After 100 years in the Oakland Beach community, the Oakland Beach Volunteer Firemen’s Company may have stopped fighting fires but has never stopped caring for the neighborhood. And with the centennial here, the company is planning a celebration on Aug. 11. In addition, a mural on the building was recently completed.
The company has a rich history according to a book written by Don D’Amato, who was Warwick’s first official city historian. D’Amato traces the company’s history from its inception to when Warwick’s permanent fire department was established in 1956. D’Amato writes about the equipment used by the company, the members of the company, and what the company has done for the Oakland Beach community over time.
According to D’Amato, the company was established in 1913, after a devastating fire in the area in 1903. The blaze destroyed the Oakland Beach Hotel, stables, The Hope Cottage and an icehouse. The cost of damages was $75,000, but only about $21,000 was covered by insurance.
The expensive repairs highlighted the need for an organized fire company in the area. The only method that residents had to put out the fire was a bucket brigade, and that had clearly proved unsuccessful.
The OBVF was originally located on the corner of Mohawk and Oakland Beach Avenue. Back then, the station served as both a fire department and a holding cell for the police department, which was in Apponaug. Those who had caused trouble in Oakland Beach were taken to the station to wait until the police arrived.
Firefighters who volunteered there were just as much a part of the community as they were the station. Almost all of the members lived close enough to the station that they could run there if something happened and they were needed. Their assistance was not limited to fires either.
During that time, it was common to have between 12 and 14 people drowning each year. Firemen had a special siren signal for when they were needed on the beach to act as lifeguards.
Between 1913 and 1917, the OBVF was well known throughout Warwick and had become a major part of the firefighting force. In 1915 they were among the first on the scene of a fire at Aldrich Mansion, helping to save valuable art from the estate. In 1917 they purchased the first motorized pumping engine in Warwick.
In 1932 the Volunteer Fire Company moved from the original station to Sam Pierpont’s garage due to jurisdiction disagreements with the Oakland Beach Fire District, which was formed six years after the fire company. Different from the volunteer company, the fire districts were set up by the city before a permanent fire department was established. The districts were Oakland Beach, Conimicut, Norwood, Greenwood and Longmeadow.
In 1932 they were settled, and the Oakland Beach district was abolished. In 1954 the OBVF moved again to its current location at 645 Oakland Beach Avenue. It remained a volunteer fire company until 1972, when the city fire station was built on West Shore Road. At that time, the volunteers decided to turn the company into a club, which remains a large part of Oakland Beach culture today.
An important aspect of OBVF history is the Bonn family. At one point, seven Bonn brothers worked with the fire company. James T. Bonn served as chief of volunteers from 1930 to 1956. He joined the company in 1924 and climbed up the ranks quickly. James’s brother, Thomas, was the deputy chief of volunteers and became the chief of the Warwick Fire Department in 1975. There are several memorials throughout the club to the brothers, including plaques and statues. In front of the building is a memorial dedicated to James Bonn, and the club itself has two rooms dedicated to them. The front room, containing a bar and pool tables, is named the Chief Thomas W. Bonn Room. The back room, which is a hall used for special occasions such as parties, is named the Chief James Bonn Hall.
Although the fire company no longer actively fights fires and has since become a private club, members are still dedicated to serving the public. During the flood of 2010, the club building was open to the community as a charging station for cell phones and laptops. When there is someone in the area who cannot afford a location to host their family after a member dies, the OBVF gives them their space for free.
They also have events throughout the year. Clambakes, steak fries and pig roasts help raise club funds, a portion of which goes right back into the Oakland Beach community. At Christmas time, the club holds a party for children where Santa comes in on a fire engine, bringing gifts for them all. If there is ever a family in need who lives in the Oakland Beach area, the OBVF will start a fund for them. They also donate to St. Rita’s Church.
Members exude a certain pride in their affiliation with the OBVF. Ronnie Manfredo, who has been the president of the OBVF for the past 11 years, joined in 1975.
“When we were younger, I would drive down and come in. The rule then was after three times you had to join, so I did. But I really wanted to be part of the community and help out. Plus it was a cool place to come hang out back then.”
When Manfredo became president, he wanted to go back to those community roots and start giving back more.
“When I became president, the club was in a bit of disrepair and I wanted to take care of it, so we remodeled it some. It’s an ongoing process, but we changed the way that business operated.”
Since his presidency began, the club has become much more active in Oakland Beach. It has reconnected with the churches there, and the JONAH Center, realizing Manfredo’s goal to bring the club back to where it started, as an organization dedicated to Oakland Beach.
“Since 1913, it has been a big supporter of the community.”
Kenneth “Rocky” Hudson is another long-standing member, having been part of the OBVF for over 40 years. Laughing, he related a story about his troublemaking experiences as a child.
“Back then, when you got in trouble, you had to polish the engines. So I was a bad boy and had to polish the fire truck because of it.”
But, he believes that the OBVF changed him for the better.
“It made me a better person. I’m a decent person; I help people all the time. And I think its because Thomas Bonn asked me to join.”
Ever since then, Hudson has been helping out in the community as much as possible, enjoying it all the while. He and Ronnie are at the station at least 10 hours a day every day of the week.
Bill Trudell, who is the second oldest living member of the club, joined in 1955 and has been a member since, even after becoming a paid fireman. Trudell believes that the spirit behind the club has changed little since because they still serve the community.
For their celebration on August 11, rain date August 12, they plan on including their oldest living member, former Chief Thomas Bonn, who is in his 90s. His official title will be “Master of Ceremonies,” and he will ride in on an antique fire engine, with newer models coming in behind him. There will be a cookout, as well as old photos of the company, and many other members sharing their stories.
To commemorate their 100th anniversary, the OBVF hired local artist Robert Ratigan, who has experience painting murals, restaurant interiors and home interiors. The mural Ratigan has created showcases a modern and an antique fire engine above a yellow banner that simply says “100th Anniversary.” On each end of the banner are the dates 1913 and 2013, marking a century of service to Oakland Beach. A smaller, more discreet, but much more sentimental painting has been added to the building’s façade. A fireman’s helmet, positioned just above the door, painted black with the dates 1913-2013 and the name “Bonn,” on the badge, in gratitude to all the years of service that the Bonn family gave them. The murals have already been finished, and can now be seen on the side of the Oakland Beach Volunteer Firemen’s Club building, for anyone to appreciate.