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Ferdinand the fire horn warned of blazes — and signaled the end of World War II

Ferdinand the fire horn is retired and the 100-foot-tall tower is dismantled at the San Luis Obispo fire station, then on Pismo Street, in 1965.
Ferdinand the fire horn is retired and the 100-foot-tall tower is dismantled at the San Luis Obispo fire station, then on Pismo Street, in 1965. Telegram-Tribune

Back when there was only one warning siren in town, it had a name: Ferdinand.

A long-forgotten newspaper clipping explains the nickname.

The story begins with a Walt Disney short film, “Ferdinand the Bull,” released in 1938.

The Oscar-winning Technicolor movie, features a bull stung by a bumblebee. When Ferdinand gets into the bullfighting arena, all he cares about is the matador’s flower bouquet.

In his March 10, 1939, column in the Daily Telegram, Along the Creek, B.Z. Body wrote: “Some local killjoys are poking fun of the new fire horn. They say it sounds like an adolescent bull whose voice is changing. They even call it ‘Ferdinand,’ after the hero of Walt Disney’s fantasy of the cow pastures.”

“Wrinkles in the sound waves the horn launches into the air are due to oscillation,” Body continued. “This is gradually dying away as the air pressure is adjusted.”

According to historian Dan Krieger, Ferdinand the fire horn sounded when Congress declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, in the wake of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The horn blew again — three short blasts and one long one — when Germany and, months later, Japan surrendered.

A June 19, 1945, story said that the wooden tower at the police station holding the horn was in such bad shape it needed to be reinforced before workmen could climb it to demolish it.

The horn was moved to a 100-foot tall steel tower at the Garden Street fire station in the late 1940s.

But by November 1959, Ferdinand’s era was over. The horn was sold to the Earlimart fire department, and the steel tower dismantled in the 1960s.

John Sarber improved on a few facts in this elegy in the Telegram-Tribune from Nov. 14, 1959:

Old Ferd Just Fades Away On Twilight of Sentry Duty

The passing of Ferdinand should not be dismissed so lightly, lovers of local lore persist.

This raucous but benevolent watchman of the public safety will disappear next week, giving way to the latest of electronic guardians of the night, also days.

Ferdinand, only the newer gentry will fail to know, is the tin voice with the iron lung that is mounted over the central fire station to summon off-duty firemen to the scene of a blaze.

Its mighty blast was a thing of civic joy and beauty, a boast somehow feeble to uphold when it woke up the community around 3 or 4 in the morning hours.

Actually, it was a holdover from the days of the stallwart (cq) volunteer fire department.

Old Ferd had real virtue and power during the days of World War II and even since as a bird watcher, ready to sound the alert should enemy planes appear overhead.

But Ferdinand remained as silent as the golden weatherbird on the courthouse or the cannon in the park, because never a plane appeared in anger.

The modernization of the fire department has scrapped the volunteer system of civic vigilance, and our safety from frightful things in the hands of 21 professional firemen on the city payroll.

Who gave it the name of Ferdinand is not known, but the apparatus mounted on the steel tower is properly described as a “diaphone.”

There were mixed reactions when old Ferd bellowed to awaken the village in the middle of the night.

One resident’s wife never forgave him for his nocturnal habit of uttering from his pillow “Yes, dear!” every time Ferdinand sounded in the early hours of his sleep.

Former mayor Ralph Kennedy recalls that the diaphone was first acquired about 1937 following one of the most embarrassing periods in city’s history.

Oldtimers and senior civic fathers of our town still twinge and blush when reminded of the “great fire” that burned down the fire station in 1935. [Actually August 27, 1938.]

The Ferdinand we know today owes his life to that fire, because it destroyed the big bell that was the clarion caller of the volunteers on city emergencies.

As memorable as the fire itself was the appearance at the scene of the fire commissioner of that time, Joe Berkemeyer, in a kimona (cq) as colorful as the flames. [A story from 1938 says it was a striped pajama top.]

The bell was supposed to have uttered a moanful but powerful and massive last clatter when it dropped from its belfry to the ground in a most ignoble farewell performance on local record.

The old bell still stands on a pedestal in front of the fire house in fond remembrance of a bygone era.

For a brief period, the city installed a hair-raising and painfully screeching siren above the old city hall on Higuera street where Christine’s dress shop now stands.

The demise of our civic noisemaker whose voice was most akin to that of a romance-thwarted bull moose is viewed with good humor as well as delight.

One old timer recalled one story of early history which is difficult to authenticate.

“The only way they saved a hose cart from being destroyed when the station burned down was to push it in the creek.”

But he did prove his veracity by correctly recalling the names of the city’s last fire horses — Frank, Rowdie, Queen and Bess.

Now the city will be silent when a fire occurs.

Firemen will be alerted by a radio gadget at their bedsides, completely controlled by an electronic system that is completely automatic.

Police welcome the step, because no longer will the entire populace attempt to converge on the scene, congesting traffic and creating further hazard.

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