The Fireman’s Clubhouse will soon be gone, but nothing can erase the great memories that current and former Conway firemen and their children associate with the building.
Retired Conway fireman Jimmy Hammond said he began going to events there more than 40 years ago when he was just a “young whippersnapper.”
He remembers, the mostly volunteer department, having fire drills every Monday at 5:30 p.m. As soon as the drills were over they’d head to the clubhouse and start cooking or having some other kind of event.
Over the years, the clubhouse was the spot for wedding proposals, weddings, birthday parties, poker games, pool games, camping, fishing, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving get-togethers and even divorce parties.
“Everybody was a family and we all knew each other. We grew up with each other down there,” Hammond said.
No talk about the clubhouse is complete without talk about the Christmas parties for adults and children, notably the highlight of every year.
Former fire chief Tony Hendrick remembers going to the firemen’s party when he was 13 or 14-years-old.
“Eventually the firemen’s Christmas party was probably dubbed by many people in Conway as the party of the year. It even rivaled parties at the Riverside Club,” he said, adding that some people heard about the parties and tried to find a way to wheedle invitations.
“That’s how big and nice and fun that party was, so it was the party of the year for many, many years. We even invited council members,” he said.
When some of them got off of council they still wanted to be invited, according to Hendrick.
The party included an awards ceremony and banquet with partying afterward and everybody loved it, but he isn’t sure exactly what made it so much fun and such a coveted invitation.
“I think it was because it was a formal, I’m not talking about black tie and tux, it was a formal event for the firemen and gave the city council an opportunity to be with the firemen in a nonpolitical setting,” he said.
In the early days, they danced to a jukebox.
“Everybody just enjoyed dancing and having fun. The first Christmas party that I went to got over at 8 o’clock the next morning. In fact we used to leave the party and drive to Myrtle Beach to get breakfast because there wasn’t anywhere open in Conway to get breakfast…It was just a special party,” he said.
Hammond also fondly remembers the fun of Christmas parties at the clubhouse. He says some of the firemen spent the day there eating chicken bog and playing cards while their wives hung garlands from the rafters.
Then they’d head back to the clubhouse for a children’s party followed by the main event.
“And dance! We’d wear the gray, the floor was battleship gray, and we’d dance so much we’d wear it back down to the wood. We had so much fun…,” he said.
People who misbehaved might just find themselves in the river, and he can remember once when some of them walked the building’s rafters.
When it came to Christmas parties, the firemen didn’t overlook the children. Some of the children rode on the fire truck in the Christmas parade. Then it was straight to the Fireman’s Clubhouse where Santa Claus showed up with presents for them.
In more recent years, the firemen planned a picnic during the Riverfest celebration and stayed around to watch the fireworks from the clubhouse’s porch. That went on until last year, Hendrick said, but Hurricane Florence’s flooding prevented that this year.
Hendrick points out that some of the children who attended those parties are firefighters now. He names current chief Le Hendrick as one of them.
Fire Chief Le Hendrick said, “That was one of the things I always looked forward to was going down, seeing Santa and getting a present.”
No one seems to be exactly sure when the clubhouse was built, but Le Hendrick puts it in the early ‘50s, possibly ‘52 or ‘53.
Hendrick said he’s been in contact with a former fireman who told him his grandfather helped build it, and, Hendrick believes, other firefighters actually did a lot of the building, too.
He said in the early days the clubhouse had no air-conditioning and no heat.
“It was always hot in there. I remember that, or freezing cold, that’s why we had the fireplace,” he said.
Central air-conditioning was added sometime in the ‘90s.
In the early days, he says, the firemen also owned a great deal of property down around the river. He says one portion from the marina point to the river and the property where the boat ramp is now were traded to the city by the firemen.
Several years back, the firemen sold the clubhouse to the city because rental income from the property was dropping and it was becoming a liability for the firefighters.
“Years ago, we were making a pretty good chunk of change,” he said. “It, just there toward the end, it just trickled off.”
He thinks competition for rentals from the Shrine Club and Peanut Warehouse hurt the clubhouse that could hold only 99 people, that was cut to 85 if tables and chairs were needed.
“It was a good space, but it was a packed space. It was a very scenic space,” he said.
He says hosting the Christmas parties is a tradition the department has kept up, moving to Fifth and Main, the Shriner’s building and, this year, the children’s party was held in the city’s Public Safety building for the first time, he said.
Chip Brown was one of the city council members who always managed to cop an invitation to the Christmas party.
“Council members were always invited to the firemen’s Christmas party, and it was always a big do and Faye and I always looked forward to it…It was always very good food, plenty of it, and, of course, then there was a presentation of Fireman of the Year and anybody else who might have been honored for the work they had done, anybody who had made a special save or rescue, and then at the end there was dancing,” he said.
Brown said because he and his wife enjoyed dancing the shag, then Chief Tony Hendrick wouldn’t let the rest of the firemen play any of their music until he and Faye had shagged a little. Then they took over playing whatever music was popular at the time.
He also pointed to a very active fire cadet program that caused some young people to attend the parties.
“Oh, it was iconic, no doubt about it,” Brown said of the clubhouse. “It was a special place. The downstairs part, which I had never been in very much, was called ‘Tubby’s Room’ or something like that. It was sort of a Shrine that the firemen used and were very proud of at the time. I just remember it was an important part of the lives…They were very nice to us,” he said.
Tubby’s Room referred to longtime fire chief S.E. “Tubby” Hendrick.
Brown thinks Hendrick’s brother had something to do with building the clubhouse or adding its trusses.
Brown remembers the Conway High School faculty having faculty parties there and, while he was on council, the group held several of its meetings there, but he doesn’t remember exactly why they did.
“I’ll miss seeing it down there, but I guess it’s got to go,” Brown said.
Others remember the firemen’s children having birthday parties there and the public renting it for everything from dance parties to family reunions and pig pickin’s.
S.E. Hendrick’s daughter, Eloise Dusenbury, is another person who remembers the clubhouse being part of her childhood as well as her children’s childhoods.
Her daughter, Mead, had her wedding reception there, an event Dusenbury and her friends put together in only two weeks.
“Wonderful,” she said, was how it turned out.
“It made a real nice place and somebody had an electronic keyboard that we fixed up with flowers and things,” she said.
Several of those who remembered the early days of the clubhouse remember how isolated that area of Conway was in the club’s early days.
Dusenbury said to get there a driver had to turn down a small dirt road on Santee Cooper’s property where the Grainger Steam Plant was later.
She said the road wound around with “all kinds of little turns to get to it in the woods. I mean there was nothing back there, but woods. I wouldn’t have walked back there for anything…It was just like wilderness to me.”
She says she doesn’t remember when civilization came to the area and things began to open up.
“It was just a real marker for me in my childhood,” she said.
Russ Calhoun, whose dad Wayne was a firefighter when Russ was young, also remembers Christmas and birthday parties in the clubhouse along with people like Le Hendrick and Shelley Hendrick, who is an officer in the department now.
He remembers Mike Hatchell being Santa Claus and his later being replaced by Jimmy Hammond.
He says he was gung-ho about becoming a firefighters himself back then, but later changed his mind.
“Looking back now, that’s some of my most fond memories from being a kid, getting to be around the other kids,” he said.
The youngsters played on the fire truck together and had a good time playing down by the river, Calhoun said.
“Back in the day there was nothing else down there so we kind of had free roam and got to play and have a good time,” he said.
He also remembers when he was a very small boy accidentally running through one of the upstairs windows.
Hammond remembers far back when Conway had two fire departments – the Conway Fire Department for whites and the Racepath Fire Station for African Americans.
In the early days, the Racepath Fire Station made the building’s downstairs its clubhouse and the Conway Fire Department gathered upstairs.
When the departments merged they all shared the upstairs, which could be rented by the public, and the ground floor became Tubby’s Room where there was air-conditioning, a refrigerator, couches, a sofa and other amenities, all available to the firemen only.
Hammond remembers joining with other firemen to fix up that room, plus put on a new roof, add a deck on the back, put in the fireplace and make more improvements to the building. As a reminder of the clubhouse, he has taken a truss to his home that he plans to hang in an auxiliary building.
All of these Conwayites say they’ll be sad when the building hits the ground and that shouldn’t be far away now.
The asbestos has been removed and the building should be coming down soon.
“It served its purpose for many years, and we hate to see it go,” Le Hendrick said.
Brown said, “I’ll miss seeing it down there, but I guess it’s got to go.”
He said keeping it with its flood damage would likely have created a tremendous liability for the city.
“So if it can’t be used, and it’s not worth repairing, I guess the only option is to tear it down,” he said.
Tony Hendrick also calls the demise of the clubhouse a sad event.
“It’s a sad day for us and Conway, as far as I’m concerned to see that landmark being torn down, but I understand why, but again I don’t like it,” he said.
He said he grew up in a time when there were a lot of things that were important to Conway, other landmarks, too.
“…and they’re slowly going away for whatever reason,” he said.
Hammond isn’t as sorry to see the building go as he is to see the changes in the culture of the fire department.
Firemen were all from Conway then, they all felt like family. If one person had an event, they were all invited.
He won’t forget laughing, cutting up and even crying together.
“I love my clubhouse and I hate to see it go, but it’s not a clubhouse if we don’t have the clubhouse people, and we had the clubhouse people. It’s the people that made the clubhouse,” he said.