Larry LaRue

Frank Schnider didn’t follow Fife history — he made it

Frank Schnider was among the first volunteer firemen in Fife, which wasn’t yet a city when the first fire truck showed up in 1948.

“What happened was, they formed a fire district, then a district commission, and bought a used fire truck — a 1946 Ford 800,” Schnider said. “I had a service station in Fife, and I drove a fuel oil truck.

“So once the fire truck was rebuilt, they parked it in front of the service station because I was the only one who could drive it.”

The district then purchased an old church, which stood where Fife’s current fire station was built. That church became the first station — steeple and all.

“The floor wouldn’t hold the truck, so we tore it out and filled it in with gravel,” Schnider said.

Now 89, Schnider lives in neighboring Milton with his wife of 67 years, Dorothy. They both recall obstacles to establishing that first fire department. For instance, the district learned it needed 25 volunteers to qualify for insurance.

“There were some businessmen who said the fire truck was more or less a big toy for boys, and that didn’t help recruiting,” Schnider said. “Well, we got our 25 volunteers signed up.

“A few of them were alcoholics, guys who weren’t really capable, but we got our 25.”

Trained by firefighters from Puyallup and Graham, the department had logistical problems. If a call came in at night, there might be 15 to 18 members who showed up to help. During the day, however, most of the volunteers had jobs.

“If there was a fire, someone would call us, because we lived across the street from the station,” Schnider said. “I’d run across to get the truck ready, and Dorothy would work the telephone and start calling other volunteers.”

And then, there was the equipment.

The fire truck had a 500-gallon tank, which Schnider learned to fill by siphoning water from a creek.

“We’d pull up to a fire and we had two hoses,” Schnider said. “If 500 gallons didn’t put it out, we had to watch it burn. There were no fire hydrants in Fife. None.”

The force had no boots, only a few fire jackets and helmets. When they got to a fire, they’d put those on as needed. Otherwise, they hung from the truck.

Dorothy and other wives formed a club —the Sparkettes —and organized fundraisers to buy more equipment.

“If they were fighting a fire, we’d show up with coffee and sandwiches,” she said.

Schnider was born in Auburn, Dorothy in Puyallup. Their marriage has produced five children, 13 grandkids, eight great-grandkids and four great-great grandkids, so far.

What the couple found in Fife was a life, and a sense of community.

“In 1957, we had a measure on the ballot to make Fife a city, and we pushed hard for it,” Schnider said. “Tacoma was going to annex land up Highway 99 to the Poodle Dog.”

When the measure passed, it wasn’t a landslide.

“It won by seven votes,” Dorothy said.

Fife then held elections for its first City Council. One of the members was Schnider.

“I was the youngest guy on the council, and I listened to my elders,” he said. “I was on the council 11 or 12 years, and I was the ‘water guy.’”

The city needed one. Water was scarce and often unpleasant, and Tacoma had no pipes that reached as far as Fife.

“The water in the high school showers was pretty ugly, and the Holiday Motel got water from a well,” Schnider said. “It would come out kind of slimy, which wasn’t real popular with guests.”

With Schnider and the rest of the council negotiating, new lines were laid from the north part of town, and Tacoma put down water lines from the south.

In 1968, the Schniders sold their ownership in the fuel oil business and moved to Westport, where they built the Co-Ho Inn, now the Westport Inn. The couple ran a charter fishing business, the motel and a trailer park alongside it.

Schnider was elected to the Westport City Council and served several terms.

The couple moved again to Olympia, then to Milton.

And what about neighboring Fife? Today, at age 57, it has grown from a city of 900 to a city of more than 9,000. The vegetable farms have largely given way to warehouses and housing subdivisions. Car dealers front Interstate 5, which wasn’t built yet when the city got its start.

And the City of Tacoma provides fire service from Station No. 12 next door to Fife City Hall.

When Schnider talks about Fife now, it’s with pride and a touch of sadness.

“I’m the only one left from that original volunteer fire department,” he said, “and the only one left from that first City Council.”