TOWNSEND — When James Misner joined the Townsend Fire Department in 1962, he already knew his way around a firehouse. Today, at 72, Misner is an active, paid-call firefighter, the department’s eldest and longest-serving member. And he has an even longer history at the Harbor station. Growing up in the 1950s, he was one of the “big strong kids” who helped out at the station where his father, Cedric Misner, was steward.
During a recent interview, Misner shared his experiences and recalled the department as it was 45 years ago, when the fire truck at the Harbor station was a “Diamond T 550 pumper,” Misner said. Training was in-house and on the road, not high-tech, but effective, he said. Firefighters-in-training learned where everything was stowed on board the truck and how each piece of equipment was used. “We learned pumping, hose handling in those days the policy was, take the hose to the door, just in case,” he said.
Then-Captain Peter Collins used to drill his students using an easel, he said. When they were ready to drive, the course was always the same. “If you could drive it up ‘letter-S’ hill on South Harbor Road, you were a qualified driver,” Misner said.
Then, as now, fighters talked to kids in town about fire safety. “We tried to develop a rapport ” he said. One point they tried to get across was that setting off a fire alarm as a prank wasn’t funny. “We’d tell them that while we’re at a false alarm, other people may really need our help,” he said.
He said young people riding dirt bikes around at the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp would accidentally set off fires in the dry season and “controlled burns” were standard practice back then to reduce the hazard, both there and in other open fields around town. Firefighters would burn the brush as a preventative measure, but the state has since ended that practice because of air pollution. “We used to do that, though, get rid of the undergrowth it was always controlled, we walked the perimeter.” he said.
Although the mission is the same, today’s department has grown new roots and there have been some changes along the way, such as the call-out signal.
“They used to blow the whistle at Fessenden’s mill when there was a fire,” Misner said. Then, an alarm center was set up at Cy Law’s store. “The town got together and paid him to run it,” he said. For a time, the center was at Town Hall. “The reception was better there,” he said. Now, the fire alarms sound from the communication center on Brookline Street, in the public safety building that houses the police station.
Tones from various call boxes still tell firefighters at the town’s three stations which calls to respond to. At home, his wife, Barbara “Bobby” Misner, uses a simpler method to track the calls and, in some cases, her husband’s whereabouts. It’s a red book with town street listings that she calls her Bible, he said. “When an alarm goes off, she checks to see where it is.”
Misner is lead night custodian at North Middlesex Regional High School and works the 3-to-11 shift. He can no longer respond to fire calls around the clock, as he once did, but if the call comes during the day or on a weekend, he’s there, geared up and ready. His gear is “over there,” he said, heaped on the floor midway between his chair and the back door.
When he started his firefighting career, Misner worked at Harvey’s, now Lakeview Nursery, a long-time area landscaping business where he worked for more than 40 years. One of his favorite stops was the Williams house in West Townsend.
Elsa Williams ran her businesses there: Needlecraft House, the Williams Manufacturing Company and the Elsa Williams School of Needlework. Misner said she once made a specialty craft item for the White House and always served her landscaping crews cookies and “buckets of iced tea.”
Once, there was a fire at the venerable brick building once known as the Homer house and the former Ronchen Inn. The family had left for the airport and Mrs. Williams had accidentally left a chicken on the stove. Grease fueled the fire. “The house was full of antiques,” Misner said. Else Williams directed firefighters to those she valued most. “She was a woman who knew what she wanted,” he said. “We managed to save 90 percent of the antiques.”
The landscaping job honed his green thumb, but the skill runs in the family. “My dad had a garden,” said Misner, whose way with plants is evident in the flowers, shrubs and groomed greenery around his home, a neat ranch he built himself with the help of family members. Once, there was a fire in this house, too.
It happened when his son Kevin was about 4. “He said he smelled hot dogs,” Misner said. “The cellar stairs were on fire,” A new fridge, improperly wired, had started the fire which caused “lots of smoke damage” but not much structural loss. Thanks to electrical knowledge from a vocational school education at Fitchburg High, Misner knew just where to cut wires that had fused inside the wall. “We had to rewire the furnace,” he said.
It wasn’t a singular incident. Of the crews he’s worked with, about a third have had “some kind of house fire,” Misner said. Former fire chief Bill Greenough, for example, was one such victim.
On a very cold night many years ago, Greenough and his wife, sitting by the fireplace, noticed a “glow” in the mantle. A fire had started in the chimney, which had a break in its bricks. The fire went “straight up to the roof,” Misner said, and he remembers that night vividly. “It was 20 below and there we were fighting a fire at the chief’s house,” he said. The roof overhang was frozen; there was ice all around the house. Only two of the eight rooms were destroyed and the house survived.
The biggest fire on his watch was at the Prescott Hotel in Pepperell, which started in a bar downstairs. “The smoke was thick 150 feet away,” he said. The fire burned so hot it melted plastic on the fire trucks. “Our job was to keep it from spreading,” he said. When it was over, only the chimney was left standing. “It was one big torch,” he said. “People lived there, too.”
He also recalls a fatal fire at an apartment complex off Route 13. “A guy on the third floor was taking a motorcycle apart, using gas to clean parts,” Misner said. It was one of only two direct fire fatalities in town, he said. An elderly woman rescued from a fire on Bayberry Hill Road later died, but not during the fire. Former fire chief “Don Hurme did that rescue his helmet’s on display,” Misner said.
Another part of a firefighter’s job is responding to motor vehicle accidents, and he’s seen some tragic ones, he said, including fatal crashes on Route 119 and Brookline Street not far from his home. Firefighters at an accident scene secure the site and get the air bags and hydraulic lifts that allow EMTs to get to victims, he said. The department has a “jaws of life” machine and he knows how to use it but never has, he said.
True to his calling, Misner takes pride in the department’s equipment, including three main fire engines along with rescue and forestry trucks. Because Townsend is home to a state forest, a government grant helped buy a trailer and four-wheel drive vehicle to get into the woods, he said. But he still has a soft spot for the past. A vintage photo given to his mother as a gift shows his father and other members of the crew at the old harbor station with a “big Mac” fire truck. That old truck held 500 gallons of water, he said, while the new one the department just acquired holds 1,000 gallons and has all the high-tech bells and whistles modern-day regulations call for, he said.
Misner has lived in town all his life while his wife came from a town near the Vermont border. The couple corresponded while he was in the Army and married in 1960. They met through her brother, who was in the same company. Misner was in the service from 1958 to 1960 and served in Hawaii. “I lost my overseas pay when Hawaii became a state,” he said. The grand sum of $87 a month went down a notch.
Jim and Bobbi Misner brought up four children. Now they have 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, shown in pictures displayed all over the house. Today, Bobbi takes care of 3-month-old great-granddaughter MacKenzy while her parents work.
Chatting with a reporter in the spacious new first-floor addition they recently added, Misner mingled firefighting stories with family lore, spoke of folks he’s worked with and cited a host of familiar faces and places in town.
In the early days, he said, firefighters at each station voted for members and elected their own officers, he said. Misner was a second, then a first lieutenant, before rules for promotion changed and demands of rank got more technical. With his job, and at 72, “I haven’t got the hours” for the fire academy. “I’m just a firefighter now,” he said.
That “just” doesn’t do justice to Misner’s long, diligent and dedicated service to the town. Not only does he respond to fire calls on his watch, he faithfully attends events to honor other firefighters and was among those who turned out for the funeral of a deceased member of the department, Captain William “Billy” Hamilton.”
When the new Harbor station was dedicated, Misner carried the American flag from the old Harbor station to its new home and, with former assistant chief Stephen Richards, raised the flag on the new pole. “As the oldest member, I had that honor,” he said. He’s also attended the Nashoba Publishing Extraordinary Service Awards for several years.
This year, James Misner is himself the Extraordinary Service Award recipient, nominated by Fire Chief Donald Klein. By all accounts, it’s an honor well-deserved.