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Blast from the past returns to Oakdale

Fire station horn returns to Oakdale

A horn in Oakdale that was once used to alert volunteer firefighters of a fire is back in use as part of the city's decades-long tradition. It sounds three times a day at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. (Videos by Erin Tracy and John Westberg)
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A horn in Oakdale that was once used to alert volunteer firefighters of a fire is back in use as part of the city's decades-long tradition. It sounds three times a day at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. (Videos by Erin Tracy and John Westberg)

After years of silence, a piece of Oakdale history has been restored and is making its presence known throughout town.

The horn atop the tower at the Oakdale fire station at East G Street and Yosemite Avenue recently resumed its daily alerts, which had resounded through the town for decades until abruptly stopping some eight years ago.

From the early 1900s to the late 1970s or early ’80s, the air horn was used to signal volunteer firefighters around the city of a fire. The horn sounded a series of long and short blasts that signaled the quadrant of the city in which the fire was burning. Firefighters would head in that direction and then follow the smoke the rest of the way.

Once antiquated as a notification system, the horn continued to sound in a symbolic fashion three times a day at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.

“I’ve lived here almost 60 years,” said 72-year-old resident Melody Crandell. “When something becomes familiar to you (you expect it) and a lot of times as long as I hear the horn it reminds me I need to do something like take medication or be somewhere by a certain time.”

Her friend Tammy Tate, 56, said she enjoys the tradition of it, even when the horn has startled her on occasion.

She remembers attending a wedding at a small chapel down the street some years ago. She reminisced about the bride forgetting the CD of music to which she was to walk down the aisle.

As the wedding guests watched her head toward the altar, the silence was abruptly broken when “our beloved horn went, ‘Honk!’ ” Tate said. “We all started chuckling and laughing. The bride laughed too.”

Capt. Louie Morua, who started his fire career in Oakdale 13 years ago, said, “When I first started out, I noticed that right around noon or 6 o’clock people would start to disappear if you were outside because they knew we were new, and when the horn went off they liked to chuckle at us (when we jumped).”

A pendulum clock that worked on a diode system activated a set of keys that set off the horn. Morua said winding the clock was part of the shift work on Sundays.

But the clock started to falter and eventually broke about 2007.

Reports from firefighters about repair efforts vary. Some say it was sent to New York and repaired but broke again en route back to Oakdale; others say it was sent to Virginia but parts were no longer available to fix the antique clock.

Ultimately, the expense became too great. The recession was starting, said retired city of Oakdale fire Chief Michael Botto.

“We were struggling to keep our engines staffed and our stations opened,” he wrote in an email. “We made the decision not to spend any additional funds on the clock ... repair. It was a loss of a long-standing community tradition during my watch. I have always felt bad for this loss.”

The station got a lot of calls within the first few months after the horn was silenced but over time they became fewer. Still there were some diehard fans, such as Crandell, who continued to call over the years.

“I did sort of make a nuisance of myself but that’s what old people do,” she said, chuckling. She called two or three times a year, and in June the horn began to sound again.

The old pendulum clock couldn’t be repaired, but the horn now operates off a digital timer, similar to the kind used for sprinkler systems.

During the horn’s hiatus, many new people moved to Oakdale. So when the tradition of the thrice-daily alerts resumed, it unnerved some newcomers and caused a bit of a kerfuffle. The horn, a diaphone that uses compressed air, sounds a three-second blast that can be heard for miles.

Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, which contracts services to Oakdale, got a call last week from a local newspaper, the Oakdale Leader, inquiring about a complaint that was made regarding the horn at a recent Oakdale City Council meeting.

Acting Stanislaus Consolidated fire Chief Mike Wapnowski ordered it turned off until he could investigate the complaint.

Well, that set off even more complaints, this time from horn lovers.

The horn was ordered halted Aug. 5; by Monday, social media was abuzz with people weighing in.

Crandell noticed the horn had stopped again, called the fire station and learned about the noise complaint. She told Tate, who posted a call to action on the Facebook page Oakdale Area Incident Feed.

People started calling Stanislaus Consolidated’s main office, the district’s board members and the city of Oakdale.

The post generated almost 100 comments within a few hours, nearly all in favor of the horn.

Wapnowski met with Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer on Monday and the horn was turned back on the next day. They came to the conclusion there were far more people in favor of the horn than opposed to it.

Tate said she’s glad she posted about the horn.

“I was born and raised in this little town. My husband and I raised our two children here as well. When I heard that the horn was silenced, I was sad that our grandchildren probably wouldn’t get to share in that Oakdale memory,” Tate said. “I know that the horn is loud and obnoxious. It can make you jump out of your skin. However, it only sounds off (for a few) seconds ... then you chuckle and go on about your business.”

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