A once-forgotten fireman remembered decades later

08/23/2013 8:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Cutchogue fire officials Peter Zwerlein (left) and Arthur Brewer at the firefighter memorial at Cochran Park in Peconic. The memorial now includes the name of James Parker Wickham, a Cutchogue fireman who died on his way to the scene of a fire in April 1930.

James Parker Wickham and his younger brother John were working in the barn at their family’s Cutchogue farm when the fire siren went off a few minutes before noon on a Saturday in April 1930.

The Cutchogue Fire Department was a fledgling company then, founded just two years earlier, and the siren was a new addition to the department’s building, just west of the Wickham farm.

It was the first time the two young men, both volunteer firefighters, had heard the alarm, John Wickham would recall later in an interview for the book “Heaven and Earth: The Last Farmers of the North Fork.”

“I said, ‘You drive,’ and Parker said, ‘No, you drive,’ ” Mr. Wickham said decades later. “It happened to be my car. And I drove.”

The Wickhams rushed to John’s LaSalle Roadster and took off. In those early days, firefighters didn’t drive to headquarters and board a truck to reach the scene of a fire. Instead, they’d hop into their own cars and drive to the blaze themselves, while one of the firefighters picked up the truck to meet them there.

Parker and John tore down Main Road, falling into line behind a fire truck and a worker from their farm as they all raced to the scene.

It would be 23-year-old James Parker Wickham’s last call.

Over the decades, Mr. Wickham’s death that day faded from memory. The story of his tragic accident became nothing more than whispers in the fire department, a rumor told second-hand about the only firefighter in the department’s history who ever died in the line of duty.

Eventually, as comrades who served with him passed away or moved on, even his name was forgotten.

But this October, more than 80 years later, Mr. Wickham will be honored for his sacrifice by New York State. His name will join more than 2,300 others etched on the New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial wall in Albany, dedicated to firefighters who died while serving their communities.

“It’s nice that he’s finally being recognized,” said Peter Zwerlein of Cutchogue, a former chief of the department and the current treasurer of the fire district, who helped rediscover Mr. Wickham’s death. “It’s righting a wrong, if you want to put it that way.”

Mr. Zwerlein and Arthur Brewer, an ex-chief and chairman of the department’s board of fire commissioners, first began looking into the death last year, when the Southold Town Fire Chiefs Council pitched the idea for a memorial honoring local firefighters who died on call.

The council, made up of representatives from fire departments across the North Fork, worked with the Town of Southold to encircle the 9/11 memorial in Jean Cochran Park in Peconic with a new memorial.

All they needed from each fire department were the names of those who died in the line of duty. That’s when Mr. Zwerlein and Mr. Brewer, volunteers for the memorial committee, began to investigate the story of the firefighter who died in 1930.

“Being in the department since 1980, I’d heard bits and pieces that some time ago there was somebody that was killed in the line of duty responding to an alarm,” Mr. Brewer said. “So I said, ‘Pete, let’s see what we can find out on this.’ We started asking the old-timers and we got bits and pieces.”

“I don’t think [the department] knew about it until we started looking for it,” Mr. Zwerlein said.

The two dug through local libraries and company records. Before long, they had a trove of documents, from newspaper clippings to reports from a fire department meeting in 1930 to a death certificate.

The reports gave a name to the beloved firefighter whose death “cast a shadow over the entire community,” according to one article in the Long Island Traveler newspaper: James Parker Wickham.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | James Parker Wickham, a fireman who died on his way to a fire scene in 1930, is buried in Cutchogue Cemetery.

Mr. Wickham was born in Cutchogue June 30, 1906, to James and Cora Wickham. The oldest of three brothers, Mr. Wickham — who went by his middle name — spent his childhood working on the family farm.

His father died at the Wickham homestead in 1914, and another man took over running the farm while Parker enrolled at Cornell University.

But by 1928, the farm was in trouble and Parker dropped out of school to run the family business, according to his brother John’s notes.

While John and another Wickham brother went off to college (they used Parker’s now-empty dorm room as their own), Parker remained devoted to tending livestock and working the fields, John Wickham said.

“He had a tremendous amount of energy and was the hardest working man I ever knew, and he was the best man to work with I ever knew,” John Wickham wrote. “Nothing was too much. He was always taking more than his share of the load — always.”

Parker married a woman named Margaret Lane in October 1927 and had two children, James Parker Wickham Jr. and Stephen Lane Wickham. The boys were 18 months and 3 months old, respectively, at the time of his death.

Two years before the accident, on Aug. 3, 1928, Mr. Wickham had become member number 61 of the newly formed volunteer Cutchogue Fire Department, according to department membership logs and a file card bearing his name.

Parker and his brother John joined the department’s only company: United Fire Company No. 1.

Mr. Brewer and Mr. Zwerlein now had enough information to prove “this really did happen and somehow it fell through the cracks,” Mr. Brewer said.

Mr. Wickham was honored in November 2012 when Southold Town officially dedicated its Volunteer Firefighter’s Memorial. He was one of seven local men whose names were etched into stone pillars arranged in a circle around the 9/11 memorial. Dozens attended the ceremony, including town officials, local fire chiefs and firefighters.

But Mr. Brewer and Mr. Zwerlein thought there was something more they could do. There was another memorial in the state capital honoring fallen firefighters. Perhaps Mr. Wickham could also be counted among those volunteers and paid firefighters who lost their lives.

Mr. Brewer had submitted Mr. Wickham’s name to be added to the wall earlier in 2012, but was told the application was past the deadline for that year.

This year, the application was filed again and, in June, the department got an answer: Mr. Wickham had been accepted.

“On behalf of the Office of Fire Prevention and Control, I extend our condolences on your tragic loss and hope that the recognition of Firefighter Wickham’s contributions will in some way bring you comfort,” state fire administrator Bryant Stevens wrote in a letter to the department.

Mr. Wickham will be among eight firefighters added to the wall Oct. 8; his represents the oldest death to be added to the memorial this year.

Representatives of the Cutchogue Fire Department will attend the ceremony at Empire State Plaza.

The fire that Parker died responding to on April 5, 1930, was — like so many alarms volunteers rush to answer — not a serious fire, according to news reports at the time. A brush fire had broken out in the woods near the Tony Drisko farm at the outskirts of town, according to an article in the Suffolk Times.

The blaze, the Riverhead News would later report, “didn’t amount to much.”

But Parker and John Wickham didn’t know that as they followed the fire truck on Main Road that afternoon. They knew there was a fire somewhere in town, and they had to fight it.

As the Wickham brothers headed to the fire, the car in front of the fire engine, driven by a worker from their farm, ran out of gas and slowed down. The fire truck pulled into the opposite lane to pass the stalled car, and John Wickham followed suit.

But when he pulled to the left to pass the car, another car came barreling down on them in the opposite lane.

“There was simply no place to go,” Mr. Wickham later recalled.

He slammed on the roadster’s brakes and swerved around the oncoming car. For a moment, the roadster settled back onto the road, but it suddenly locked up, skidded and swung the other way, flipping off the highway just east of a garage in town.

The roadster rolled onto its roof, and Parker was tossed from the vehicle. The car scraped about 100 feet down the shoulder of the highway with John pinned inside as the top of the steering wheel, windshield and radiator were ground into pieces.

“Everybody thought I was finished,” John later said. “But I was perfectly conscious and so forth and I asked how Parker was.” Rescuers heard John’s voice from under the roadster and rolled the vehicle off him. He suffered a small cut to his head, and his jacket was torn, but otherwise he was unharmed.

Then John saw Parker lying in the road as people tried to resuscitate him, but it was no use.

Parker Wickham had died instantly; his neck was broken.

“He had a little bump on his forehead but nothing else … he looked fine,” John said.

James Parker Wickham was just 23 years old, and on that day he became the first — and so far the only — Cutchogue firefighter to die in the line of duty.

News articles from the week of his death describe a town in mourning. The Long Island Traveler called him “one of the finest of Cutchogue’s men” and his funeral was “one of the largest ever seen in Cutchogue,” according to a Riverhead News story. The department’s volunteers turned out in droves to mourn his death, the newspaper wrote. He was buried at Cutchogue Cemetery, a few feet from his father’s grave.

But after his death there was no memorial, no park dedicated in his name and no street or alley designated to honor him.

“There really never was a memorial in Southold Town,” Mr. Brewer said. “I wasn’t here in 1930. I can’t explain what went on then.”

Mr. Zwerlein believes that the young department may not have realized the gravity of Mr. Wickham’s sacrifice.

“It was unfortunate that he wasn’t remembered when he passed away,” Mr. Zwerlein said. “They were a very young fire company. They hadn’t been in the fire service so maybe they didn’t realize the tradition of recognizing someone like that.”

Parker Wickham’s nephew, Tom Wickham, owner of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, said the earliest firefighters volunteered to serve their communities, and likely didn’t have the same structure as current departments.

“I don’t think anybody thought about credit or honors or anything like that,” Mr. Wickham said in an interview Wednesday. “It was about fighting fires.”

Mr. Wickham said he appreciates the attention Parker’s sacrifice has now received but said Parker didn’t become a volunteer firefighter for the prestige.

“That’s the kind of person Parker was. To the point, just do the job … I think he would be the last person to ask for this.”

Mr. Wickham’s sacrifice may not have been immortalized by the town or state for years, but his death had an obvious and immediate impact on his family. In the book “Heaven and Earth,” author Steve Wick writes that John Wickham — Tom’s father — spoke often of Parker’s death.

“My father’s death made Parker a farmer, Parker’s death made me a farmer,” John said. “It didn’t make any difference how I felt. It had suddenly changed.

“You know, I have always felt my life was spared,” he said. “So I have had to think about what I would do with it and how I would live it.”

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