Editor’s note: To mark Father’s Day, we’re featuring stories on some of the father-son firefighters in Elk River. The other stories include:
by Bruce Strand
When Russ Anderson joined the Elk River Fire Department in 1957 at age 24, the firefighters had limited capabilities.
“A chimney fire could end up burning down a house,” he said. “ We didn’t have much equipment or any of the training we do now. Our truck was from 1938 and sometimes you had to push it down the driveway to start it.”
They got a newer truck his second year, and things started going uphill from there. He spent 37 years with the department — the last 13 as fire chief, retiring in 1995 — and helped it grow into a well-equipped and finely-honed group.
This was an experience he shared with three sons who joined him in the department, Cliff in 1983, Dennis in 1985 and George in 1988. Cliff is also the city’s fire marshal and Denny is the city plumbing and heating inspector, while George took over Russ’ former business, Anderson Carpet Service.
“Even before we joined, my brother Dennis and I responded to a number of calls with our dad,” said Cliff, “not as firefighters but just helping with the equipment and moving ladders, things like that. I guess you could say it (firefighting) is in the blood.”
Dennis spent 22 years with the department and retired in 2006. Cliff has put in 28 years and George 23.
“We grew up with it, and we knew what we were getting into,” said Dennis.
Russ said he was a little surprised initially when they started to join him.
“When they were kids they never did like seeing me run off to fires all the time from family dinners or at Thanksgiving or Christmas,” said Russ. “But a few years went by and they saw it was a pretty good outfit with a lot of camaraderie.”
Russ noted that they were all married by the time they joined, which makes it harder to make the considerable time commitment that includes Firefighter One, CPR and First Responder training in addition to calls.
“I’m glad they wanted to do something to help their community,” said Russ. He added that another son, Kevin, is a priest in the Zimmerman/Princeton area, and learned sign language to start services for deaf people because his mom is deaf.
Russ and wife Anna Mae, who were ERHS’s homecoming king and queen in 1949, will celebrate their 60th anniversary in August. They have six sons and a daughter.
Like a coach with his own kids on his team, Russ said he didn’t treat them any different “but I expected them to do a little better job than the other guys.”
Russ, who grew up on a farm west of town, was working for Elk River Municipal Utilities when he joined, under chief Harry Dreissig.
“With that job, I was in the city all the time and could respond quickly,” he said.
Russ became a carpet layer and operated Anderson Carpet Service for many years. His sons worked for him there, too, so the boys were used to having him for a boss even before joining the fire department.
Russ was assistant chief for about eight years under Lloyd Barthel and became fire chief in 1982 when Barthel had to quit because he was running a large machine shop.
The position was still part-time then. Russ asked the city council if he could get paid for one full day a week “to run the business of the fire department” and that was granted, but he wound up spending two or three days a week away from his carpet business. In about 1990 he asked the council to make it a full-time position and they agreed. That’s when George took over the carpet business.
Asked what were the most memorable fires of his tenure, Russ named the Kemper Drug blaze in the 1960s that destroyed the drug store, upstairs apartments and a barber shop and jewelry store in the basement (“They figured that one was caused by the furnace”) and the Our Own Hardware blaze in the late 1980s that included adjacent apartments and offices (“That one was probably from lightning, early in the morning”) on the Main Street site where the water fountains are located now in front of the riverfront stage.
Then there was the Handke School incident the night of a junior high concert in about 1990. Somebody set a fire in a basement storeroom — “They never found out who it was” — and the flames burst through the door and went down the hallway, lighting up the paint on the walls.
“A couple firemen went down there and stopped it,” said Russ. “That was awful close to being a total loss. I never thought the department got enough credit for that one.”
Fortunately the band and audience had departed by that time.
“In my 37 years, we never had a life lost from a structure fire,” said Anderson. “We did have a couple from car fires.”
Russ and the three sons would occasionally all be on the same call if it was a big fire.
George Anderson said his dad’s influence was one of the reasons he joined, of course.
“At that time, I was working for him anyway so it wasn’t a whole lot different in the fire department,” George said.
George and Cliff continue to serve under current chief T. John Cunningham. The men get plenty of action. George said there’s about 430 calls a year and he goes on about half of them.
Cliff, soon after joining, became interested in fire inspections. He was one of about a half-dozen firemen who tried to handle that duty part-time under then-chief Bruce West, but that setup never worked very well. In 1988 he quit his job with the carpet firm to work 30 hours a week with the fire department, handling investigations in conjunction with West. He did that for three years, hoping the city would make it a full-time job. When they didn’t, he applied for a new fire marshal opening in New Brighton and got it.
“Then Elk River decided that it should have a full-time fire marshal, too,” said Cliff, who re-applied and got the job in 2001. He oversees all fire inspections and fire prevention programs (“in schools, for senior citizens, anyone who asks for it”) and investigates all fires.
Dennis worked for Russ for a while and started working in plumbing and heating for a friend on the two or three days a week Russ was at the fire department. He enjoyed that work and made it a career, and moved into the city inspection job right about the time Russ was retiring.
His most vivid experiences as a firefighter were a spate of crashes on Highway 101 — “Before it became a four-lane, there were a lot of bad accidents, and a few deaths” — and a fire with a happy ending, at a Baldwin Street house where they carried out a man who appeared dead and could not locate the young daughter who was supposed to be there. “They revived the guy in the ambulance. Talking to him a while later was unbelievable,” said Dennis. “And the girl, it turned out, was sleeping over with a friend.”
We requested a photo for this article and what Russ shows indicates how ingrained firefighting is for the Andersons. His grandson Christopher, George’s son, wrote an essay on firefighting for a scholarship competition sponsored by an insurance company when he was a senior at ERHS four years ago.
“Christopher wrote about his dad and uncles’ experiences. And he won. He got $2,000 for it,” said Russ. The photo includes Chris, the insurance company rep, and all four of the firefighting Andersons.