Taft Volunteer Fire Department
Taft was facing a major problem in the 50’s; many of its buildings made of longleaf yellow pine and cypress and being 30-40 years old, were burning at an alarming rate. The landscape was doted with burned out buildings, residents had to relay on the Pine Castle Volunteer Fire Department for service and response time was causing many buildings to be lost. It became apparent to the local citizens that something had to be done and once again they showed their initiative
In 1958 the citizens of Taft successfully petitioned Orange County Commission for the creation of the Taft Fire Department tax district. Its boundaries were large geographically; Sand Lake Road to the north, the Osceola/Orange County line to the south, Narcoosee Road to the east (excluding McCoy Air Force base), and the approximate area of Interstate 4 to the west, but with the exception of Taft, it was sparsely populated.
The original members of the volunteer department included: Nathan Weagraff, C.W. Hammock, H.L. Britt, William Reynolds, R.A. Cuykendall, Carl Holiday, and William Hodges. The department received its charter on May 21 1959; C.W. Hammock served as the first president with W.L. Britt vice-president. The constitution of the Department reflected their mission statement; “ The object of this organization shall be to protect life and property, prevent and extinguish fires, perpetuate and maintain the traditions of volunteer fireman and mutually further the moral, social, and intellectual improvement of members.” Their first fire truck, donated by the Pine Hills Fire Department was an open cab 1944 military surplus International with a four-stage high-pressure Beam pump. The Taft Department would later pass this truck on to the Narcoosee Fire Department. The second engine acquired by the department was a 1940 International and featured a front mount pump. This unit required a lot of work, when it was obtained the volunteers had to rebuild and refurbish it to make it a serviceable vehicle. Later an ambulance was also added to the fleet. The tax base had increased significantly in 1962 and this allowed for the purchase of the department’s first new truck, an International Fire Engine with a very important feature, considering the rural area it would be used in, four-wheel drive. The men at the station affectingly dubbed it “Baby Doll” and they would enter it in contests.1968 saw the department adding a Ward LaFrance fire engine.
Before the station was built, volunteers would listen for blasts from the siren located at the post office. One blast for a drill, two blasts for the ambulance and three for a fire. The fireman would wait for the truck to come by and get them at their homes. After the station was built they would report there. The station itself was finished in 1959 with most of the work done by local citizens. It contained a deep well for filling of the fire engine booster tanks. Until 1964, Taft had no fire hydrants and the firefighters had to bring there own water with them. Residents would dial 855-2001 to report a fire and the phone would ring at Maxie’s grocery as well at Chief Weagraff’s house. Besides responding to local fires and ambulance calls, the department also provided assistance to neighboring areas.
The volunteers received little formal training other than Red Cross first aid; they would meet on Thursdays to refine their skills, and occasionally practiced on old buildings. Their personal equipment, including their bunker gear and uniforms, was either donated or purchased by the individual. The fireman worked hard but they also had fun. The county held a competition each year for the departments and Taft always represented itself well at this “Field Day”.
“KBZ423” was the call number for the Taft Volunteer Fire Department. That number also represented a commitment by a community to take care of itself. The department numbered 20 in its heydays and never had a problem finding volunteers; some families had more than one member. It had father and son duos: Nat and “Huck” Weagraff, Pep and Mike Replogle, Earl and David Pugh as well as the Harkey, Lyons, Mullins, Walkers, Calhouns, Murkes, Dominy, Holliday, Brown and Jopling brothers. The minimum age to join the department was 16; several local boys joined the ranks of volunteers and later became full time firefighters. Included in this group are Bill Brown, David Harrington, Bill Chapman, John Tyson, Mike Lyons, Tom Lyons, Tom Harley, Robert Jopling, Richard Jopling, John Wells Jim Melson, Alan Parson, Pete Thomas, Mike Replogle, Wes Medlock, Ron Dominy, Henry “Butch” Moore, Don ”Huck” Weagraff, George and Terry Mullins.
New Orange County guidelines in 1968 required the department to become a mix of volunteers and Orange County firefighters, and it 1981 it became all Orange County employees. The Taft Volunteer Fire Department is no more, but the spirit of those original volunteers lives on in the community. When asked why they had joined the department the early firefighter all had the same response, “to help the community.”