At the June 15, 2020 Vermilion City Council meeting, several area residents voiced their opinions on the 6 pm Vermilion whistle that some people have stated may have a racist history. Mayor Forthofer stated he and Fire Chief Chris Stempowski are investigating the matter.
Stempowski stated he is not sure when the siren was installed, but Vermilion firefighters have used pagers since 1992 while the siren is used to test the system. The siren sounds at 6 pm each evening because the time is outside of a traditional workday and does not conflict with other signals or bells.
Mayor Forthofer stated he spoke with Vermilion historian Rich Tarrant who told him there is little to no evidence of the siren’s origin relating to a sunset town.
"My determination is that the Vermilion fire siren is just that, a fire siren for a volunteer fire department," stated the mayor. "It performs an essential function as a back up for the more sophisticated electronic digital communications. As a safety component for Vermilion residents, the fire siren should stay. I believe sunset towns existed elsewhere. It is naïve to suggest that racism does not exist in Vermilion and every other community. It exists intentionally and unintentionally. But it exists in people, not sirens. The energy in the fight against racism should be applied in engaging people and creating awareness of the effects of their actions. I believe retrofitting a sinister meaning onto a benign first responder exercise is unproductive in the fight against racism."
Forthofer stated the City of Vermilion will continue to investigate the matter, with possible solutions being to integrate a different tone for the siren, playing a bugle call instead, and including information regarding the functions of the sirens in educational materials.
Note: This article omits the names of some social media posters who posted on public pages for their privacy.
Recent reports of a request for city officials to end or alter the evening sirens in Vermilion, based on allegations that the daily whistle may have a racist past, sparked immense controversy. Hundreds of people shared strong opinions, for and against the request, on social media.
Facebook pages and groups were flooded with posts supporting and condemning activists' statements that the nightly siren in Vermilion may date back to Vermilion being a sundown town. Posts included support, condemnation, threats of violence, threats of legal action and many personal histories supporting or denying the idea that Vermilion once practiced segregation by excluding non-whites through discriminatory actions and intimidation. It was suggested that Vermilion teachers and Oberlin professors, who may have taught the subject to students, be reprimanded or terminated.
While numerous older residents insisted that they personally witnessed signs at the edge of town several decades ago stating "colored people" must leave town by sundown, just as many senior residents insisted that no such signs existed.
In addition to such signage, sundown towns, also referred to as sunset towns, would sometimes sound a whistle or siren around sunset to enforce curfews or alert minorities that it was time for them to leave. Supporters of the cause stated that such sirens remain a tribute to segregation and racial injustice, whether intentional or not, and the Vermilion siren should end or the 6 pm timing be altered. Those opposed to the cause argued that Vermilion’s siren never served such a purpose and should not be silenced or altered.
One of many local residents who quickly joined a group to save the Vermilion whistle stated the siren never had anything to do with racism.
“The siren replaced the bell on top of the original fire station located on the corner of Ohio and Exchange Streets. The bell was used to notify the all volunteer firemen of a fire call. In the mid 1950's, the Plectron Corporation developed an electronic ‘paging’ system for emergency personnel. It involved a siren to tone out firemen, along with a box (receiver) that was plugged into a wall outlet in a fireman's house. A call would come in of a fire to the police station and the dispatcher would ‘tone’ out the firemen. Since most firemen worked for a living, they were not always right next to their receivers. The siren would alert those working outside.”
Rich Tarrant, local historian, also stated Vermilion’s siren does not have a racist history.
“The siren thing is beyond the pale,” said Tarrant. “What happened in Minneapolis was, of course, a literal crime. Little Vermilion Ohio likely has its share of racist citizens just as do other communities large and small. But sounding whistles and sirens - yesterday, today and tomorrow in our town have never had anything to do with discrimination. The siren claim is simple hysteria on the part of some who seem to wish that the town at-large is racist. It is not - nor has it ever been. It is just a little town on a Great Lake. People of all races are welcome to live, work and recreate here - and do.”
Kenneth Baughman, President of The Friends of Harbour Town 1837, stated that in 2006 he had a lengthy conversation with then Fire Chief, Eugene Kropf, who joined the Vermilion Fire Department in 1962 and became Chief in 1976.
“‘The chief’ also had the responsibility of maintaining the electronics which regulated the 6 pm siren,” stated Baughman. “The reality is the system was in fact an electronically modified Radio Shack style alarm clock radio typically used in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made of plastic with a fake wooden veneer. It sat on a homemade wooden shelf in the basement of City Hall, next to the air conditioner unit. On one particular morning, while working in the basement of City Hall, Chief Kropf arrived to fix the device because it had failed, and residents noticed it was non operational. After fixing the device we talked at length. He explained how the radio was modified to activate the siren on top of the building. The siren, a relic from the early 1960s, was placed upon what was then the Erie County Bank building, a site that was officially designated as a federal Civil Defense Shelter.”
“In the late and waning days of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Civil Defense Program which brought the siren to Vermilion in the early 1960s was quickly fading away,” said Baughman. “The siren was repurposed to be used as a warning for tornados, like the Lorain Tornado of 1924 that went from Sandusky to Lorain killing over eighty-five people. In an era of limited technology, the siren was also used to call out the Vermilion volunteer fire department. Less officially, it was also repurposed by the mothers of adventurous children as a warning signal that it was dinner time in Vermilion Ohio, and you had best get home by 6:30 pm.”
“Over the years several urban legends have grown around the use and placement of the siren,” stated Baughman. “Some will suggest that Vermilion was what was known as a ‘sundown town’ and that it was the origin of the siren’s placement. This is simply not the case as the siren was placed new when sundown towns were quickly disappearing from the area. The last factually verifiable ‘sundown town’ in the area was a small private beach community several miles west of Vermilion (and well out of siren range), which removed signage from their properties in the very early 1980s.”
According to Elizabeth Wakefield, long time Vermilion resident and former judge, Vermilion has always been full of sirens: “...the fire siren, the early steam siren that the local factory used to signal the start of the work day, the factory noon siren for lunch, and the factory evening siren signaling the end of the work day. Don't forget the siren to indicate a tornado is approaching....and in the 50s the nuclear bomb threat siren.”
But Vermilion never had a sundown siren, according to Wakefield.
“If anything, Vermilion should be proud of its abolitionist history and in the connection we had to the Underground Railroad in Oberlin. Seven known abolitionists lived in Vermilion, Florence and Berlin Township and our local lake captains assisted those slaves to escape to Canada. Our local UCC church denounced slavery from the pulpit as ‘an act against God’”.
Some local residents stated that denying the whistle has ever had racial connections, whether intentional or not, is revisionist history, and insensitive to people of color.
“I've seen some of you are upset about this article, explaining that the siren it discusses was just ‘the signal to come to dinner’ for you. If you live in an area with sundown towns, and you have a siren at sundown, people are going to make connections. Maybe Vermilion is the one Ohio town among dozens with similar sirens that didn't mean anything by it. But meant or not, the message was sent. And if you don't believe that the town sent that message, ask your black friends what that siren means. If you don't have anyone to ask...doesn't that say enough, all on its own?”
“What I’m seeing a lot of here is ‘That siren doesn’t mean anything bad to ME, a white person living in a predominantly white town, so other people’s lived experiences and perceptions are wrong. Therefore I insist that we keep this completely arbitrary "tradition" because it is somehow too inconvenient to read a clock to know that it’s six o’clock, and it can’t be changed to another time to help people of color feel even a little more welcome, because then the snowflake social justice warriors will have won.’ Did I miss anything?”
“All these comments denying the possible historical meaning of the siren is one reason I left at 18 and rarely go back to visit, even though I still have family there. Sounds like it hasn’t changed much in 40 years. People living in the bubble of their whiteness, with their heads in the sand, denying there are problems in the world just because they aren’t happening in their little town or to them, personally. Also denying that anyone is racist, because there is no racial tension in town. Of course there isn’t. To this day, there are no POC (or, very, very few) living there. Gotta think about why that is.”
“Some of the same people who are denying that Vermilion’s history was whitewashed are actually demanding that the current debate be whitewashed by having the whistle article deleted, and replaced by a new article about the wonderful, nostalgic history of the sirens omitting any mention of sundown towns.”
Other social media posters pointed to the existence of real estate covenants and deed restrictions that excluded African Americans from buying real estate, stating that proves Vermilion acted as a sundown town at least on some level.
Regardless of the intention of the nightly whistle to tone out firemen, it appears to mean something different to different people. To many Vermilion residents, the 6 pm siren signals it is time for the family to come together for dinner.
“The 6 oclock alarm reminds me and my family that it's dinner time. It tells my daughter that it's time to come home for dinner. Things are winding down and it is time to come home for dinner. I lose track of time some days when I am writing and I know when that goes off that ‘oh my goodness it's 6:00 already! On some days it tells me that Third Thursday is rolling! We say a prayer, and toast our first responders, and our neighbors (with apple juice and sparkling water); we love the 6:00 alarm for our toast!”
“As a kid, growing up in Vermilion in the 60s and 70s, we actually played outside. We would be riding bikes uptown or building a fort at the beach, or ice skating on the river. When we heard the siren, we knew it was time to head home for family dinner. Nobody ever thought anything more about it.”
A lot of people feel the siren is an important nightly equipment test.
“This is getting ridiculous!! My husband has been a firefighter for 43 plus years and this town siren has always been used as a test for their bells, plectrons, and now beepers! If you think otherwise you are wrong!! It’s time to end this rumor now!!”
“A lot of smaller towns have an emergency siren in the event of tornados or other instances. They’re set to go off daily just as an equipment check.”
For others, the nightly siren makes them feel un-welcomed in their own community.
“As a minority who grew up in Vermilion, this siren was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the racism I experienced in what a lot of the commenters believe to be a ‘safe, unbiased’ town. Nothing like taking a stroll when the siren happens to go off wondering who’s going to shout at me to ‘go home n*****’ because frankly it wasn’t just once. My fondest memory was being told I was going to be lynched and burned. Yes, in sweet old Vermilion where my family has lived for generations.”
“I will say I have only lived in Vermilion for a year and I have been told by multiple people about the siren. The first time I was in Rite Aid with my three children (who are mixed) and an older man came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you hear that, it’s time for you and your coon babies to go home.’ It made me upset. My kids deal with stupid people like that, and I know not everyone in Vermilion thinks like that, but it’s still hurtful.”
Numerous posters stated the history of the whistles is not the main issue; the bigger issue, they say, is that the community is not even willing to have a conversation about racism.
“Pretending that racism does not, and never has, existed in Vermilion doesn’t make it go away. Acknowledging that there is an issue doesn’t make Vermilion look bad. It makes Vermilion look open, honest and willing to listen. This ‘save the whistle’ histeria makes it obvious that Vermilion is not open to change, not willing to listen, not even willing to discuss the issue. That makes Vermilion look bad. We have made it very clear that we dismiss the opinions and feelings of people of color, and especially ‘outsiders’, unless of course if they agree with us. And if you and your parents weren’t actually born here, you can just move if you don’t agree with us. The voices of those different than us are not to be heard. They can come and visit to support our local businesses and organizations, but we draw the line at them having an opinion. This is our town and we can do anything we like.”
“So many people are only willing to look at this from their own perspective. You may feel nostalgia for the evening siren because you or a family member served in the Fire Department, or it brings your family together each night. Someone else may feel uncomfortable each time the whistle blows because, historically, similar whistles meant people of their color were not welcome after dark. Whether or not that’s how it began in Vermilion isn’t overly relevant. That is what it meant across the country, and what many people in and around Vermilion, to this day, continue to believe it means.”
“The fact that racism didn’t motivate the original choice in time for the sirens, as stated by some local historians, doesn’t change the fact that the 6 pm timing was racially insensitive. The time choice was a very bad decision then, and continues to be. It is long past time that we correct that decision.”
Other posters stated that the movement to end the whistle or alter it’s timing is nothing more than people “playing the race card” or attempting to get attention.
“United we stand; Divided we fall. People need to get off the racism crap of labeling anything and everyone racist. It’s gotten sickening and no longer has a purpose. Leave our little town alone. If you don’t like it. Move.”
“Seriously tired of the cancel culture and change movements. People trying so hard to find racism in everything. Guess what if you try hard enough you can find it in anything, because you want it to be.”
“This is an effort, by a few attention seekers, trying to perpetuate a rumor and instigate a response or demonstration. They are not truly concerned with racial issues or believe what they preach. It's all about making themselves feel important by starting a ‘movement’, no matter how baseless or ridiculous.”
Mayor Jim Forthofer has been credited by activists for listening and being open to change. The mayor stated he would look into the request regarding the siren and asked Vermilion Fire Department Chief Stempowski to review the necessity of the 6 pm sirens, and to consider alternatives. No decision has yet been made. Chief Stempowski is reviewing the process with his staff regarding the “required process of ‘toning out’ our first responders”.
Members of the “Keep the Whistle Blowing Vermilion!” group stated they will attend future City Council meetings to ensure their voice is heard.
One Vermilion resident offered this advice regarding the town whistle controversy: “Whatever the outcome of the current controversy in Vermilion, a conversation has been started. We cannot acknowledge injustices, nor correct misinformation, without discussing it, and that means not shutting down uncomfortable conversations. The lack of open discussion regarding the topic is how we ended up where we are now. Be empathetic. Listen. Really listen with an open mind. Have uncomfortable conversations with people who are different than you, who have had different life experiences than you, so we can make Vermilion more comfortable for all of us.”