Ghosts of Main Street: What ever happened to the noon whistle?

May 10, 2018

by Julie Traynor
Correspondent

From 1951 until 1982, Marion’s fire siren blew to let us know that the noon hour had arrived. It was a welcome noise to many, from Main Street to the school yard. When it sounded at any other time, it could strike fear in our hearts.

Early Marion, like every other place, had a great fear of fire, and unfortunately

The 300 lb fire bell is seen here atop the Marion Township Hall. This photo dates to the spring of 1914.

The 300 lb fire bell is seen here atop the Marion Township Hall.
This photo dates to the spring of 1914.

suffered property losses regularly. The first organized effort at fire fighting began in 1894. The Marion Volunteer Fire Department was made up of a long forgotten chief, one C.E. Slaght, 75 locals, an extension ladder and buckets; everyone who heard the cry of “Fire!!” came running with a bucket. This worked well only if there was a close source of water; the river, pond or one of the many flowing wells about town. Chimney and roof fires were very common and could do great damage before anyone could be rousted. In 1901 they bought more ladders and buckets.

In 1951 the siren with the rocket look was placed on a tower atop the red brick Pumping Station and Village Hall Building on the east side of the river. This was razed in 1986.

In 1951 the siren with the rocket look was placed on a tower atop the red brick Pumping Station and Village Hall Building on the east side of the river. This was razed in 1986.

By 1904 the Village installed a large bell to sound the fire alarm. This was just in time for the Great Fire of 1904, which destroyed 22 homes and businesses on the west side of the river. This was a fire which no amount of men with buckets was going to extinguish. After that fire a steam engine pumper was purchased for $100. It failed to be of use in most instances and was soon deemed a piece of junk. However dismal this engine was, it marked the beginning of real firefighting equipment in the Village.

The need to send a fire alarm as far as possible became a concern. To that end the 300 pound fire alarm bell mounted on the water tower was replaced with the first electronic siren system in 1931. The siren was placed atop the Marion Town Hall building, a bit west of Pickard.  The control switch was placed at the Marion Telephone Office located above the bank, at the corner of East Main and Pickard Streets. When a call came in the switch was thrown and the siren would begin to wail.

The noon whistle, at rest. 

The noon whistle, at rest.

The Marion Fire Department, its equipment and the reliability of the public water supply steadily grew. In 1951 the need to reach as many members as possible was improved with the installation of a 7.5hp siren atop a tower mounted on the roof of the red brick Village Hall, next to the river and the water reservoirs. They also purchased a siren for the fire chief to use on his vehicle.

The memory maker here is that the Village Council also voted to blow that new siren, not only for a fire or for rescue, but faithfully each day at noon. And so it was until 1982 when technology and better communication met. The loser was the noon whistle. Estimates to repair, maintain and operate were deemed not worth the cost and Marion, Michigan marked the noon hour no more.

For many the noon whistle was woven into the fabric of Marion and of their youth. It is seen as part of our golden era, the mid-century ‘Mayberry days’. The noonwhistle made all the kids take notice, all the merchants check their watches and all the neighborhood dogs howl and bark in a kind of involuntary mass dog communication. As kids we always wondered what they were saying. The reality was it just hurt their ears.

And if you were a resident during any of those 30 plus years from 1951 to 1982 you have a warm yet momentarily fearful spot in your heart for the rising wail of that siren. Noon meant noon, but the sound of the siren at any other time meant fire; it meant someone somewhere needed help. It also signaled warnings for all; bad weather was coming our way. Fire department spotters had seen a tornado.

Well past the 1960’s we heard a well pre-announced array of siren blasts on a prescribed day each month. These were the sounds of Civil Defense and the nuclear attack warnings. Take shelter under your desk.

The decommissioned siren was taken down in 1986 when the red brick building was razed to make room for the new municipal building and public library.

Today the noon whistle resides on the grounds of the Marion Area Historical Museum on south Mill Street, at the Village Limits. It is that red rocket looking object, sitting low, between a stack of bricks from the Corwin Building and the barn.



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