Schiebel Bros., a machine shop and wholesale automotive parts distributing outfit located at 8 Proctor Rd.,
probably has more volunteer foremen per square foot than any place else in town, outside of a firehouse on a
Of the 10 men working there, four, including partners Al Schiebel and Elmore "Binky" Hohenthal, are volunteers. Al and Binky, along with Kenneth Smith, are members of Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 located at the corner of Pine Street and Hartford Road., while Fred Smith, Ken's brother, is a North End firefighter.
Together, the four have piled up an accumulated 85 years of firefighting service -- the partners each have 25 years, Ken Smith 23 and Fred Smith a mere 12 -- and in those years have sped to uncounted thousands of grass fires, brush fires, oil burner fires, car fires and house fires.
With so many firemen operating out of Schiebel's -- and answering alarms sent in to the shop's own fire alarm
bell, at that,-- the place has become known, in the South End's four-company district, as Company No. 5.
The bell was installed in the shop when the business moved there in 1930 and routs out one or two or sometimes all the members of "Company No. 5" whenever Company No. 1 is called out.
Since dashing off to fires in this manner can mean dropping work in the machine shop or interrupting a sale that is being made or an order being given, the orderly, hum-drum transaction of business, taken for granted elsewhere, cannot be guaranteed on a day-to-day basis at Schiebel's. Binky ruefully admits that "customers don't like it."
"But, after all," he says, "it's a fire, and we do try to leave somebody here, either Al or myself."
It wasn't always this way. A few years ago, it was worse. Then, the late Harold Maher and Philip Hunt, brother of South Manchester Fire District Fire Commissioner George Hunt, worked there. Maher, who was employed as a book-keeper, was outside fire marshal and foreman of Company No. 2 until his death two years ago, and Hunt, who left Schiebel's in May, is a Company No. 1 volunteer.
A few years ago, then, instead of only four men dashing past startled customers and out the door at the sound of the alarm bell signaling a big fire somewhere, there were six, like the time an oil-fed fire swept through the Garrity Bros. garage, defying for hours the efforts of practically every South End fireman to put it out; or the time a fire raged in the Green Manor Estates lumber yard and threatened nearby homes.
In the garage fire, only the cellar was left, but the blaze in the lumber yard, which was situated near the dividing line of the two districts and attracted both the SMFD and the Manchester Fire Department, was brought under control soon enough to permit considerable salvage.
Schiebel's alarm bell, which is located over a side door in the shop and is able to send a good percentage of
help scurrying at any time, was installed in accordance with a custom now dying out, of placing such bells in
the homes of volunteers.
It is hooked up to Company No. 1's fire-alarm system, and the box alarms are received there the same as they are at the firehouse.
The bell also serves to notify Schiebel's of still alarms, for whenever still alarms are phoned in to No. 1, Frank Robinson, assistant fire-alarm superintendant, will pull the switch ringing the bell on Proctor Road to notify the company's three volunteers that their outfit is on its way to a fire.
The men at Schiebel's then just phoned headquarters or some other company to find out where the fire is located and take off.
Since most volunteers these days don't have bells in their homes, the men at Schiebel's are sometimes the only ones to get word of a still alarm and, Binky says, there are some times when Schiebel's three volunteers and the driver of a truck make up almost the whole complement of firefighters at a fire.
Al Schiebel and Binky Hohenthal and Ken and Fred Smith became volunteer firemen for pretty much the same reason as anyone else. They like the social, club-like atmosphere that attaches to a volunteer company -- the card games in the firehouse, the bowling tournaments in the house's own alleys and the billiard games in the house's billiard room.
And there is another reason. Binky, whose father, the late Emil Louis Hohenthal, Sr., was for many years a fire commissioner and whose brother, Emil Louis Hohenthal, Jr., is also a former commissioner as well as a present member and past captain of No. 1 and who, therefore, has something of a tradition behind him, puts it this way: "I like chasing fires."