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SHARPSBURG — In 1959, Marvin Robbins heard the fire siren go off in the early morning and responded to the Mill Branch Primitive Baptist Church where the chimney was on fire.
“The fire wasn’t getting out like I thought it ought to, so I went out there,” said Robbins, who had just returned from a four-year stint in the Air Force as a radar operator in Alaska.
“As soon as they found out I was back, they put me in the fire department that night without application,” said Robbins, 82, a native of Wilson County. “They had been after me for years to join the fire department and after high school I went into the service.”
Robbins, a 1955 graduate of Elm City High School, just retired after serving 60 years and seven days in the Sharpsburg Fire Department, off and on as its chief.
He will be celebrated at a Nov. 2 get-together at the firehouse when family, friends and fellow firefighters see Robbins off and thank him for his decades of service.
For his career Robbins farmed, worked in textiles and performed line work for Rigby Electric Supply Co.
“I had to retire from Rigby when I was 80 because insurance wouldn’t cover me for driving the big truck,” Robbins said.
Robbins had been driving a fire truck until two months ago when he developed circulatory issues in his legs.
When Robbins joined the fire department, it was in its infancy, with about 20 volunteers.
“Back in those days, we didn’t have radios,” Robbins said. “We didn’t even have telephones down here in those days.”
Robbins said if someone’s house or business caught on fire, witnesses had to run or drive to Barkley’s grocery store where there was a siren mounted on the roof.
“They had to mash the button for the siren to go off,” Robbins said. “Then they had to stay there until somebody came there from the fire department to tell them where it was at.”
Somebody had to stay at the grocery the whole time to tell the arriving firemen where to go to fight the fire.
“When I got in, the department didn’t even have records like they should,” Robbins said. “I was made the treasurer and the secretary. They didn’t even have a ledger. So I started bookkeeping in 1959 when I got in.”
“I was in it before we even had ambulances,” Robbins added. “I was the ambulance.”
Robbins carried many automobile wreck victims to the hospital in his personal vehicle.
In 1963, the Sharpsburg Fire Prevention Association Inc. was established, which eventually became the Sharpsburg Fire Department.
“I was the fourth chief of the fire department,” Robbins said. “I have been chief back and forth. I didn’t want to stay chief all the time. I would keep it a couple of years and then tell them I didn’t want to keep it anymore.”
In all those years, he said the department has been fortunate that no firefighters ever lost their life in a blaze.
“I have thrown somebody out the window that couldn’t get out,” Robbins said. “It was my best buddy, Don Davis.”
The department had arrived on the scene of a house fire and Robbins, who was chief at the time, issued the order that no firefighters were to go in the burning home until they had put on their self-contained breathing apparatus.
“I turned around and he was gone. I asked the boys, ‘Where did Don go?’ They said he went in the house. I went in behind him and he was already out on the floor,” Robbins said.
Robbins raised a window, lifted the unconscious firefighter off the floor and threw him outside onto the ground.
Davis made a full recovery.
“We have been very lucky,” Robbins said.
Robbins said firefighting is dangerous work.
“Any way you go at it, it is that,” Robbins said. “But I’ve enjoyed it.”
Robbins said one of his biggest concerns is folks not giving fire engines the right of way
“The biggest thing is if the people in town would just respect the firetrucks,” Robbins said. “If they see one, get out of the way. If they see one coming, if there is any way to get off the road, get off of the road. Give him the road, because he has got his hands full.”
Over the years, Robbins has collected all kinds of items affiliated with firefighting, from model firetrucks to old hose nozzles, outdated firefighting gear, just anything to do with being a firefighter.
“That’s an old fire extinguisher back yonder. That’s an Indian tank there, that’s for forest fires. That’s what the forestry service uses. That there is my hat when I was chief. That’s some old turnout gear. I just started picking it up years ago, here and there,” Robbins said. “I get catalogs every month.”
Among the items are plaques awarded to Robbins for placing first in a pump test, recognition of being fireman of the month and many noting his years of service.
Robbins has a metal bar with FDNY on it. Robbins picked it up after Sept. 11, 2001.
Like all firefighters, Robbins was profoundly affected the day when 343 firefighters lost their lives in New York.
“I didn’t have time to think because we were trying to collect money for them,” Robbins said. “We stopped traffic at the stoplight and collected money to send up there.”
Robbins, who plans to celebrate his 60th anniversary with wife Annette in January, said leaving the department is bittersweet.
“When you get a certain age, you’ve got to step aside. I’ve been letting the young boys go a long time. I don’t want to get in the way,” Robbins said. “I want them to get in there and get their feet on the ground. If the old ones keep control of all of it, how are the younger ones going to learn anything?”
Robbins said he’ll continue to help cooking chicken and pork meals for fire department functions like he has for decades. He just won’t be going out on calls behind the wheel of an engine.
“They’ll keep me for backup,” Robbins said.