Seventy-five years and going strong, the Bridgewater Volunteer Fire Department has proven to be a crucial bond for a small community.

Fathers bring their sons, brother-in-laws bring brother-in-laws to join the department, which now boasts about 50 members.

"It's a brotherhood, a big family," said Neil Cable, a past chief show now serves as department president. "We can argue about what truck to buy and such but when somebody needs help, we're there."

When trouble brewed in 2012, residents rallied around in support.

Then Chief Justin Planz stepped down that July amid accusations Bridgewater Country Fair raffle chairman Bill Stuart, also the town's first selectman, had mismanaged the raffle.

A state audit of the raffle cleared Stuart's name in March but more than that, the community stood fast -- both volunteers and residents -- in support of the department.

"There has not been a single negative phone call, no one in town has approached me with questions or concerns," said current Chief Eric Gsell.

Seventy-five years ago, a meeting was called at Bridgewater Town Hall to discuss starting a fire department.

Lynn Deming, the chief of Water Witch Hose Co. No. 2 in New Milford, attended and explained how a volunteer department could be formed.

James Sullivan Sr. became the first chief.

G. Douglas Johnson served as secretary and William Curtis as treasurer.

The fire department was incorporated April 10, 1939 and a full slate of officers was elected.

Sullivan remained chief for the next 10 years.

In September, 1939, Daniel M. Warner and his brother donated a parcel of land to build a firehouse. Edward Tschauder was in charge of construction of the wood-frame building that stands next to the present fire house along Route 133.

The current fire station's groundbreaking took place in September 1966, with First Selectman G. Douglas Johnson and fire Chief Frank Colburn placing the first shovels into the ground.

Today, Jim Stuart, 77, is the longest serving member in the volunteer department.

"I remember when the department bought the Model A truck from Kent for $800," said Stuart, who was a boy at the time.

"They kept it in Mrs. Lynch's garage and put a wood stove in to keep warm in the winter."

The fire siren during those early years, installed on a pole near the Bridgewater store, was sounded from the store.

"Don Gowan would run out of the store, jump in any car that had keys in it and drive to the truck," recalled Jim Stuart.

He also remembered watching the truck being pushed to get it started when the battery was low. At that time, Stuart was a boy attending Burnham School.

Bridgewater Volunteer Fire Department's first fundraising effort in 1938 brought in $500.

It remains a self-funding fire department to this day, with the bulk of its financing coming since the early 1950s from the Bridgewater Country Fair.

Jim Stuart remembers the fair's beginnings.

His mother, Helen Stuart, and fire Chief Chet Boyd started a small carnival on the grounds by town hall.

That was 62 years ago.

"We used to make the hamburgers on Friday night for Saturday," Stuart recalled. "They only had the carnival one night."

Since that humble beginning, the Bridgewater Country Fair, now held on the fields adjacent to the firehouse, draws tens of thousands during its three-day run each August.

Fire response has changed tremendously since those early days.

Younger members of the department like Gsell -- a 10-year member ­-- and Jaime Sullivan -- a 29-year member -- had to attain state certification on joining.

"The old guys taught the young guys what to do until about the 1960s," Jim Stuart recalled. "In the 1970s, it started that everyone had to be certified and trained at fire school."

Sam Smith, a 39-year department member, remembers when volunteers had rubber rain coats, a pair of leather gloves and an old plastic hat for gear.

He marvels it now costs about $1,500 for a set of gear.

"Our biggest fires were fought responding with mutual aid to New Milford," Smith noted. "But we were always going up to Golden Harvest farm here in town to put out fires started from the green hay they stored."

The first big fire the fledgling department responded to was Sept. 27, 1939.

Called to Hilltop Farm at 3:55 a.m., firefighters found the large cow barn burning out of control, G. Douglas Johnson wrote in an early history of the department.

"On arrival, the flames were beyond control, and we concentrated our efforts on saving the inn, which was just across a narrow road," Johnson wrote.

"The Water Witch Hose Co. aided us in this successful endeavor."

For more photos, visit www.newmilfordspectrum.com.

Photography courtesy of the Bridgewater Volunteer Fire Department