By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
Some of my favorite memories include Mayfest, a fundraising event that was put on by the New Braunfels Volunteer Fire Department beginning in early 20th century. The early versions of the day-long event included parades, picnics in Landa Park, foot races, sack races and pumper races. The celebrations that I remember featured barbeque dinners, pumper races and dances in the evening. The pumper races were my favorite. I loved the tight knit crews, the excitement of the race and the rush to push water, all skills they used in fighting a fire. Never seen a pumper race?
Let me explain.
In 1886, the growing city of New Braunfels took steps to acquire their first fire-fighting equipment — a hose reel cart and hook and ladder cart. About that time the New Braunfels Volunteer Fire Department was formed. Forty interested men showed up for the first meeting. They were divided into three companies, two hose reel companies and one hook & ladder company. These equipment carts were big-wheeled carts that required the stamina and strength of several men to pull it from one end of town to the other to get to a fire — not pulled by horses, but by people. There was a lot of running: to the fire cart station, to the fire pulling the hose cart, back to the station to return the equipment for next use. To say the least, it was very physically challenging. Think Camp Gladiator, but in real life.
For more than 25 years, firemen actually ran, pulling the equipment carts to fight any fire. It was not until 1913 that a fire truck was purchased, but the entire city was still protected by an all-volunteer department. By 1918, the city finally had a real fire station and the first paid firemen. Training was required to develop skill and accuracy. Out of this training came the natural competition between companies to be the best and a race was born. The races are a type of recreational competition among the firefighter teams involving timed completion of tasks related to or simulating common firefighting activities. Races test for speed, strength, dexterity, and teamwork. New Braunfels teams and individuals competed in both hose reel races and pumper races. The hose reel race had eight to eleven men pulling the cart down a track, drilling a wooden water pipe, getting water and returning the cart to the original position.
The pumper race is more detailed. There are a lot of moving parts. First of all, a “pumper” is a fire apparatus (truck) with a large tank and the capability to pump water at high pressure on to a fire. A pumper race is a timed 6-man race. Before the start, with all hands in the air, there are two men seated in the cab, one man standing on the truck rail on each side of the truck, and two on the back bumper of the truck. The starter pistol fires. The men on back grab the hose and nozzle, running to the 100-foot line, where they attach the nozzle. The two on the passenger side wait for the end of the fully extended hose to come off of the truck, break the coupling and attach it to the side of the truck. The two men on the driver’s side grab the big black suction hose off of the side of the truck, attaching one end to the truck and one end to the hydrant. Once attached, they immediately begin turning the wrench to open the hydrant full blast. All of that happens in anywhere from 16 to 20 seconds, without busting a connection. There was also an individual version of the race. What prizes did the winners take home? Pride! The races were friendly rivalries between hose companies. Their goal was to be the best team with the fastest time without a busted connection. They got to hold that title until the next big event.
New Braunfels Volunteer Fire Department was a member of the Texas State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association organized in 1876. It held annual statewide and district conventions to keep volunteer departments up to date. They also made the convention more interesting by inviting volunteer departments to bring their race teams for competitions at the district and state levels. State level competitions offered cash prizes to the top three winners. New Braunfels hosted the 41st convention in 1916. The first known photograph of a competitive race team from New Braunfels was in 1920. The 1934 race team won the State Championship.
In 1962, the Ladies Auxiliary was formed. Chief Zipp’s wife was actively involved in the Fire Marshal’s Association and promoted the Auxiliary locally. It was sometime in the ’70s that the Ladies began practicing as a six-person race team. I practiced with them, but never competed. In the ’80s, the Ladies’ team seemed to get some traction with members like Betty Doeppenschmidt, Earlene Klabunde, Teresa Haag and Geraldine Wesch. They were very competitive. They even created their own competition uniforms and custom patch. Again, they competed for pride.
The New Braunfels Volunteer Fire Department grew to 60 members, never more than that. There were four companies of 15 men. They were selective and members had to be voted in. In 1925, there were three paid city firemen. By 1958, the number grew to thirteen paid men. The Volunteers were instrumental in keeping the community safe and rescuing many during the flood of 1972. The Volunteer Fire Department finally was disbanded in 1996. The Texas State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association is still one of the oldest and largest fire associations serving fire and emergency responders of Texas. Pumper races were not held at convention in 2020 nor will they be held in 2021, but are scheduled to return again in 2022. If you know a fire or emergency responder, thank them for what they do every single day.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Reflections; Roger Brinkkoeter; Darren Brinkkoeter; Earlene Klabunde; Teresa Haag; New Braunfels Fire Museum.