Work with what you’ve got.

That’s the mantra of the volunteers who man rural fire departments across Southwest Oklahoma, but especially it’s the attitude of one particular history-minded firefighter in Cache.

Craig Roberts set out about three months ago to trace the origins of the department which he has served since 1998, and though he couldn’t find evidence of fire protection from when the town was founded a century ago, he found enough to at least get a record started.

On Tuesday, prior to the city council meeting in Cache, the city awarded the department with a plaque honoring at least 70 years of fire protection service.

   Dec. 1, 1941, is the earliest date on record in the archives of Oklahoma State Firefighters Association for an official fire department in Cache, Roberts said.

   And though it’s a sure thing the town had fire protection of some sort much earlier than that, Roberts and the rest of the Cache crew are going to work with the earliest official date they’ve got.

   Roberts said he was inspired to research the department’s history when, during a firefighter appreciation event at Holy City of the Wichitas several months ago, he set out to design a department T-shirt.

   “When I went to go make the design I wanted to put a year on it, but we didn’t have a year,” Roberts said. “I made some calls, and this is the earliest I could find, so we’ve sort of adopted it.”

   An inventory list faxed by the state agency to Roberts earlier this month notes the Cache department claimed almost $3,000 worth of equipment at the time. There were six volunteers — led by Chief L.H. Colvin — 750 feet of hose and one combination of car or horse cart. Roberts said he’s dying to know which it was.

   “I can’t tell you what it was, but I sure would like to know. I’d love to see a picture,” he said. “It’s a shame you don’t have a historian at each department. I’m trying to keep track of the history here, but it’s overwhelming.”

   Dale Winham, chief of the all-volunteer department, said he, too, is sure the department’s history goes back further than 1941. Even so, the difference between the Cache department today and in 1941 is staggering.

   Winham said his dad joined the Lawton Fire Department in 1949, and even then the city department’s inventory was nothing compared to today.

   “They were just smoke-eaters — they wore a bumper coat, a helmet and maybe gloves,” Winham said of his predecessors. “If they worked on a farm they would wear coveralls. Whatever they wore when they were working is what they wore to fight fires.”

   Cache was established in 1901 but wasn’t officially incorporated until 1905. Comanche County Commissioner Don Hawthorne, in an account written two years ago for the County Times, said three major fires hit downtown Cache during its first dozen years of existence. The first two were ignited when passing trains kicked up cinders on the old wooden buildings that lined the tracks, and the third started inside a feed store.

   Winham said modernization from the old “bucket brigades” to the professional department he leads today came gradually along with growth in the area and changes in technology. As fire protection became more of a priority for the country residents west of Lawton, department leaders became more politically and financially savvy.

   Now the department boasts 17 volunteers, with room for 20, Winham said, and a fleet of professional-class vehicles — a 2000 engine, a 2011 rescue truck, a 2010 3,000-gallon tanker, and brush trucks from 2004 and 2007. The department collects revenue from the county, plus donations and grants, and it also sells a subscription service to the rural residents outside city limits who also rely on the department for fire protection.

   In the late 1990s, the department moved out of the cramped Quonset hut from which it operated for decades and into its current facilities — a steel garage ding with offices and restrooms, all constructed and outfitted by firefighters like Roberts.

   Winham said calls increased from about 45 a year when he started in the early 1990s to well above 500 a year now.

   “To save a trailer house was unheard of in a volunteer department ... — we’re saving structures,” he said.

   Tuesday’s acknowledgment from the city is a morale booster for his men, Winham said, but it also sets a standard he would like to see persist through future generations: an emphasis on preserving the department’s history.

   He said he imagines one day, a decade or a century from now, a new breed of firefighters will be sitting around with their chief with questions about the old days. Thanks to Roberts’ research, he said, they’ll at least have a starting point.

   “They’ll be sitting here doing the same thing we’re doing, and I want them to know we once had junk,” Winham said. “We started out with nothing, and I don’t want them to take it for granted.”

   Firefighters in Cache are calling on the public to help patch together the department’s history. Anyone with old photos, stories or other documentation of the Cache Fire Department may call city hall at 429-3354.