Clare County Review & Marion Press Columns

Postcard from the Pines: What happened to the Noon 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 a quantity of buckets. When the cry of “Fire!!” was heard, folks came running with their buckets. This worked well only if there was a close source of water; the river, pond or one of many flowing wells if the fire was in the right part of town. Chimney and roof fires were very common and could do considerable damage before anyone could be rousted. In 1901 the Village bought more ladders and buckets.
By 1904 the Village Council had purchased a large bell to sound the fire alarm. It was installed atop the hall, on the east side of the river. 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 no amount of men with buckets could soon extinguish. After the Great Fire, a steam engine pumper was purchased for $100. It often failed when it was most needed and was soon deemed a piece of junk. However dismal this engine may have been, it marked the beginning of real firefighting equipment for the Village.
The need to send a fire alarm as far as possible also became a concern. To better spread the alarm, the first electronic siren system was purchased and installed in 1931, replacing the 300 pound alarm bell mounted on the water tower. The new siren replaced the 300 pound bell on the roof of the 2-story Marion Town Hall building. With offices located above the nearby bank, the control switch was installed at the Marion Telephone Office. When a fire call came in, the switch was thrown and the siren began to wail the need to fire fighters far and wide.
The Marion Fire Department, its equipment and the reliability of the public water supply grew steadily. In 1951 the need to reach as many outlying members of the department as possible was improved with the installation of a 7.5hp siren atop a tower mounted on the roof of the red brick Village Hall, then located next to the river. A siren was purchased for the fire chief to use on his vehicle.
The memory maker here is that the Village Council also voted to blow 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 fire department communications collided. The winners were our firefighters. The loser was the noon whistle. Estimates to repair, maintain and operate the old siren were deemed not worth the cost. Marion, Michigan marked the noon hour no more.
For a lot of people, the noon whistle was part of the fabric of Marion and of their lives. It is seen as part of our golden era, our mid-century ‘Mayberry days’. The noon whistle made all the kids take notice, all the merchants check their watches and all dogs across the village howl and bark in a kind of involuntary mass dog communication. As kids we always wondered what they were saying. The reality was that it just hurt their ears.
And if you were a resident of Marion, Michigan 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 warnings for all; bad weather was coming our way.
The decommissioned siren was taken down and stored in 1986 when the red brick building was razed to make room for the new municipal building and library. Today the noon whistle resides on 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 also gone Corwin Building, and the little barn.
We were so sorry to learn of the passing of lifelong Marionite, Carol Laughlin Niver last week.
Carol worked for many years as a Para-pro with the Marion Public Schools. She was a favorite of several generations of local kiddos and well remembered by them.
In more recent years, in spite of serious health problems, Carol kept busy as she could with her many interests. She greatly enjoyed gardening of any kind, crafts and painting. She donated her time to the Marion Area Historical Museum and served as president of the Historical Society. It was under Carol’s tenure that the security system was upgraded and it was she who introduced the much enjoyed ‘formal’ tea parties, complete with hats, to the membership. Our last historical cookbook was her brainchild.
Like a lot of now older Marion kids, my son-in-law always thought of Carol as a second mom. She was a Winterfield native, an MHS grad, and a wife and mom who spent her adult life a resident of Highland. And it seems that, no matter what she was dealt, she always had that wonderful smile on her face. We will miss her. Our condolences to her family.

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