Some of our nation’s story, as well as Kent Island’s, can be told through flame. A 1608 Jamestown fire ignited in the middle of a grim winter and destroyed most of that already desperate colony. Kent Island’s first recorded fire occurred twenty-three years later when one of Claiborne’s storehouses burned down. Massive and devastating repetitive fires in Boston, New York, Charleston and New Orleans taught hard-earned lessons concerning fire prevention and extinguishment. The Great Baltimore Conflagration of 1904 crippled the Chesapeake Bay’s regional economy for years.
Initially, firefighting organizations were for-profit protectors of insured property or volunteers, such as Benjamin Franklin’s Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among other founding fathers, served as volunteer firefighters. Equipment employed by early first responders—leather buckets, simple ladders and hand pumps—was rudimentary at best. Rival private companies existed in many cities, and competition was stoked by the practice insurers followed of paying whichever group put out a fire on one of their underwritten properties. On occasion, opposing firemen brawled over the right to save a blazing structure, sometimes while that structure burned to the ground.
Country folk were generally left to fight their own fires.
Centreville is the seat of Queen Anne’s County. Incorporated in 1794, today the town is home to beautiful Victorian-era homes, late nineteenth-century commercial districts and the oldest continuously used courthouse in Maryland. Centreville’s Goodwill Fire Company was the county’s first permanent firefighting organization. Established in 1889, Goodwill is at least fifteen miles from the nearest spot on Kent Island. The county seat’s volunteers were of little, if any, assistance to the people of the island. After a couple early false starts, the Queenstown Volunteer Fire Department formed in 1935. This brought help closer by about half the distance, but Kent Islanders felt change coming and realized that half the distance was still too far.
Summer evenings on the Eastern Shore are muggy and slow. In the mid-1970s, they were usually also quiet. But early one Saturday night, halfway through a decade that brought enormous change to Kent Island, the peaceful twilight was shattered by violence unimagined in this small but growing community.
On August 9, 1975, thirty-nine-year-old Maryland State Police sergeant Wallace J. Mowbray took an on-duty cruise around the island. He stopped to see his wife and youngest son at home in Chester for a few minutes before continuing his rounds. He didn’t get far. He had a reputation for being a natural at his job, so when he saw a blue van backed into a shadowy section of the Baker’s Liquors parking lot, it caught his attention. He drove up next to the suspicious vehicle, which had, in fact, been stolen.
Sergeant Mowbray exited his police car and approached the van. The driver gave the state trooper a license but claimed not to have a registration. As Mowbray took a look at the Ford’s out-of-state dealer tags, the four young Western Shoremen inside made a decision that would irrevocably change countless lives.
Wally Mowbray returned to his car. The driver of the van, Albert White Jr., leaned back in his seat. Richard Patterson reached over from the passenger side and aimed a sawed-off shotgun out the window.
Charles Quimby, working at the Kent Island Mobil station across the street, told the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer that “after Trooper Mowbray got back in his car, as he got in there, the shot went off.”
Quimby and other witnesses, including future KIVFD members dining at the popular Tastee Freez drive-in that occupied the northern corner of Cox Neck Road and Routes 50/301, watched as the van sped away, ran the traffic light at the intersection and disappeared out of sight.
Keith Baker responded to the call. Thirty-five years later, he discusses the events of that night:
Duke and I were sitting in the firehouse radio room office like we had so many times, listening to chatter on the radio. It was still light out. Duke was at his desk with his feet up; I was sitting on a bench. He leaned back listening and heard something. He said, “We’re getting ready to get a call here.” Next thing you know, the fire board’s alerting Station 1 an officer’s been shot. It was one of my early calls; I didn’t have a lot of experience. Duke was reluctant about taking just me with him, but he said, “Don’t worry; there will be somebody there that can go with us.”
When we got there, it was a crowd but nobody that could help. We got him in the ambulance. I was in back with him all by myself. We left, and I started doing CPR. I couldn’t feel a pulse. That’s when I looked down, saw his nametag and realized who it was. Duke called the fire board for a helicopter, but in those days I think the state only had two helicopters and neither was available. We headed to Easton. Duke called ahead to Station 2 at Grasonville. They had an attendant standing by waiting for us to pick him up. Almost as soon as he got in the ambulance, the fire board called back and reported the helicopter was on route to Bay Bridge Airport. Duke said, “That helicopter better be there,” and he headed back to the island. We got to the airport in less than five minutes. Soon as we pulled in, we could see the helicopter coming down. We helped load him in and watched them take off. My white T-shirt was soaked red.
It was one of the worst things that ever happened here,” says Kenny Bullen. “Nobody could believe it.”
Ladies auxiliary member Cindy Taylor is succinct: “It took our innocence away.”
The life of a volunteer emergency responder is the same as everybody else’s.
Most volunteers have full-time jobs yet devote twenty to forty hours to the fire department every week. There are holiday celebrations, children’s birthday parties and romantic dinners for two, but everyone involved knows that the volunteer may disappear at a moment’s notice. They park their vehicles and prepare for bed in certain strategic ways. One minute they’re doing commonplace household chores, attending church or sleeping, and the next their adrenaline shoots to measurably stressful levels. They’re on their way to fight fire, rescue an injured child or recover the body of a lifelong friend, all at the risk of their own safety.
When discussing good times, Bruce Coursey is a name that’s inevitably part of the conversation. Bruce grew up on the island and is physically described by most people as “tall and lanky.” Despite a wild side, Bruce was an impassioned and effective volunteer. Calvin Duncan thinks of his onetime colleague this way:“Bruce Coursey was a real clown, but when something needed to be done, he was ready to do it. And soon as the situation was over, he was right back to being Bruce.”
Curtie Chance says, “I used to jump in with Bruce on the way to a fire and I’d say, ‘Don’t go up this road like you’re too crazy now.’ We’d go up there sometimes on two wheels.”
Bobby Timms chuckles, “Bruce didn’t drive trucks, he aimed them.”
Terry Smith is a well-known area radio personality. Her on-air name is Terry Alley. Her husband, Tucker, comes from a family devoted to the KIVFD. Terry’s mom, Joyce Dennis, was a longtime ladies auxiliary member and past president before passing away in April 2010. Over the years, Terry has been a driving force in the department’s fundraising efforts. Discussing Bruce Coursey, she says, “When I was pregnant with our oldest son,I told Tucker, ‘When I go into labor don’t call the ambulance. I love Bruce but do not want him delivering my baby.’”