by Barrett Seaman –
John Cullen’s father was the first in his family to join Dobbs Ferry’s Ogden Engine Company and the first to join at age 18. That was in 1921, not long after the first motorized fire truck replaced the old horse-drawn wagons. That put a premium on someone who knew how to drive a truck, which young Cullen knew how to do, prompting the company to lower the minimum membership age from 21 in order to gain his services.
His counterpart in the Keiling family didn’t sign up until 1938, but he had three brothers who were also in the company. These original pyro-patriarchs are long gone, but Cullens and Keilings still dominate the membership rolls of Ogden Engine, which sits atop Ashford Avenue—one of three volunteer fire companies in the village. At present, there are four Keilings and eight Cullens on the rolls at Ogden Engine. Together, the two dynasties make up more than half the active firefighters in the company. At one time or another, three have been chiefs and seven have been captains (the second-ranked company officer).
The senior-most of the living members of the Keiling family, George, signed up in 1949, making this year his 70th in the company. John H. Cullen Sr. (“Pop-pop” to his grand- and great grandchildren) joined a year later. Both have served as chiefs. George Keiling III joined in 1977. John M. Cullen followed a year later. George II’s son Michael joined in 1981 and his son, George IV, joined in 2010. On the Cullen side, Kevin joined in 1981, Ryan in 2009 and Thomas, the youngest, signed up in 2016. Nancy Cullen Lindsay, daughter of Frank Cullen, one of John’s two brothers, was the first female to join, in 1990. You could say that firefighting is in their blood.
Ogden Engine is the youngest of Dobbs Ferry’s three volunteer fire companies, organized in 1898 as Ogden Hose Company (as there were very few gas-powered fire trucks back then). Today, their main truck carries both the hoses that connect to hydrants as well as 750 gallons of water. Ogden’s older siblings, Resolute Hook & Ladder and Livingston Hose, are housed in a station on Main Street adjacent to Village Hall.
It’s easy to see how the Cullen clan gravitated towards the Ogden company. Three generations of them grew up at 186 Ashford Avenue, practically across the street.
“I used to hang out here as a kid,” recalled John Cullen Sr. It wasn’t much different for the Keilings. George II, who grew up a couple of blocks north, remembers going to family picnics and Christmas parties at the station when he was eight. He remembered Nedgo (Ogden spelled backwards), the company’s Dalmatian mascot who knew everyone in the company but would “show her teeth” to anyone she didn’t know approaching the truck.
As Ogden is a volunteer company, everyone has a day job of one sort or another. Before he retired, John Cullen Sr. was the paid chief of the White Plains Fire Department. His son is now the commissioner for emergency services for Westchester County; Kevin is an athletic trainer at Manhattanville College and a full-time Emergency Medical Technician. Thomas, the youngest is a junior at Western Connecticut University and hopes to get a job somewhere as a paid firefighter.
Three of the four Keilings are in the carpentry business in town. Only George IV works outside the trade; he’s a mechanic at Performance Auto. Those, like the Keilings, who work close by are sometimes the only ones available to respond to daytime fires. There have been times when only one or two volunteers are there to respond to an alarm. George II and III were the first and for a while only firefighters to reach a recent fire at Children’s Village. “We wrapped the hydrant, stretched the line and got water to the rig,” recalls George II, “just before everybody else showed up.” The long-term shift from residents who work locally to commuters has made it tougher each year to bring in new members. That plus giving over three nights a week to training classes and the rising cost of living puts a strain on family life as well.
Both families remember all the major fires they had to face over the years—together: several of the big estates in neighboring Irvington, the Osborne Manor apartments blaze, Roslyn Gardens, a head-on train wreck in the ‘90s and the Ardsley Country Club fire in December 2014. There was at least one Cullen and a Keiling at each of these. And chances are good that one, the other or both will be at the next fire too.
Rivertowns Fire Departments – Volunteers Needed
Ardsley Fire Department – Est. 1896
Dobbs Ferry Fire Department – Est. 1883
Hastings-on-Hudson Fire Department – Est. 1876
Irvington Fire Department – Est. 1880
Pocantico Hills Fire Department – Est. 1904
Sleepy Hollow Fire Department – Est. 1876
Tarrytown Fire Department – Est. 1877