Back in the 1920s and '30s, the village of Chapel Hill extended from Carrboro on the west to the top of Strowd's Hill on the east. Strowd's Hill was what Franklin Street was known as then from the crest just east of Boundary Street to its foot near Estes Drive (although there was no Estes Drive there at the time -- only a dairy and a pasture, but that's another story).The other town boundaries for all intents and purposes were on Pittsboro Road near Merritt's Service Station (just west of the James Taylor Bridge), on the Raleigh Road where Country Club Road intersects, and on North Columbia Street a few blocks north of Rosemary Street near where Airport Road (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) begins.What is important about delineating the boundaries of the town back in those times? Because those were the approximate limits of the Chapel Hill fire district.Chapel Hill had one fire station. It was located in the middle of North Columbia Street at its intersection with Rosemary Street. The small building not only housed the fire department, but also the police station and the city jail.Back then, Chapel Hill relied initially on a volunteer fire department and, later on, a small fire truck that is now housed in the Chapel Hill Museum. When a fire was discovered, those volunteer firefighters were expected either to report to the fire station or go directly to the scene of the blaze.And just how were these volunteers to know the location of the fire? Well, that's the story that we unfold here today. There were few telephones or radios in Chapel Hill then, so word-of-mouth was a frequent medium of communication. But this was inadequate to the task of alerting everyone in town. So a more effective means of notification was devised.Atop the small fire station building was a large horn that could be heard for several miles. This horn produced a single sound -- a very loud noise that sounded like "ponk!"One ponk meant one; two ponks in quick succession meant two; and one ponk followed by a brief pause and two more ponks meant 12.In the front of the very small book that served as a phone book and a student directory was a listing of the major street intersections within the town and each had its own fire code. Hence, when someone heard sounds emitted from the fire station horn, he could look up the number and know the intersection nearest the fire. Volunteer firefighters, concerned citizens and the just plain curious would then descend upon the area.Once the fire was extinguished, an "all clear" signal was sounded by the horn -- a long, continuous ponk that let everyone know that the fire was out. Fortunately, in those days, fires in Chapel Hill that required the services of the fire department were infrequent.Living in Chapel Hill as a lad of 8 to 11 years of age, I never wondered just how someone at the fire station activated the horn and directed people to the correct location. I thought someone just pushed a button. But it was much more sophisticated than that.In the Chapel Hill Museum, you can see the answer. There on a wall near the old fire truck is a wooden case with a glass front. Behind the glass hangs a series of metal tabs, each about the size of a half-dollar and each with its own distinct series of notches. When these tabs were inserted and the machine activated, it promptly produced the series of ponks desired. This elaborate yet simple apparatus was known as the Gamewell Fire Alarm System.Some early reports describe a fire station on Franklin Street, but its exact location is not well-documented. The museum does have a photograph of this building -- a small, wooden, two-story structure that likely also served as both the fire station on the first floor and the town jail on the upper floor. There is no indication that the old fire horn ever adorned the roof of this ancient structure.I'm not sure when the ponk of the old fire station horn finally was silenced, but it likely was some time in the 1940s, probably when the building at the intersection of Columbia and Rosemary streets ceased to be used as a fire station.When the Chapel Hill Museum opened its Heroes of Yesterday, Heroes of Today exhibit in August 2007, it chronicled the fire department's history briefly as follows: "The Chapel Hill Fire Department (CHFD) originated as a proposal to the town's leaders in 1896. While the idea was well-received, the department was not officially formed until 1901 when a hook-and-ladder outfit and two reels of hose were purchased."The first loosely assembled band of Chapel Hill firefighters were a handful of volunteers who were determined to protect the community's life and property, and fearless in the face of danger. Today, the Chapel Hill Fire Department has nearly 100 professional firefighters, spread across five stations strategically placed to best respond to our growing community's needs."Today, when we hear the sounds of a Chapel Hill fire truck responding to a call, we can but wonder where the emergency exists. There is no loud ponk of a centrally located horn to alert us to the location.