Monday, May 31, 2021

1958-2020 - Fire Chief Willie Morgan

Memories of Groveland

   Willie Morgan's family moved to Groveland in 1958. His parents were both teachers and they came to Groveland to meet Frank Farr who was the principal of Groveland Elementary or High School at the time. Willie recalls his earliest memory of Groveland when on a Saturday afternoon, he went to the Groveland Theatre and watched "Sink the Bismarck", with his brother and Frank Farr, Jr., his first friend in Groveland.

   His parents, Mrs. Morgan taught at Davis Elementary and Mr. Morgan taught at Mascotte Elementary.

   At the time, the community of Groveland was about 1,200 people. "It was small so you knew most everyone."

   The family's life revolved around school, work, and church. The Y-ette was the local hangout for the children. They would meet there after school and football games.

   Almost everyone either worked at the Edge's Store, B & W, or picked fruit in the groves. You could get almost anything you wanted from the Edge's stores. The only thing you needed to go somewhere else for was to buy a car. Clermont was considered a long distance trip.



   As a child, Morgan remembered standing outside the First Baptist Church on Wednesday nights, seeing the earlier volunteers would meet down at Lake David on Wednesday nights, to train.

College and Work

   Morgan went to Lake Sumter Junior College and Florida Technilogical University. After graduating, he planned to leave Groveland permanently and moved to Miami.
   However, he soon realized how much better life and the people were in Groveland and quickly moved back.
   Willie worked for Jim Payne Insurance as an insurance agent. Payne sold the business to Bill Irely Insurance and Morgan continued to work for him.
   Morgan met his future wife at church around this time. In October of 1975 they were married.

The Early Volunteer Fire Department


   Early volunteers:
   Fred Bremer,
   Floyd Carlson,
   Lester Harvill,
   Charlie Holbrook,
      Nick Mateo,
   Scotty McCalley,
   Bill Prashun,
   Alton Story,
   Gilbert Vickers,
   Dick Willard,
   Rex Winn.

A New group

   Around 1975, the Groveland Volunteer Fire Department was being "rejuvenated" and were looking for new firefighters.
   Buck(?) Tomlinson was the new Fire Chief.
   Willie Morgan, along with a new group of volunteers, graduated training class in November of 1975.
   Chief Jim Griner was the instructor.

   The Fire Department was located in a garage at the back of the City Hall building still located on the northwest corner of HWY 50 and N Lake Ave. The Police would receive the calls and the dispatcher would set off a siren. Then all the volunteers would leave their jobs or whatever they were doing and gather at the station, where a police officer would direct them to the fire.
   They had to ride on the tailboard of an old 1951 firetruck, which the city had bought new in 1951, sometimes in 40 degree weather. They also had a tanker truck with a pump that was built by Bruce Ogden at his shop.
   Their uniform was a plastic fire helmet, three-quarter length turnout coat, rubber boots, and blue jeans. They had two self contained breathing apparatus that were shared among them.
   There was a call box on a pole in front of Hank's Electric (Hunter Building), which was across from the Chevron Station that was managed by Al Story, who was the fire chief at the time it was installed. Someone would pull a lever at the call box, which would set off a siren, and would stay by the box, so when Al Story or the fire truck would arrive they could tell them where the fire was.

Willie Morgan, Fire Chief

   Chief Tomlinson moved to a job at Cape Canaveral. Willie Morgan was the only one interested in the newly opened job and fulfilled one of the only job requirements: living in Groveland.

   Morgan recalled an early wreck when four men went airborne, while heading south on S.R. 19 and crashed into the side of Edge's Feed Store. Citizens had stopped to try to get the men out, but three of them had already died.

   In the 1980s, the Groveland High School was set on fire. A supposed theif broke in to one of the classrooms on a Saturday in order to steal the proceeds from the Friday night football game the night before. The fire department thought they had the fire under control, but they found the fire had gone under the floor into the wooden support beams and spread through the crawl space. Other departments from the county had to come to assist in getting the expanding fire under control. The building was able to be saved and repaired.
   In 1988, the Florida Regional EMS and South Lake Hospital made an agreement to provide the Department with a jaws-of-life, if they would respond to emergency calls. Groveland Fire Department agreed and was the first department in South Lake County to become First Responders. They soon did an accident call in Clermont. After that Clermont created their own response unit.
   Groveland was also the first in the Lake County to upgrade from low pressure SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) to high pressure SCBA equipment, which required a 6,000 PSI air compressor that no one else in the county had at the time. This allowed them to have more air in smaller containers.

   July 4th became a family day for the department, where they would gather and celebrate, before the fireworks and festivities.

   Around mid 1990s, GFD was the first in South Lake County to start running medical calls also.
   Discussions began to take Groveland from a volunteer fire department to a full time department.
   In 1999, Morgan approached Lake County to get help funding one man to work 40 hours a week, since Groveland had been responding to county calls. The County came back with a counter offer of funding three full time firemen, if they would be on 24 hours. So Morgan took one position and two men took the remaining spots.


   By 2020, the GFD had up to 34 firefighters, which made them 3rd highest in the county.


    After settling down and getting married, Morgan had no plans of ever leaving Groveland and planned to live out their lives in the house that they built. However, after retiring, they decided they wanted to live on a river, so Willie and his wife moved to Alabama.



[Contributors: Willie Morgan, Jason Brown]

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