High noon in Middlesboro: Did you hear the whistle?

Published 9:17 am Friday, August 23, 2019

By William H. Baker

Contributing Writer

At noon, if you live in Middlesboro, do you hear the whistle from the Middlesboro Fire Department?

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If you grew up in Middlesboro, attended the public schools here, and moved away, do you ever wonder if that big whistle is still sounding off at high noon?

Curiosity might lead you to the fire department, where you talk about the whistle with at least two men there who know a lot about its history as well as its current state of well-being.

Robbie England is chief, and Rick Evans is captain. Both are knowledgeable about Middlesboro history and about the whistle (there are two whistles, when operating effectively). The one downtown perhaps has the most history attached to it; the second is in west Middlesboro with a more recently constructed fire station.

Rick’s grandfather, Ted Yeary, was with the department for years and served at length as fire chief. A volume of pictures, news stories and letters collected by Mr. Yeary was left to Rick after the death of his grandfather.

One of the current problems is that neither whistle is consistent in sounding off each day at noon. Technical problems hamper the functioning of the whistle on the west end of town. The one at the main location downtown functions some days, not others.

Both the chief and the captain are interested in maintaining a long-standing tradition. They want both whistles back in service. But that takes time, research and funds. They field questions and hear suggestions about the whistle from time to time. Mainly the comments are tinged with nostalgia. They like the tradition, and they would like to see it continue.

In earlier times, when the City of Middlesboro was considerably younger and not served with all the technology available today, the whistle at the department served to alert both firefighters and citizens to potential problems in the community. Blasts from the whistle would bring the firemen to the department to face whatever caused the alert.

And, Middlesboro had lots of company in those earlier times. Cities and towns across the USA had similar whistles, some of them alert the townsfolk at 7 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. And there is some sentiment that while the whistles are reminiscent of yesteryear, they may no longer be relevant.

Jacksonville, Fla. had a steam whistle with a name, “Big Jim.” Installed in 1895, it was very much in evidence when our family lived there in the early 1960s. It could be heard 10 to 15 miles in all directions. Big Jim’s history included sounding short blasts calling firemen to report for a real emergency. That too was before the internet, emails, texting and other electronic means came into being.

If you see Chief Robbie England or Captain Rich Evans and have an interest this phase of Middlesboro history, ask them about future hopes of hearing the whistle daily at high noon, Monday through Friday.