured by the siren.

The equipment in those days consisted of two hose carts with two wheels, pulled by four men. Each cart had 600 feet of inch and a half hose. Four men, pulling a cart was an outmoded way of fighting a fire, so, Austin says, a move was made to get a surplus fire engine from the Los Angeles DWP at Bishop. This was successful and the engine was brought to the DWP yards in Independence.

After that, W. J. Land, a Fire Marshal from Los Angeles, came to Independence to help organize a department. It had been a sort of free-for-all, with no regular roster, but with townspeople turning out, usually in force, whenever the siren sounded. The early hydrants were an inch and a half, and the Fire Commissioners began to have them replaced with the two and a half inch size. Austin made a trip to Los Angeles to buy the first lot of larger hose.

One of the most threatening fires that occurred, in the days of the two-wheel carts, was where Bobbie’s Hair Shop is now located, at 129 South Edwards St. In the front part of the building was the barber shop of Max Fausel, while in the rear was a dress shop, run by Jenny Hutchison, wife of the Sheriff. Austin says the flames were fanned by high winds, but the fire was kept from spreading. Saved was the postoffice, which was next door, where the Independence Garden Club is now located.


By T. Eugene Barrows

When we first came to Owens Valley, some of our Los Angeles acquaintances asked, "What can you see in such a God forsaken country?" They did not know anything about Owens Valley. We found that God had blessed it with scenic beauty, busy communities and wonderful people. As we were being welcomed into the community, I, being a Mason, was invited to attend the Masonic Lodge. I greatly enjoyed the friendship I found in the lodges of Independence, Bishop and Bridgeport, which comprise the 500th Masonic district of the Grand Lodge of Masons in California. Desiring to become an active member here, and not wanting to withdraw from my Montana Masonic Lodge. I joined Inyo Lodge No. 221 by dual membership. Inyo Lodge No. 221. as a lodge, and by its individual members, has played an important part in the history of the valley. It has strongly supported public schools and the education of our young people. I went through the chairs and was Master in 1962. Later. I was secretary for over 8 years.

In 1972, Inyo Lodge celebrated 100 years of active service in Independence. The Worshipful Master of that year, Ned T. Bell, is the grandson of one of the Wardens when the lodge was instituted in 1872. Neel’s father and a son, Allan, also being members, make a four-generation family in the first 100 years of the lodge. Appropriate ceremonies marked the centennial of the lodge.

Inyo Lodge has several living members who have been a Master Mason and 50 or more years of continuous membership. In January 1975, I became eligible for a 50 year membership pin. Thru my dual membership, the California Grand Lodge recognized the total time. Representing the Grand Lodge of California, Past Master Wilfred Partridge, Inspector of the 500th Masonic district, presented me with my 50 year membership pin and certificate.

My wife, Nina, and I were members of San Fernando Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star when we first moved to Independence. We were welcomed by the members of Kearsarge Chapter No. 378, Order of the Eastern Star. Thru the Eastern Star we made many friends in Kearsarge and other Chapters. We demitted from the San Fernando Chapter and joined Kearsarge Chapter and became officers. In 1958, I was Worthy Patron serving with Jackie Riesen, the Worthy Matron. In 1962 Nina served Kearsarge Chapter as Worthy Matron, with Robert W. Fisher her Worthy Patron. Nina also was Deputy Grand Matron on our district in 1965. Even now we find pleasure in keeping busy in Eastern Star activities.

Nina and I both have served years on the Rainbow Board. Kearsarge Chapter is the sponsoring body for Independence Assembly No. 114, Order of Rainbow for Girls. I have been honored by being "Rainbow Dad" several times and have received the Grand Cross of Color. It is an honor to be associated with such a grand group of girls. Unknown to me, the Assembly submitted my name for Grand Marshal of the Independence Fourth of July, 1975 parade. I knew nothing about it until I was informed I had been chosen Grand Marshal for the parade. I rode in an open car with Nina and Lisa Benson, the Worthy Advisor of Independence Assembly No. 114. We were escorted by the members of the Assembly.

{*Copied without permission from Saga of Inyo County ©1977 by Chapter 183, Southern Inyo American Association of Retired Persons.}

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