BURRILLVILLE – Edward Bertholic was just a young firefighter, new to the job when the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department held its very first muster.
Times were different then. Departments across New England held the annual events – a chance for firefighters and their families to gather with members of the community for food, raffles, and some friendly competition.
An association united the different teams, bringing all who competed together for a banquet to recognize the victors.
“We used to go to a muster every Sunday,” Bertholic, now the department’s Chief Emeritus, told NRI NOW. “I don’t know of any annual musters anymore in Rhode Island.”
The village event was created in answer to fundraising carnivals that were common at the time, where organizers traditionally gave away a car as a raffle prize.
“They weren’t making money,” Bertholic explained. “They decided to go in a different direction.”
“People came out,” he added.
In the village, the muster was originally only open to teams from within the town of Burrillville, and it took place on the asphalt road right in front of the station. Eventually the event was opened up to teams from across the tri-state area, and it moved into field across the road.
Steamers, Bertholic said, were always on the menu.
“We used to get up at 5 in the morning and cook them on the rocks,” said Bertholic.
“It used to be more of a family event for the firefighters,” noted Bertholic’s son, Joseph Bertholic, who now serves as the department’s chief. “Usually ours was the last of the season.”
In the mid to late 80s, more than 20 teams would show up to participate, and competitions would go until 6 at night.
While there have been small changes over the years, organizers say that as the muster approaches its 60th year, the event is pretty much the same as it was in 1959. The muster serves as the primary fundraiser for the social part of the department, allowing the group to do things like sponsor little league teams, buy dress uniforms and give to charities.
For those who have never been to a muster, the younger Bertholic explained: the event includes three competitions, where participants mimic the scene of a real fire, and aim to respond the fastest, while also doing it right.
The department puts out a fake fire hydrant, and a team of six races to connect a hose and get into position.
“Each person has a certain job, just like on the fire ground,” said the chief.
Judges check that the connections are tight, and if they’re not, the team gets penalized.
In the second competition, teams do the same thing with a wet hose.
The third competition at Oakland Mapleville is known as the “mystery event,” and changes year to year.
“It’s usually a mystery to us until the day of the event,” the chief said.
Variations include a bucket brigade, reverse hose, and a “bed race,” where participants must jump from a cot and get into full gear before completing the task. Last year, firefighters were asked to pull a hose from a 55-gallon drum.
“It’s just something to make it different and interesting,” Chief Bertholic said.
Around 20 years ago, OMFD added a parade to the event and since then, antique and privately-owned fire trucks drive through the village announcing the start of the muster.
One year, the event even went on through a major storm.
“I think the worst one we had was that year,” said the elder Bertholic. “It rained so hard. Everyone kept saying ‘it’s going to dry up,’ and it didn’t.”
At the end-of-year banquets, OMFD did well. For many years, the department held the title for fastest completion at 12 seconds, a record that the firefighters say may still stand.
Participation in the muster has decreased over the years, but one way or another, the show always goes on in the village. In past years, when only two teams showed up, the local crew has rallied to create a third.
“I think that’s the same with other fire departments due to the decrease with volunteering in general,” said the chief.
As the district approached their 50th muster, an event that coincided with the department’s 75th anniversary, attendance was down. In response, the organizers increased the prizes given out in their popular raffle from $600 to $1,000.
It worked, and attendance has stayed strong.
“We’ve always had people from the community back us,” said Joseph. “A lot of it is, the people support us. We get a pretty good crowd for a small village.”
In 2019, the muster will include local vendors, a beer booth and games for kids. Anyone is welcome at no charge, and debit cards are now accepted for food, with a menu of chowder, clam cakes, fried doughboys and more.
Raffle tickets are sold for $1 a piece both before and at the event. Only 3,500 tickets are printed, with one $500, one $200 two $100 and two $50 prizes handed out.
As the former and current chief reflected on the event’s 60 year history, they noted that it not only brings the department together, but helps to build a relationship with the community.
“It brings the community out to see us,” said the chief. “We want to put an event for the public to see.”
The Oakland Mapleville Fire Department’s 60th annual Field Day & Muster will take place on Sunday, Sept. 1, with a parade starting at 11 a.m. at the Oakland Triangle and the muster immediately to follow.