The Early Years
Compiled by Michael R. Kerr
As it is with many great organizations, the origin of the Greenbelt Volunteer Fire
Department and Rescue Squad, Inc. was a humble one. In 1946, when Greenbelt was
around ten years old, a group of its young citizens decided that there was a dire need for
ambulance service in this fast growing community. Up until this time the closest
ambulance had to come form the already established Branchville Rescue Squad. (This
might not seem too critical now, but back the n Greenbelt Road and Edmonston, which
was later replaced in part, with Kenilworth Avenue, were just glorified horse paths with
many holes and curves that did not make for rapid response.) In the latter part of October
1946, these young men formed and orga nization to create the Greenbelt Volunteer
Rescue Squad, Inc.. The meetings were held weekly in members’ homes.
The first by-laws of the organization were based on the by-laws of the Brentwood
Rescue Squad. The Brentwood department was also helpful in setting up operational
procedures for our fledgling department. In November of 1946, an ambulance was
purchased from Brentwood. This ambulance, a 1936 Buick, was to be purchacesed for
$825.00; $400 down and the remainder to be paid prior to the end of May 1947. Since
there were little or no funds in the new treasury, three members: Richard Gray, Dick
Bates and Werner Steinle, donated their own money to make up the down payment.
Later, in the 1950’s, this money was paid back to them.
I t was decided during the early meetings that a membership fee of one dollar was
to be charged. This practice was dropped in the 1960’s. Money! This problem which
plagues us even today, was critical during those early years. From its inception until it
was incorporated with the fire department in 1955, no tax money was received. The
minutes of these early meetings are full of requests for money to buy equipment, repair
the quarters or fix the ambulance. This money was raised in numerous ingenious ways.
There were canvases of the town; circuses were brought in; puppet shows were held;
music shows also tried. In one set of minutes there is reference to a radio quiz show
called “Strike It Rich.” They hoped to be able to raise enough money so that they
wouldn’t be forced to take out a loan. There is no further reference to the show, so I
assume that they didn’t go through with their plans. Bingo was first held in May of 1948,
with each member donating fifty cents to buy refreshments to sell. In one instance, a
dance was held for a total profit of $20.10! The original ambulance drives did raise a good deal of money, however further assistance was needed. Both the Prince George’s County Firemen’s Association and the Rescue Squad Association were approached for financial aid. They refused. According
to their rules, a company had to be associated with a fire department to qualify for help.
The Community Chest was contacted but they stated that even though the squad
could qualify, there would be no money available for over a year, as all of their money
had been allocated. It must have been quite similar to banging your head into the same wall over and
over. The County associations received their money from the State. When the Red Cross
was asked for help in the buying of linen, they informed the squad that all rescue squads
were supposed to receive money from the state. A vicious circle, eh what?
In July of 1947, three garages were obtained from the Federal Public Housing
Authority. Most of the necessary work to turn the garages into adequate quarters for the
squad was done by the members themselves, with funds that were either theirown or were
raised by them. The first chief of the rescue squad was Werner C. Steinle, who served in that
position from November of 1946, until the end of 1948. At this time, Earl Hampton was
elected chief, a position that he held consecutively until December of 1951, when
Marshall H. Zoellner was elected to the position. It is interesting to note that, of the first
three chiefs, two are still living in Greenbelt and one, M.H. Zoellner, is still a member in
the department – from whom we benefit, from time to time, from his many years of
experience in the problems of running our organization.
At first, to become a member, a person had to be 21 years of age. However it
soon became evident that, in order to attract more people, the age would have to be
lowered. Consequently, in February of 1947, the age requirement was lowered to 16.
This brought in such new members as Jack Snoddy, J. Paul Williams and several others.
The chief of the rescue squad was both the head operations officer and the head of
administration until March of 1954. At the January meeting of that year Marshall
Zoelner proposed a by-laws change that would add the offices of President and Vicepresident.
This proposal was passed at the March meeting and, at that meeting, Mr.
Zoellner became the first president of the Greenbelt Volunteer Rescue Squad, Inc.. Tom
Snoddy was elected to the position of Vice-president.
In February of 1953 there was a proposal to start a ladies auxiliary. The minutes
of that period are not too clear, but sometime between February and May of that year, the
Ladies Auxiliary was formed.
The fire department and rescue squad has had various teams participate in athletic
activities in the City through the years. However in the early days, the department paid
only half of the fees; the members had to pay the other half themselves.
The forerunners of the present trustees were elected June 9, 1954. There ere nine
of them; consisting of the President, Chief, Recording Secretary, with other members
elected from the body. This body was called the Executive Committee.
It was also around this time that the property where the firehouse now stands was
considered for new quarters for the rescue squad. A site was also being considered on
Southway Road, near the National Guard Armory. This property was later found
unattainable due to technical complications with the state.
Prior to 1955, the town of Greenbelt was protected by a fire department that
operated on a paid-call system. In this system the men who responded were paid by the
number of calls they ran – around seventy- five cents a call. The siren was still blown,
just as it is now, and many of the men who were in the rescue squad were also in the fire
The city offered to turn over the two fire trucks that were in use at that time, if the
men would form a volunteer fire department. At a special meeting on January 19, 1955,
the membership voted to incorporate with the fire department, to be known as the
GREENBELT VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT AND RESCUE SQUAD, INC..
The city sold the two fire trucks to the new department for one dollar each.
While compiling this history I came across a number of items that seem extremely
funny now, however I am sure they were done in all seriousness then. I would like to
relate a couple of them here.
In the early rescue squad the men were divided into crews for every night of the
week. There were no radios then and the police had to call the men at home when they
were needed for a call. Bud Zoellner says that when he first moved to Gardenway, there
was a period of about a month when he had no telephone. He remembers that, on several
occasions, the police department had the send a car by his house and the officer has to
beat on his door to wake him up to go on the call!
In December of 1950, the Town Council voted to make payment the sum of
twelve hundred dollars to the rescue squad for services rendered to the Town of
Greenbelt. There was a stipulation, however, that the department would have to wait
until the Town could afford to make the payment.
Running areas were rather large back in the old days. The first-due area of the
Greenbelt ambulance included al of the following: Edmonston Road (which used to run
off Crescent Road) all the way out to Good Luck Road; the Baltimore-Washington
Parkway all the way to Route 50. Second-due area included Metzerott Road to 5th Street;
and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from Route 50 to Laurel! The fire department
was also to run all 9-I’s (Personal Injury Accident) with Riverdale Heights, on
Edmonston Road to Route 50 – there being no Kenilworth Avenue as we know it.
A few old timers might remember when there were street alarm pull boxes here in
town. Well, in one set of minutes it says that a youngster was caught while pulling on for
a false alarm and that his parents were fined over two hundred dollars! That’s a
considerable sum even today. Back them it was staggering.
In March of 1955, the first department responded in six calls, while the rescue
squad went on twenty- four calls. In February of 1974, the fire department responded on
forty-six alarms and the ambulances went out fifty-seven times. Quite a contrast!
This concludes the early years of the Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department and
Rescue Squad. Needless to say, as the years went on, our department continued to grow
and gain respect in our community and throughout the entire area. As with life in general
today, it seems that things are much more complicated now. We have out paid force to
supplement us. Yes, things are much different today. Gone are the days of circuses;
Ferlin Husky Shows at the theater; dances with a profit of twenty dollars. Also gone it
the excitement of driving thru town in the U-truck George Moore (one o the biggest
junior members we’ve ever had) beating me soundly about the head and sholders, while I
tried to announce over the P.A. system; “March is Ambulance Club month. Without your
help we cannot operate…”
From time to time I’ve been guilty of thinking that it seems as if everyone has lost
the volunteer spirit. I really don’t think I believe that. I’m sure that the guys that we
have here now are no different from the ones that were here when Dick Bragonje used to
le Skip Bingham and me sneak in these same doors, almost fourteen years ago. It’s just
that they haven’t had the opportunity that some of us had. They haven’t had to go around
town beating on doors asking for money so that we could buy linen for the ambulances. I
think that some of us “older” members sometime forget how it used to be. We also tend
to forget how it was when we were young members and now we can’t understand why
they do the things they do. They’re really no different than we were, except maybe a
little smarter and more aware of what’s happening. Anyway, the real value of
remembering the past is not to try and bring it back, but to learn from it and correct out
Before I end this nostalgic stroll thru yesterday, there is one man who I must
recognize. If it weren’t for this man, many of us who are in the department today
wouldn’t be here. As a matter of fact, one of us wouldn’t even be on this earth! People
such as myself, Skip Binghiam, Mike Dutton, Randy Mangum, Bill Holland, Billy
Parrish, Cliff Bordas and Kenny Stair, certainly owe a lot to this man. When he was
chief he had the original idea for a Junior Firemen’s Club – now known as the Junior
Associates. He saw that we wanted to help, but we were too young to become regular
members. Many members at that time didn’t want anymore youngsters running around,
but he thought we deserved a chance and he fought for us. He gave us a place to hang
out; he kept many of us from becoming juvenile delinquents or “Center Bums”. Without
this man, many of us wouldn’t be professional firemen today, including his own son. If
you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about Walter V. Dutton. I don’t think I ‘ve ever
thanked him before, so I’m taking the opportunity to publicly thank him from all of us
who owe him so much. Once again, Vince Dutton, we thank you.
Michael R. Kerr