By Randy Townzen
It is storm season, and it is somewhat comforting to know that Bentonville has a good siren system to warn us when dark skies threaten. Whether it is weather alerts, building fires, or just reporting the hour of the day, our city has had an interesting relationship with bells and whistles.
We once had a bell tower in the town square to ring for emergencies. There were church bells and chimes, train whistles and depot bells to signal different activities.
When the need for electricity came to northwest Arkansas, Bentonville chose to generate it's own power. Before 1925, there were only two towns in Arkansas that generated their own power and Bentonville was one. We had two boilers, a large one for daytime heavy power use and a smaller one for lower night production. These boilers were for the steam generator fueled first by natural gas, then by coal brought to the power house by train. Not only did they generate electricity, but they powered four loud whistles, and it was those whistles that blew at noon each day for lunch and again at 5pm quitting time.
If there was a fire, the whistle blew one long blast then a short blast for the number of each precinct to let the volunteers know where the fire was. In 1933 we had two fire trucks and two full time firemen to drive them. The rest were volunteers. The fire station was on South Main Street, so the fire truck would make a quick run around the square and pick up volunteers before heading to the fire. For tornados or other emergencies, a continuous series of short blasts would sound. There was someone always shoveling coal or checking valves at the power plant, and always ready to blow the whistles. By the way, the phone number for the Fire Department was just two numbers...18.
Each year at midnight on December 31st, Mr. Grimes would let some chosen High School students welcome in the New Year by sounding a long blow of the whistle, quite an honor.
The boilers and generators were removed about 1946, after World War II when the city couldn't keep up with the demand for power and turned to SWEPCO for service. They had to remove a brick wall to get them out. The brick were cleaned by school kids for a penny a piece and replaced in the wall. The building that served as a power plant became the Fire Station for a while and is now the Bentonville Street Department on SE 3rd Street. You can still see signs of the coal yard and where the train tracks once lay. It won't be long until the Street Department moves to a new facility by the municipal airport, and the building will change again or be taken down.
But don't forget when you hear the storm whistles blow, its not just the city working to keep us safe... it is an old and proud tradition.