Eugene Ellis, a Stockton Springs fireman, has been named Firefighter of the Year by The American Legion, Department of Maine. He was honored at the town's Memorial Day Parade and was presented with a plaque at an awards ceremony at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor June 14. The Republican Journal met with Ellis and his wife Cynthia Wells at their home on Hershey Retreat Road June 27.

TRJ: Thanks for inviting me to your home. Can you tell me a little about this award?

Wells: The American Legion sent a nomination form to every volunteer fire department in the state of Maine. Stockton nominated him, and they explained to us at the award ceremony that they voted on different points, such as how many years of service, what they did for the community, that sort of stuff. And he won.

Ellis: I've been at it 54 years. I started in 1950 as a junior fireman. I worked my way up to chief — and now I'm working my way back down. I've been fire chief several times.

Wells: He was the youngest fire chief for a while. He was 19 the first time.

TRJ: Were you always in the Stockton Springs department? How old were you when you started?

Ellis: Yes. I was 14. You see, back in the '50s when you started as a junior fireman, you could go fight a house fire. There were no rules against it. Now you can't send a junior fireman anywhere near them. So I got quite an early start.

Were there any particularly memorable fires that you responded to?

Ellis: There was one — my own house burned down!

Wells: That baby burned flat! That was just Dec. 27, 2012.

Ellis: That was the worst one. When you fight your own house fire, that's rotten. She's gone and so is everything in it. Luckily the people got out. It was my father's and mother's house. It was right across from the Town Office on Main Street in Stockton — right beside the fire station, really! A chimney fire set the roof on fire inside. She was 200 years old and timber dry — used to be a stagecoach stop.

Wells: There were those fires that the railroad started that were so widespread.

Ellis: That was the most stressful one, I think. Back in the '70s the railroad set fires from Searsport clear through to Prospect. The whole south side of the tracks was on fire. We lost a garage, a couple of camps. We had every fire department we could get from Waldo County, and the helicopter from Maine State Forestry was here. Those two days were pretty close to hell. They said it was sparks from the carbon. Cinders were blowing out. Of course it is all an up grade from Searsport to Prospect. The train just blew cinders out and the wind was blowing about 30 miles an hour, and it set fires all the way.

TRJ: Did anyone communicate to the conductor that this was happening?

Ellis: No, they kept right on going. They finally stopped the train in Winterport, but the damage was done.

Wells: The other one that was significant was the condos on South Cape Shore.

Ellis: We lost two and saved two. That was quite a fire. The best ones are when you get there and they're out.

TRJ: Have you responded to any calls that were fatal?

Ellis: Yup, in Searsport. That was about 10 years ago. We lost two people.

Wells: Probably smoke inhalation at night.

Ellis: I don't think we've had a fire death in Stockton — I don't want to jinx it — since the '50s. We've been awful lucky.

TRJ: Did that affect you very much?

Ellis: It affects everybody.

Wells: Actually, some people quit the department after that.

Ellis: We lost a couple people. That's one of those things, it's really hard on everybody.

Wells: And its a small community, everybody knows everybody.

TRJ: What other community service have you been involved in?

Ellis: I've been selectman several times, and tax assessor, constable, fire warden, on the planning board and board of appeals. The fire chief now and the assistant chief were my junior firemen when I was chief — and they're good.

Oh, and I started the ambulance service too. Me and two, three other guys (Tink Smith, Earl Bowden and my brother Merrill Ellis) started the ambulance service in the '60s. There were a couple of women on it too. Francis Thompson, Marcia Ellis, and Mrs. Scherer were the first attendants. The first ambulance was parked in my dooryard. We didn't even have a building to put it in. Now we have two ambulances and a nice building. We've come a long way.

The first ambulance was an old Packard. It was a hearse-type car. That's what they had for ambulance service. The funeral homes ran the ambulances back then and they went out of business because the state required training.

Wells: For the past 20 years, he's done all this with no knee.

TRJ: How did you get that injury?

Ellis: I hurt my knee when I was working at the mill and fell off a piece of machinery. I worked for Champion Paper for 43 years. They treated me first rate and paid for the surgery. I have no complaints.

TRJ: And you're still responding to calls?

Wells: He doesn't go to car accidents anymore, just structure fires, and he doesn't go into burning buildings.

Ellis: I pump water now for the boys; let the young fellas do the running around. My son's on the department, and my grandson's on the department — and my stepson.

TRJ: Have you had to respond to many calls in the middle of the night?

Ellis: Oh yeah, it's 24 hours a day that me and the boys are on call. The calls happen at the craziest hours.

Wells: He just went out three nights ago at 3 a.m.

Ellis: That one, somebody called in saying someone was calling for help on Sandy Point beach, and we never found the person. We assume it was a prank.

Wells: They get pranks and a lot of new houses now have smoke alarms wired to security companies. They get a lot of calls for those if a smoke alarm has gone off. A lot of times it's just wind or someone burned something on the stove. But they have to respond as if it's a fire.

Ellis: Those are the pain-in-the-butt calls.

TRJ: Well, thank you for your service and for taking the time to talk to The Journal.

Ellis: Thank you… To be honored by the legion, after all the sacrifices they've made, is quite a thing.