Clare County Review & Marion Press

Postcard from the Pines: Do you remember the Noon Whistle?

Marion Village Hall and Fire Whistle ca 1952

It’s time for some more nostalgia. This one is not a person or a popular event or place, yet the mention of it can bring a smile, a nod, and memories. Do you remember the noon whistle? Signaling the noon hour was the practice in many a small town at one time. It was a public service heard not only within the community but into the surrounding area as well. It spread the word that the lunch, or as it was often called, dinner hour had arrived. There were folks all over town who took a break and ate the noon meal at the sound of the whistle.
From 1951 until 1982, Marion’s fire siren blew to let us know that the noon hour had arrived. It was a welcome noise to many, from Main Street to the school yard. When it sounded at any other time, it could strike fear in our hearts.
Early Marion, like every other place, had a great fear of fire, and unfortunately suffered property losses regularly. The first organized effort at fire fighting began in 1894. The Marion Volunteer Fire Department was made up of a long forgotten chief, one C.E. Slaght, 75 locals, an extension ladder and buckets. Everyone who heard the cry of “Fire!!” came running with a bucket. This worked well only if the fire was near the river, pond or one of the many flowing wells in town. Chimney and roof fires were very common and could do great damage before anyone could be rousted. In 1901 they bought more ladders and buckets.
By 1904 the Village installed a large bell to sound the fire alarm. This was just in time for the Great Fire of 1904, which destroyed 22 homes and businesses on the west side of the river. This was a fire which no amount of men with buckets was going to extinguish. After that fire a steam engine pumper was purchased for $100. It failed to be of use in most instances and was soon deemed a piece of junk. However dismal this engine was, it marked the beginning of real firefighting equipment in the Village.
The need to send a fire alarm as far as possible became a concern. To that end the 300 pound fire alarm bell mounted on the water tower was replaced with the first electronic siren system in 1931. The siren was placed atop the Marion Town Hall building, a bit west of Pickard. The control switch was placed at the Marion Telephone Office located above the bank, at the corner of East Main and Pickard Streets. When a call came in the switch was thrown and the siren would begin to wail.
The Marion Fire Department, its equipment, and the reliability of the public water supply steadily grew. In 1951 the need to reach as many members as possible was improved with the purchase of a 7.5hp siren. This was mounted atop a metal tower, which in turn was mounted on the roof of the redbrick Village Hall, located next to the river and the water reservoirs. They also purchased a siren for the fire chief to use on his vehicle.
The memory maker here is that the Village Council voted to set off that new siren, not only for a fire or for rescue, but faithfully each day at noon. And so it was until 1982 when technology and better communication met. The loser was the noon whistle. Estimates to repair, maintain and operate were deemed not worth the cost and Marion, Michigan, no longer marked the noon hour. By then the time was clearly displayed on the sign at the bank.
For many the noon whistle was woven into the fabric of Marion and of their youth. It is seen as part of our golden era, the mid-century ‘Mayberry days’. The noon whistle made all the kids take notice, all the merchants check their watches, and all neighborhood dogs howl and bark. It was an involuntary message among dogs. As kids we always wondered what they were saying. The reality was that shrill noise just hurt their ears.
If you were a resident during any of those 30 plus years from 1951 to 1982 you have a warm yet momentarily fearful spot in your heart for the rising wail of that siren. Noon meant noon, but the sound of the siren at any other time meant fire; it meant someone somewhere needed help. It also signaled a warning for all; bad weather was coming our way. Fire department spotters had seen a tornado.
Well past the 1960’s we heard a well pre-announced array of siren blasts on a prescribed day each month. These were the sounds of Civil Defense and nuclear attack warnings were blown. Take shelter under your desk and cover your head.
The decommissioned siren was taken down and put into storage in 1986. The red brick building was razed, making room for the current municipal building and library. After gathering dust for a few more decades, the noon whistle found its way to the grounds of the Marion Area Historical Museum on south Mill Street, at the Village Limits. It is that red rocket looking object, sitting low, between a stack of bricks from the razed Corwin Building and the barn. Gone and almost forgotten.
This photo is of the old Marion Village Hall and the fire whistle on the roof. This was taken in 1951 or ‘52 when the whistle was new.

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