The Penngrove Social Firemen
When Penngrove turns out for the county’s “Biggest Little Parade” on July 7, they will be honoring a tradition started 38 years ago driven by the Penngrove Social Firemen, a longtime nonprofit started by volunteer firefighters.
The event represents the towns’ pride, patriotism and old-fashioned tradition, harkening back to small town events of early America.
The Penngrove Parade is always on the first Sunday of July. Most of the town, and a few out-of-town visitors, turn out for to march down the town’s one-third mile Main Street. Afterwards they stick around for festivities in the Penngrove Park that typically include live music, a barbeque, games for kids and of course the American Apple Pie contest.
The event represents the Penngrove Social Firemen’s celebration of small-town Americana.
The group itself is comprised of men and women from Penngrove, but also has members from Santa Rosa, Petaluma and other nearby cities. It has roots to the volunteer fire department that formed in 1928, but isn’t part of it.
Over the years it has grown into an organization of nearly 150 people whose primary focus is supporting the community, but in their own quiet way.
Current club president Ray Soper, 67, explains how the group got started.
“Baseball was really big in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he said. “There were no pro teams in the area, but there were teams in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Windsor and Sebastopol.”
About a year after World War II ended, the Penngrove Eagles, a baseball team comprised of volunteer firefighters, needed a field larger than the one at Penngrove School.
Some land was available, and the team wanted to purchase it to make it a field for adult players. The Fire Department had only one paid employee at the time, Chief Harold Sinclair. He was adamant that if any money was being raised using the fire department’s name, it would go to the fire department itself.
They got around that in 1950 by forming an auxiliary group named the Penngrove Social Firemen. They purchased the Penngrove Park site from the Purringtons for $3,000. By hosting auctions, securing no interest loans from local businesses and private lenders, and using a volunteer labor force, they were able to create the park.
<CW-11>“It was a unique deal,” said Soper. “The team, which had guys like George and Chet Donovan who could have easily played pro ball, worked together and had fun together.”
</CW>In 1951, the Social Firemen were approved as a nonprofit, thanks to the hard work of resident Clyde Watts. They added an area for barbeques and playground equipment and improved the area as they could.
At first they met at the Penngrove Women’s Club at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Oak Street, a building originally built in 1927 by one of the member’s fathers. Sometime around 1965 there was a kitchen fire. The Women’s Club did not have insurance or the means to repair the building.
The Social Firemen stepped in and made a deal. Deed the building over to them, and in return they would make all of the repairs and give the Women’s Club free lifetime use of the clubhouse.
<CW-18>With the park and a clubhouse, the Social Firemen were able to host regular barbeques and an annual dance the first Saturday of March. The money they raised went to maintain and develop the park and the clubhouse.
</CW>Soper joined in 1969. “I worked nights in the Penngrove grocery store, and the owner was a member,” he said. “One night I went to a meeting with him and liked it. They had a lot of fun, and I knew everyone at the meeting.”
Along with Dean De Graffenreid, Stan Pronzini and a few others, they were the youngest members of the group and started pushing for more fun events that generated more money, which in turn allowed the group to start helping out the community. In 1975, the Fourth of July parade was added to the club’s growing list of events.
Members were generous. Earl and Marvin Wacker moved the clubhouse into the park to become a caretaker’s residence. Other members have made large anonymous donations to help cover costs.
For Soper, the best thing about the club is “the contributions we make to the community and outside of our own nucleus.”
For the most part, the Penngrove Social Firemen work quietly behind the scenes. Each year they provide money and aide to Penngrove School, Penngrove 4H and the Future Farmers of America. Each year the church and school give them six to eight names of families who are having a hard time. They anonymously provide food, presents and money.
“We don’t make a big deal out of it,” said Soper, who added that it is nice to belong to an unselfish group. Congressman Mike Thompson, an honorary member of the group, epitomizes that approach, he said, helping out at their car shows without any fanfare.
As an unincorporated town, Penngrove relies on the income generated from fundraisers and fees collected from renting Penngrove Park and the clubhouse. Town residents vote at the clubhouse, which also serves as the unofficial Town Hall.
Recently the Social Firemen were recognized by Supervisor David Rabbitt for providing the town with a community center and park.
Along with the Independence Day parade and barbeque, they also host things like a crab feed, trucker’s ball, Luau party and poker tournament.
This year, resident Stella Augustine will be the Grand Marshall of the parade, which starts at 11 a.m. on Penngrove’s Main Street.
“We try and select someone who is part of our history and make them sort of an icon for the event,” said Soper.
Following the July 7 parade, the annual BBQ and festivities will continue until 4 p.m. at Penngrove Park, featuring music, kids’ games, the American Apple Pie Contest and more.