Chief James Richard Meers
James Richard Meers was a longtime fireman in Waco. The photo above shows him at enter atop Fire Engine #5 at the old firehouse location of 1716 Clay Avenue. He began as a volunteer with the Waco Rescue Hook & Ladder Company in 1892 when he was just fifteen years old. Fifteen years later, he was working as a fireman when he answered the call to battle a fire downtown on the Square. That battle was lost and the fire took our once nationally famous Masonic Temple, the Downs Building.
Meers eventually served as the first paid fire chief of the Waco Fire Department from 1917 to 1945. . Some of his interview is below:
"The first volunteer fire department in Waco was organized April 2, 1873; and was known as the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. Colonel Wiley Jones was the chief. "I first joined up as a volunteer in 1892, and after serving several months, I went on the night shift for three years and eight months. The night shift was two men who were paid to be on hand for night alarms. I went on as extra man August 7, 1896, at $30.00 a month. The only paid men were the engineer, who received $75 a month; the driver of the engine, $65; and the drivers of the hose cart and the hook and ladder, each $60. The extra men took the places of these men when necessary and if they acted in the place of any of the drivers, they received double pay, or $60 for the month in which they did the work. I went on regular in 1898. I became chief of the department April 21, 1917, succeeding Ed. Buerle. "One night in the spring of 1892, after I had joined as volunteer, I was visiting with the night men, and decided to stay all night. I had to sleep on a pool table. It was the hardest bed I ever had. But while I was there I turned in my first alarm. A fire broke out in the J. W. Winfred livery stable, and spread to the J. W. Blackwell toy store, which was a large concern; and also destroyed the Ed Strauss wholesale hardware store. These buildings were across the alley from the old post office, and faced on Fourth and Mary streets, where the White Line Taxi and Baggage Co. are now. We got a number of the horses out of the livery stable, but some ran back in, and a lot of them were burned to death. In those days out where there was no pavment, the apparatus was likely to get stuck in the mud if it was rainy weather. One time we got stuck for an hour or more, or until mules were brought and pulled us out. The place where the fire was, burned down. We had an aerial tiller truck in 1893, but no tillerman, and the tiller had to be locked if there was no one on hand to operate it and the driver would have to make wide turns like he would if he had a trailer. The Cotton Palace burned in 1893. In those days when I first joined the department there were mostly pretty tough men in it. We were right down by the red light district, at the foot of Washington street, and no respectable people ever came down that far. There was no bridge, and the street went to a dead-end at the river. Many a time I've seen the hook and ladder truck come into the station with the red light girls hung all over it. The men all drank. The old chief drank, and of course we younger men thought it was all right for us to drink, too. I did, but one day I thought to myself that I wasn't getting anywhere that way, so I quit drinking, and haven't drank since. I was about twenty-five then. When I became chief, I decided to give a chance to the men who drank and had never got anywhere, and maybe make good men out of them, but there was such a small percentage of them who did any good that it was not worthwhile. There were only two out of about thirty-five or forty that I tried, and it took some hard work to get those two to do right. A good many of my boys went into the army during the World War(WWI). Most of them wrote me regularly. Two of them were on the American troopship that was torpedoed off the Irish coast, the Tuscanis(USS Tuscania, sunk in 1918) I think it was, but they were rescued. Here is a letter from one named Robert McWilliams, who lived at South Sixteenth and Clay. He says, 'I have just heard the sad news of the death of your little daughter.' (The chief's eyes glistened with tears) 'He was a peculiar man. He was quiet and didn't have much to say. When he got the call to go into the war, he said to me. 'I'm going over, but I'll never come back.' He didn't; he died in France of the flu". credit to Libary of Congress project American Memory
Chief Meers’ life bridged the evolution of Waco from a wild west town to a modern city and host of military bases during two world wars. He recalled the methods of the infamous Judge Gerald, also a member of Waco 92, thusly:
“If a witness wouldn't testify,” said Mr. Meers, “The judge would tell them, “You'll testify in this court, or I'll throw you so far back in that jail you'll rot before they think of you again.' Usually the witnesses testified. One time a gambler by the name of Skeeter Root was here then and came up before Judge Gerald. Skeeter was a little, dapper, man always looked like he came out of a banbox. He took a contemptuous attitude toward the Judge and the court because he expected only to be fined, and he had plenty of money to pay it with. The judge says, Skeeter Root, I fine you one hundred dollars. Skeetor hardly let the judge finish what he was saying when he says, 'Got it right here in my pocket, judge,' and jerked out a hundred-dollar bill and tossed it at the judge. The judge says, 'And ninety days in jail. Got that in your pocket, too, Mr. Skeeter Root?”"'
Upon retiring in 1945, Brother Meers had worked or volunteered as a Waco firefighter for 53 years.