The hurt has passed; the pride remains

Firefighter Lewis Eller’s family shares his honor with Pierz Fire Department

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor 

Lewis J. Eller, long-time Pierz volunteer firefighter and chief, died in the line of duty in 1959. On Sept. 30, during a dedication of the new Minnesota Fallen Firefighter Memorial in St. Paul, Eller’s family received a Minnesota flag in his honor. The family decided to donate the flag to the Pierz Fire Department. It will be displayed at the Pierz Fire Hall. Pictured are (from left): Eller’s daughter, Joan Schmidtbauer; son, Art Eller, and Pierz Fire Chief Brian Boser.

In February 1959, Lewis John Eller, chief of the Pierz Fire Department, gave his life while fighting a fire.

More than 50 years later, Eller was honored Sept. 30, as one of 207 firefighters who has died in the line of duty since 1881, during a dedication ceremony at the new Minnesota Fallen Firefighter Memorial at the State Capitol in St. Paul.

Twenty-four members of Eller’s family attended, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Pierz Fire Chief Brian Boser and Pierz volunteer firefighters Don Bujalski and Jason Leeb attended to escort Eller’s family.

The ceremony was held on the state’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day, newly-designated as the last Sunday in September. An annual service will be held on that day at the 6,000-square-foot memorial area.

The $720,000 memorial, which includes a garden, was built to honor fallen firefighter heroes and their families.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” said Boser. “It was very moving, very inspirational for everybody that was involved that day,” he said. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world — being with all the families of the firefighters who have given the ultimate sacrifice.”

Eller’s name and year of death is etched onto one of the 86 slim steel columns in the pavilion which features a statue of a firefighter rescuing a child.

Lewis J. Eller, a longtime volunteer firefighter and fire chief in Pierz, died while fighting a fire in 1959.

Eller suffered a heart attack while working to put out a spreading garage fire, behind an apartment building owned by William Schmidtbauer, located a block east of the Old Bank Restaurant on Park Avenue. The building still stands in Pierz, a large yellow brick home, now used as a single-family home.

Eller had only arrived at the fire a few minutes before and had been pulling hose line, when he collapsed and died.

Joan (Mrs. Herb) Schmidtbauer of Little Falls, Eller’s daughter, was 25 years old when her father died. She said when the names of the firefighters and how they died were read during the ceremony, she was surprised at how many had died of a heart attack.

She is grateful that her father will be remembered as a hero and expressed her pride in his having been a firefighter. Schmidtbauer’s only regret is that her father didn’t get to see all of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This occasion, she said, brought back memories and brought the family together to experience the pride they felt.

Eller’s son, Art, who was 22 in 1959, described his father as “A very kind man. He could get along with everybody and was a pretty cool-headed man.”

“He was really, really devoted to the fire department,” said Art. “That was his whole pride and joy.”

Eller’s brother, Ben, served on the department at the same time. Art served on the department for two years after his father’s death. He had to leave the department when he moved out of city limits to the Freedhem area in the early 1960s.

Art said the ceremony “was something.”

“I knew it was going to be a big thing, but I didn’t expect it to be that big,” he said.

About 4,000 family members and firefighters attended the memorial.

He said he hadn’t expected the volunteer firefighters from Pierz to go. But, he said, “The chief was there himself. They escorted us through the whole performance. They were all in their dress uniforms and did a terrific job; we were grateful they were there.”

Art still operates the harness business his father and Uncle Ben ran together on the north side of Pierz. The harness business that had been started by their father, William Eller in 1893, at one time also included shoe repair.

The family was presented with a Minnesota flag in Eller’s honor.

After discussing it among themselves, the family decided the flag should be donated to the Pierz Fire Department — the department their father, grandfather and great-grandfather had been devoted to.

“It’s very nice for the family to actually present us with that flag. To have that at the fire hall means a lot to the current and future firefighters,” said Boser. “It’s a very moving thing done by the family.”

Boser said Redwood Industries will craft a wooden display case with a glass front to house the flag; it will match another case that contains an American flag donated to the department by an Iraq veteran.

Born Oct. 9, 1893, in Pierz, Eller was 65 years old when he died. He had been with the Pierz Fire Department for more than 30 years and had been the fire chief for 16 years. He and his wife, Susan, had eight children, with the youngest still at home when he died.

Susan passed away in 1987, at age 88.

To-date, Eller is the only Pierz firefighter to die in the line of duty.

Boser said he hopes it stays that way.

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