In 1894, the Montgomery County legislature enacted a bill that created a municipal corporation titled “Mayor and Council of Kensington.” The community had incorporated in order to deal with issues that had arisen as a result of rapid development. There were no paved roads, and the dirt roads frequently turned to mud. There was no water system; water was acquired from wells, with a couple of small private water supply systems providing water to a few neighborhood attic tanks. There was no public sewer system, no electricity, and no fire department.
On October 26, 1899 a large fire was discovered around 6:00 AM. The bell at St. Paul’s M. E. Church was vigorously rung to alert the town citizens to the disaster. There was little that could be done however, and the fire destroyed the Montgomery Press office and the Town Hall. Realizing that the town needed protection from fire, the citizens met that night at the town library. Mr. Leslie W. Maxson was elected chief of the Kensington Fire Company and was instructed to organize a fire company immediately.
Over time, the Town acquired firefighting equipment and appointed members to the volunteer fire department. A hand drawn hose reel and pump were acquired, along with other equipment. The department needed a home to store this equipment, and based on anecdotal information it is believed that the first firehouse was a garage that was located at the corner of old Connecticut Avenue(now Armory Avenue) and the county maintained Bethesda-Wheaton Road (now Howard Avenue), across the Street from the current gas station.
Due to the rather primitive conditions that existed at the time, the fire department had to endure many hardships in carrying out its operations. A good example of this was the fire at the Hodges residence at Kent Street and Carroll Place. The fire occurred in early winter, and it had rained recently, turning the streets to mud. When the volunteers arrived at the firehouse, they discovered that mud had seeped in under the doors and frozen around the spokes of their chemical unit; the unit was frozen to the ground. As a result, the Hodges home was lost.
In 1916, the Town acquired the old schoolhouse at the southeast corner of old Connecticut Avenue and Mitchell Street. The fire department was moved to new quarters in the basement of this building. Other parts of the building were used as an armory and a movie house. In 1918, after World War I, Eugene J.C. Raney became active with the volunteer fire company. He organized a fireman’s club for the benefit of the volunteer firefighters. The club used the quarters at the old school building, and pool tables and card tables were acquired for the club members to use.
Shortly after this the old schoolhouse caught fire. The Mayor at the time refused to allow the volunteer firefighters to plug into the water system to put out the fire, wishing to hold the water in reserve in case nearby houses caught fire. The D.C. Fire Department responded, but little could be done due to the poor water supply.
Many of the volunteer firefighters were angered by the Mayor’s decision not to try and save the old schoolhouse. Some felt the Mayor and Council wanted it to burn down. The fire department moved to new temporary quarters in a garage owned by Porter McKeever, which is now the site of the St. Paul’s Methodist Church rectory. The Town received insurance money for the loss of the schoolhouse. This was eventually used to purchase a 1922 Ford truck with a Waterous pump, only the second piece of motorized fire apparatus in the County.
Friction between the volunteer firefighters and the town government continued. The Town owned the fire truck, and appointed the Fire Marshall, who was in essence the chief of the department. The volunteers wished to train with the truck, and a plan was agreed on with the Council that the Fireman’s Club members could train once a week on the truck under the supervision of the Fire Marshall.
The use of the fire truck for training was not the only issue the volunteers had with the Town government. Another issue was the use of the truck outside of the town limits. The firefighters were not able to take the truck outside of city limits unless they had special orders from the mayor. They would not be able to respond to a fire in Garrett Park, for example, unless the Mayor approved it. Many of the volunteers felt this was not right and that it left their friends and neighbors outside of the city unprotected.
For these reasons, in 1922 Eugene Raney decided to break away from the town and create a separate fire company. Many of the men agreed and joined Raney. This was the birth of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department. The new company found a home in a barn at the rear of Hopkins farm, located where the M&T Bank drive-in currently sits. The town at first refused to recognize the new fire company, and several labeled the members big shots and roughnecks.
With little money, the new company went about purchasing apparatus. A Dodge truck was purchased from Reed Brothers in Rockville. A fire body was then put on the truck by Jacobs Brothers in Gaithersburg. To raise money, the volunteers held carnivals. Relations with the Town Council slowly improved and the department was officially recognized. The Fire Department incorporated in 1925, and two years later moved into a permanent home in the basement of the National Guard Armory.
Over time the Fire Department outgrew its quarters. Relations with the Armory Board were acrimonious at times, and the Department wanted a home they could call their own. After years of planning and saving property was purchased at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Bladensburg Road (now Connecticut Avenue and Plyers Mill Road) for the construction of a fire station. The cornerstone to the new firehouse was laid in 1946.
The fire department wasn’t the only thing that was growing. The postwar boom was causing the surrounding areas to grow. It was recognized that a fire station was needed in the vicinity of Wheaton. After initially looking at property on Georgia Avenue and Weisman Avenue the Department decided to construct a station at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road. This station opened in 1953 and had an ambulance and a fire engine.
Another area that was growing was the Veirs Mill Village area. One of the neighborhood associations requested that a study of the fire protection needs be done and a fire station be opened to protect their communities. In 1956 the Department began service in the area by dispatching a fire truck from the home of a member who lived on Colin Road. Service was provided in this fashion until a temporary station was constructed by Department members at the corner of Randolph Road and Dewey Road. An ambulance and engine were operated from this location until a permanent firehouse was built in 1962 at the corner of Veirs Mill Road and Gaynor Road.
As the County continued to grow it was determined that a fourth station needed to be opened to serve the area around Aspen Hill. A station was built at 14111 Georgia Avenue and was opened on February 20, 1978. The rapid development of the Aspen Hill area, especially the Leisure World retirement community, placed increasing demands on the station, and a larger station was built at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Bel Pre Road.
110 years after its humble start the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department, through the effort of its members, continues to serve and protect the communities that surround it. It is this effort that will continue to carry the Department as it moves on through the next 100 years.