The long-unused fire tower south of Maben used to be both a means of spotting forest fires and a "place of mischief," Maben residents said. Now the steps to the hut on top have rotted, but the tower is a source of fond memories for some area natives. Photo by: Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff
January 9, 2020 10:42:38 AM
David Young remembers climbing the stairs to the top of the fire tower in Double Springs, about five miles south of Maben, when he was a teenager to "look around and see what's up." Booter Fulgham, however, remembers the tower as a "place of mischief."
"That's where you would take your date parking, if you want to call it that," Fulgham said. "The law would come out a lot of times and run everybody off."
Teenage shenanigans aside, fire towers were the primary means of pinpointing the exact location of a wildfire before technological advances put them out of use, said Bill Kitchens, a public outreach forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission.
People stationed in the huts at the top of the towers would watch for smoke, and when two towers spotted the same fire, they gave the exact coordinates to authorities and sent them to put out the fire, Oktibbeha County fire coordinator Kirk Rosenhan said.
The tower on Maben-Sturgis Road is one of two still standing in Oktibbeha County, and the other is on Highway 12 southwest of Starkville on the way to Longview. The latter is being used as a radio tower, and the former "has just been sitting there," Rosenhan said.
Southern Lowndes County once had a fire tower on the aptly named Fire Tower Road near Crawford before an area family of Columbus bought, disassembled and moved the tower further north, across Highway 45 Alternate from Artesia for private use.
There was another tower a few miles away, just south of the Noxubee County line near Cliftonville. Maben resident Cecil Simmons grew up in nearby Deerbrook, and he said his aunt climbed up the tower every day from November to March to watch for fires.
"She had a certain start time, I believe it was 9 or 10 a.m., and she would stay up there until 5 p.m., and then she would go back at night and make a spot check," Simmons said. "I went with her several times at night because you could see forever. If there was a fire burning in Columbus, you could see it from Cliftonville."
Simmons' aunt manned the tower during peak fire season, which is typically from October to mid-April, Kitchens said. October is the driest month of the year and usually the time of the first killing frost, and March tends to have high winds that make it easier for fires to spread, he said.
"That's our typical fire season, unless we go into a drought situation in the summer, when vegetation may look green but doesn't have a lot of moisture in it, so we can have large fires that time of the year (as well)," Kitchens said.
In times of lower fire danger, people would climb the towers twice a day to check for fires but would not have to stay up there all day, he said.
'They stick out like a sore thumb'
MFC still owns many of the fire towers throughout the state, Kitchens said. Some of the ones that have been sold were taken down, and others have been used as radio towers like the one in Double Springs.
Anyone interested in purchasing a fire tower can contact the property and fleet management division of MFC, he said.
Rosenhan said he has been trying for years to convince MFC to donate the Double Springs fire tower to the county. The tower needs some repair work, and he has received requests from private entities to turn it into a microwave tower, but "I can't spend money on it because we don't own it," he said.
Kitchens estimates that MFC started "phasing out" fire towers as a tool in the late 1980s. Nowadays, most wildfires are detected by airplanes and by citizens calling MFC's wildfire reporting hotline, 1-833-MFC-FIRE, he said.
Even so, Simmons and Wayne Dewberry, a fellow Maben resident, remember when the towers were still vital to locating fires.
"They had the best technology in that day," Simmons said. "They had coordinates, and they could see a blaze and report it to somebody in Jackson. It was all part of the state network of fire towers."
Dewberry said he climbed the Double Springs tower many times when he was younger and the steps were still intact.
"It's in pretty bad shape now," Dewberry said. "A lot of the steps have fallen out and rotted."
Kitchens said MFC removed the stairs from some towers statewide to keep people from climbing them.
Not all of Simmons' memories of the tower were positive. He thinks it was 1965, he said, when a cropduster airplane flew into the Cliftonville tower and crashed to the ground, killing the pilot. Luckily, no one else was on the plane or the tower, he said.
Then and now, fire towers serve as landmarks in the Golden Triangle region, Simmons said.
"In my day, if you were giving somebody directions and they were anywhere near the fire tower, that was always a reference point," he said. "If they're still standing, they probably (still) are, because they stick out like a sore thumb."
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