Oxford Vignettes: The OVFD, Fireworks, and Fire

By Cathy Schmidt

Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of my family who lived up the street. Throughout their lives they enriched those who surrounded them with their community involvement, faith, grace, and generous neighborly manners. Sara kept a journal every year of her life in Oxford and Captain Bill kept a daily weather book throughout his time as ferry Captain of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. They were anchors in the town of Oxford, steadfast and kind, and were a pleasure to know.

The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of these journal entries with the readers of Attraction. Smartly titled “Oxford Vignettes” by Susan Benson, I invite you to enjoy reading these daily snippets of life in Oxford in their day.

William Lindale Benson was born in Bellevue on October 20, 1908. Sara Valliant Newnam was born on August 10, 1913, and grew up in the Grapevine House in Oxford. They married on Christmas Day in 1936 at the home of Joseph Newnam, her brother. After living in the apartment above the “Towne Shoppe” in Oxford they moved to 315 North Morris Street in 1943, the year their son Dale Jr. was born. At their new home, Sara could watch Captain Bill and the ferry from her sink window and front porch. Captain Benson took over operations of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in 1938. His summer schedule ran 80 to 105 hours per week. Only winter ice kept the ferry from running, and the only day he took off was Christmas Day, which was also his anniversary. He retired in 1974.

July 3 & 4, 1977


July 3 – Oxford

Came out of the house at 9 to walk to the shore to watch the Yacht Club fireworks. Mary and Jack Sewell came by and the four of us watched them together at the dock. Huge crowd in town!

July 4 – Cambridge

Louise Valliant Willis – 76th birthday. Mae Kammert took us on tour of her apartment. Stupendous! Fay Sommer Koch phoned. Real 4th weather – sunny and hot. Late afternoon it got a little cloudy and looked like it could storm – but didn’t. This afternoon I took a cherry pineapple bell wedding salad to Dewey and Sandy Showell and a card with best wishes for a happy married life. At 7:30 p.m. White Cap left Carry-Out dock with almost 88 people ($3 each) for Cambridge to see the fireworks at 9. It was a grand ride – just about everybody from Oxford went – The Engles, Tingles, Garlands, McWhorters, Garmans, Margaret Plummer, Lena Bryan Wheatley, Bill and Pete Colburn, the O’Conner family, Lamberts, Will Howard & his wife, etc., etc. The fireworks were beautiful. It was the first time Bill and I had seen the Cambridge display.

Saturday, July 23, 1977

Oxford Fire Company Celebrates a 50th Anniversary

Almost 150 people attended. The Oxford Fire Company’s Ladies Auxiliary were guests. Dinner was prepared by Bill Nollmeyer. Salad bar, soups and crackers, roast beef, baked potato, tomatoes and squash, rolls and butter, iced tea, peach tart – a delicious meal! President Jim Farmer gave a brief history of the founding of the Oxford Fire Company in 1927. Joe Newnam was one of the founding fathers, bless him, bless him. Dancing followed.

Tuesday, July 25, 1977

Two Story Building at Crockets Boatyard Burned

This afternoon Phil Stovall and another man from Higgins and Spencer came and measured our kitchen. Before long we want to put new covering down. We went to Engles for a delicious dinner of V8 juice, tomato stuffed with crab salad, peas, beets, hot biscuits, Jell-o with mandarin oranges, cookies and iced tea. Not long afterward Dale and Susan phoned to wish Jim a Happy Birthday.

This birthday party photo was taken in the summer of 1971. In attendance was Jim Engle (left), Isabel Engle, Bill Benson, Susan Benson and Sara Benson. Jim and Isabel are Susan’s parents and are featured throughout Sara’s journals. Photograph courtesy of the Sara Benson Collection.

Susan is now head nurse of the operating room. We came home around nine and as we came into town, I saw one door of the firehouse open, one young man was sitting in the doorway and others walking around. I made the comment they “were ready for action.” Just as we got to the post office road, the siren started to blow, and just as we got opposite of Norman Harrington’s house, I turned my head and I was shocked and exclaimed, “It’s Crockett’s Shop!” I thought about Bill Newnam’s boat Topper. Thank God it turned out to be in that covered shed building. The fire was in the long two-story building shop where men repaired and painted. Very luckily, it was made of corrugated metal otherwise the whole yard could have been wiped out because all of the buildings are wooden. Trappe firemen helped Oxford fight the fire using water from the hydrants and Town Creek. Blaze was out by 9:45. We came on home.

In case you were wondering…

Bill Nollmeyer owned the packing house turned “Carry-Out,” located where Scottish Highland Creamery and Capsize are now. He also belonged to the OVFD, did most of the cooking for events and started the annual Bull Roast. His wife, Ann, was a Member of the Ladies Auxiliary, and Bill was the first honorary male member of Oxford Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary.

Joe Newnam is Sara Newnam Benson’s brother, who passed away in 1970.

Norman Harrington lived on Morris Street and was a renowned professional photographer. He was also instrumental in saving the former school building that is now the Oxford Community Center, and he was also the first president of the OCC.

William Coulburn and Victor Cox dressed in the first OVFD uniforms in 1947.
Photograph courtesy of the Nancy Newnam Newton Collection.
Officers proudly show off the first OVFD fire engine, estimated to be circa 1927.
Photograph courtesy of the Nancy Newnam Newton Collection.
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