When volunteer fire-fighter Graham Kershaw first arrived in Oyama in the mid 1970s, things were much different at what is now known as Lake Country Fire Station 91.
Most of the volunteer firefighters in Oyama were orchardists who were summoned to respond to local fires by an emergency siren that rang out from the top of the packinghouse to alert fire-fighters. Oyama was unincorporated and fire-fighters worked with the regional district on fire control.
These days the Oyama station is one of three fire halls that make up the Lake Country Fire Department. Gone are most of the orchardists and the old siren has been replaced by pagers.
But one thing has remained fairly constant over those years: The annual Oyama Fireman’s Ball, a tradition that dates back to the 1950s and which this year will take place on Sept. 28 at the Oyama Community Centre.
It’s a tradition that started as a way to honour firemen and their families.
“Because the mainstay of the department was orchardists and farmers, when the last apple was picked the farmer’s would have their annual Farmer’s Ball,” explained Kershaw of the origins of the ball. “To try and encourage interest in the fire department it was decided that after the Farmers’ Ball was finished it would be a good idea to initiate a Fireman’s Ball because of all the work they did in the community.”
When it began in the mid 1950s the Fireman’s Ball traditionally took place in late November with the Farmer’s Ball earlier in the calendar year. Besides honouring the work that the volunteer fire-fighters performed throughout the year, the Fireman’s Ball was also designed as a nice evening out on the town for wives and girlfriends of the volunteer crew.
“It was to honour and thank the support of the wives because they were the unsung heroes,” said Kershaw. “It was thought that at least once a year it was an excuse to dress up and get together. When it started it was a traditional ball in every sense of the word. We presented the ladies with flowers, everybody dressed up and it was a formal event. In the old pictures we have in the hall there are portraits of the wives in their best gowns. It was a way for the firemen to show their appreciation that this was not just a boys club, it was a family.”
As the years passed and the Oyama fire department continued to evolve, interest started to wane in the ball as the event was fairly close to Christmas. By the mid 1990s interest had dropped enough where the ball was cancelled for close to 10 years. But by 2003 when harsh fires like the Okanagan Mountain Park fire became more common, interest in firefighting rose. In Oyama a movement started up to rekindle the Fireman’s Ball and in 2003 it began again and this year’s evening on the town marks the 51st Oyama Fireman’s Ball.
Things have changed with the times, said Kershaw. It’s less of a formal function these days and the Oyama Fireman’s Association now supports charities like the B.C. Children’s Hospital as well as handing out bursaries to graduating Oyama students with money raised at the ball and a few other small fundraisers.
But the general meaning of the ball has remained over the years. It’s about the community and honouring the firemen and their families for all of their work.
“The demographic of the hall has totally changed and at the moment there are no orchardists as active firefighters,” said Kershaw. “This year we have a good contingent of young firefighters that are amazed at how much work goes into organizing one of these functions. But they are only too willing to help. We’re very appreciative of everyone’s support. We’re trying to nurture a bit of tradition and a bit of history in this beautiful little community.”
The Oyama Firemen’s Charity Ball presented by the Oyama Firefighters Association takes place at the Oyama Community Centre on Sept. 28. Tickets are available until Sept. 25 at the Oyama General Store, from your friendly neighborhood firefighter or by emailing LCFDstation91@shaw.ca