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Inspired by 'Roundy'

By:  Carl E. Feather - Star Beacon

September, when the nation pauses to remember the sacrifices of firefighters, is the perfect month for Ashtabula author Eric Johnson and Arcadia Publishing to roll out their new history book about firefighting in Ashtabula.

"Ashtabula Firefighting" looks at the history of the Ashtabula Fire Department from it's birth as the volunteer Eagle Fire Company through nearly a century as a paid department. The paperback book has 128 pages and costs $19.95.

In keeping with the format of other books in Arcadia's "Images of America" series, the book relies heavily upon photographs and captions to tell the story. For the paid-department section of the book, Johnson packages the material by the various eras of the fire chiefs. He also devotes entire chapters to the volunteer departments and the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster's impact on firefighting in the city.

Johnson, 41, is a native of Wisconsin, where he got his introduction to firefighting through an uncle, Ronald "Roundy" Johnson, a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Cedarburg, Wisc., Fire Department. Like many little boys, Johnson was initially drawn to firefighting by the shiny equipment and excitement of the work, but as he matured, Johnson came to appreciate the sacrificial nature of the volunteer's service.

Joining their ranks didn't resonate with Johnson, however.

"It seemed like something I'd be interested in, but, frankly, I don't do blood and gore too well," he says.

"There's also a religious angle, the idea of a spiritual calling, and for me, while I'm fascinated with firefighting and have great respect for firefighters, my calling seems to be in the area of journalism and writing," he adds.

A broadcast and journalism graduate of Marquette University, Johnson worked as an afternoon drive radio personality and freelance writer for a variety of local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. He is a staff reporter for Gazette Newspapers in Jefferson. His wife, the Rev. Barbara Johnson, is rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church. They have two school-aged children.

It was while taking a tour of the Ashtabula Fire Department's Station One with his children that Johnson noticed the department's display of historical photographs and memorabilia, which put him on the road to writing a book.

"I looked at those pictures and I said 'What a lot of wonderful pictures; they would make a good book,'" he says.

Richard Balog, who was fire chief at the time, agreed and gave Johnson full access to the department's archives. Engineer John Paul, the department's resident history buff and de facto archivist, also provided much of the research material.

"He was good about gathering stuff together and helping me sort through it," says Johnson.

While living in Rockford, Ill., Johnson produced two postcard history books of that community for Arcadia. Familiar with their format and requirements, he successfully pitched the Ashtabula Firefighting concept to the publisher.

While just about every community has a fire department, Johnson feels there are enough unique aspects to Ashtabula's that make it worthy of it's own book. For starters, from what he could determine in his research, the department has never had an on-the-job firefighter fatality in it's 170-year history.

"They have a lot to be proud about in their department history," says Johnson. "They were one of the first departments to affiliate with the International Association of Firefighters."

The department also has had a few characters among it's ranks, including Chief Adolph T. "Smokey" Rohl, who always provided good copy for reporters. For example, he claimed he could filter the smoke from fires through his ever-present unlit cigar.

Ronald Pristera, who became chief in March, praises Johnson for his hard work on documenting the department's history.

"I think it is great," he says. "The amount of work he put into compiling that history, we appreciate it. ... It's as neat as can be. It's impressive."

Johnson has a supply of the books he is selling himself and is working with area merchants to place books in their stores. He is donating a portion of sales he makes to the department's historical society, of which he is an honorary member. He regards his book as a present to the department on it's 170th birthday.

"I'm the lucky guy who gets to do the research and write this book about the fire department, but the real heroes are the hundreds of men, past and present, who everyday put their lives on the line for the people of this community," he says.

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