In the early 1900’s a church bell would ring to gather in the town’s people for a meeting or an emergency, as the people lived in village-type settings within ear’s shot of the sound. Then in the early 1950’s, AT&T developed the electronic siren which improved upon the decades of using bells, street horns, hand-cranked sirens or steam-screaming whistles. It was the era of new mechanical sirens, which guaranteed to spin a sound farther and louder than ever before. Made with a slotted chopped wheel system, an interruption of the air flow could now regulate the length of the noise, monitoring various sounds and warnings so the siren could actually communicate a message.
Tony Hughes, a longtime resident of Hawthorne, could recall the screeching moan of an air-raid drill, coming out from the local siren with an instant reaction of tempered fear. “We had blackouts back then. With the Naval base right here, the whistle would sound and everyone knew to turn off their lights, pull down the shades and even extinguish a cigarette. There was to be no light for an aircraft to see from the sky, which would protect us from a bombing.” It was more precautionary than viable, but it alerted the civilian rural population to any possible emergency, which was confirmed by an article dated Jan. 26, 1955, when Floyd Crabtree, the new Nevada State Director of Civil Defense, stated a need for a proper civil defense air-raid setup within all warning systems.
These were to fully alert any civilian of danger or any emergency with a maximum eight minute signal, allowing for maximum protection to all residents. Hughes explained another practicality of the local Hawthorne siren. “In such a small community, it was a way to get everyone’s attention. I remember it was used for the volunteer firefighters, but the sound was different. They’d use short blasts of sound as a code to the firemen, telling them which part of town the fire was at. They memorized the sound and would head off north or south, wherever the sound indicated. It was pretty amazing the way it was all set up by folks back then.”
Tony’s wife, Sharon, remembered two of her friends that were hired to set the clock for a daily, noon-day test. It not only tested the whistle, it indicated lunchtime for the workers in town.
But these whistles and sirens were not without their issues. In a Dec. 19, 1945 article printed in the Mineral County Independent and Hawthorne News, it states that the whistle had stopped working for three months. They had a Silver Hotel fire while the whistle was broken and yet, just following this fire, a false alarm went off. This alerted the town back into a second rushed state, as they responded to the sound as if there was another fire.
Although the town had been aroused by a faulty wire, it wasn’t long until a replacement wiring station was installed to avoid this mishap again. Another historic account involved the town of Mina, on Feb. 1, 1939.
“The residents were given a combination of thrills and a scare when the new siren was turned on for the first time with a resultant blast that attracted considerable attention.”
There was no fire, but the town people agreed that a sense of security had been added to the roof of the Mina Volunteer Fire Department garage and the noon day sound would establish an expected satisfaction.
Now, present day concerns are facing Hawthorne as they have a broken, deteriorating siren. There is a question being discussed – “Is this siren a thing of the past, or is it still a benefit to the local citizens?”
Now that phone technology seems to be overriding and replacing the rural emergency need of sirens or whistles, the culture and tradition still remains beloved to the communities that have maintained the central siren calls. In fact, the U.S Department of Agriculture and Rural Township recently gave $22,700 in grant money to Albion, Ind. for a five-siren emergency system. They considered it essential for a community need and vital for weather and emergency situations.
In contrast, a study done by Zogby International in 2012 showed that the average person is unaware of the alerting system within their area. The study stated, “There is an apathetic response even in an emergency scenario and within communications.” When asked, this segment of individuals that were surveyed showed that 71 percent of Americans were unsure if they had a personal alerting or notification system in their area. There were 57 percent that did not know when sirens were tested and 70 percent were unaware of the actual meaning behind the sounds or what association it would have with them. Only one in four actually knew what the siren warning is meant, so most were not motivated to understand their local emergency procedures.
That situation actually played out among some Hawthorne locals, as many responded through Facebook and emails during the latest storm and freak tornado incident. “Why did the siren go off?” many asked. “Was it to warn everyone about the tornado?” others wanted to know. Truly the broken siren had called out two long sound bites following a power break.
Glenn Bunch, who had experience fixing the historic siren in the past, weighed in that there was a timer issue. Due to two settings – one that turns it off and one that turns it on, the power bump sent a message to the siren to sound off, obviously due to the timer still being set “on” somehow.
Daniel Goodwin shared in the discussion, with a unique observation related to fires. “Whenever the siren went off because of a fire, it [the siren] would remind residents to turn off their water to allow the fire department the best possible water pressure for fighting the local fire.”
As comments relayed memories of those old horns, one comment stood out from Tracie Lawrence. “Even though I don’t live there anymore, I would donate to have it [the siren] working properly for every citizen of Hawthorne.”
And that seems to be a sentiment well said by many. So is this local siren just a set of horns on a pole, reminiscent of yesteryear but no longer relevant for the future? Is there a high value on this landmark which holds an amount far greater than a few dollars of needed repair? As perplexing as this issue is, the public is weighing in on their treasured noon whistle. The siren may only spurt out a whiny tone upon a random energy spike for now, but it is striving to hold a memorable place in Hawthorne.