For decades now, Joe Klapatch has been the keeper of Lackawanna County fire company history. The 59-year-old from Scranton is hard at work on his fourth book, this one about fire companies of the Midvalley. He shares how he got started with his research and why he continues to learn more about this important piece of local history.
Q: You’re known as the county’s — and maybe the region’s — fire company history expert. How did you get interested in researching this topic?
A: Thank you for the compliment. I’ve always had an interest in local fire companies and their histories. I started photographing fire apparatus steadily in the mid 1980’s and always tried to grab any historical information about the companies that I could. I had a goal of compiling the local histories for myself into one binder, just as a hobby. Around 2007, I had the chance to do that and began to find out about a number of companies that had long disbanded. I checked microfilmed newspapers to try to answer questions that arose, but came up with more questions and decided to browse the newspapers from the mid-1800’s to present, which took a number of years. I have been lucky enough to meet people with stories, old photos, memorabilia and old local newspapers, which sometimes held hidden gems of information. I check out every resource and personal contact possible. I also scour flea markets, antique shops and anywhere else looking for old photos and memorabilia from the local companies to add to their histories. I now have at least 70 three-inch binders full of Lackawanna County fire department research.
Q: When did you decide to write your first book?
A: While compiling histories, people who helped would ask what I am going to do with the information. I had no plans at the time, other than compiling for my personal interest. Many suggested that I write a book, which I started and was supposed to cover all of Lackawanna County. Carbondale and Scranton histories were actually written about the same time, but quickly outgrew what was supposed to encompass the entire county. Carbondale was completed first in 2015 and Scranton a year later. Dunmore was released last year. I learned a lot as I not only wrote the books, but did the layout, cover design and everything else except for the actual printing. I chose Carbondale, Scranton and Dunmore as my first three subjects since they are pretty much paid departments now and a lot of their documentation and histories from when they had volunteer companies were not readily available. Many local volunteer companies still have some of their records in their fire houses.
Q: What are you working on now?
I am currently working on my fourth book which will cover the Midvalley area. This will be in either one or two volumes, depending on the size of the compiled histories. The Midvalley towns had a number of fire companies over the years. Dickson City was also partially known as Priceburg. I have finished the histories of the six companies that served there. I am working on the 11 companies that served Olyphant right now. Next will be Throop’s three. I will check the size after that and decide if that will be a separate volume or include the six companies from Jessup and Winton, the five from Blakely and Peckville and the seven from Archbald, Eynon and Sturges. I try to make sure the histories are complete and that down the road, if histories are needed, a person can start off where I have left off and save them a lot of work.
Q. Why do you think this area, and the Midvalley and Upvalley in particular, have such a rich history of fire companies?
A: The Midvalley and Upvalley were the connecting link between Scranton and Carbondale. Many of the oldest fire companies were organized with some connection to local mines and breakers. They also were the centerpiece for life in those towns, holding social events and being a place to hold community meetings and family parties and weddings. There are certainly fewer fire companies today and it has been tougher for today’s companies to get members. I see other companies disbanding or merging services in the future as the volunteers just are not there anymore. People have busy lives and don’t want to give up the little free time they have. Also, the requirements to become a firefighter has grown and takes up even more time in order to train.
Q: When you’re not researching fire company history, what are you doing?
A: I currently work at the Carbondale Public Library handling circulation, as well as answering the occasional local or family history question. I just finished a goal of having most of the library’s microfilmed newspapers digitized to Newspapers.com. I retired from Lackawanna County 911 several years ago, but am still active on the state level with APCO, an organization for dispatchers. Generally, my hobby is looking for fire company items, especially pins, medals and photos. If I get a lead on someone with old photos, newspapers or memorabilia, I’m usually checking it out. If the person is looking to get rid of it, I’m interested. I’ve found too many people just throw away old photos. However, I know the importance some items are to the person and usually am satisfied to make copies, photograph or scan those items.