• Kim Piekos

Noon Siren Marks Time, Nostalgia for Lake Foresters

By Kim Piekos

Ask any resident, and he or she will tell you there is no doubt when it is noon in town. The siren that sits atop City’s Hall’s tower wails at precisely that moment -- a 124-year-old tradition that residents cherish and count on.

Jay Shlifka, owner of Kiddles Sports in Market Square, takes comfort in the noon siren. “I find it endearing, comforting and a throwback to when times were simpler,” he says. “For that moment in time each day, it can almost feel like everything is ok in the world.”

Superintendent of Public Works Dan Martin stands with the siren that sounds each day at noon, a tradition which sets Lake Forest apart from other towns.

Lifelong resident Tom Swarthout recalls the role of the siren in his childhood. “Growing up here while playing Little League, we all scrambled to go home for lunch when we heard it.”

And Lake Forest history expert Art Miller notes, “It’s a helpful marker of time during the day.”

The siren’s history is closely intertwined with that of the city’s fire department. Shortly after the municipal water system was installed in 1890, a 10-man volunteer brigade fought fires using a horse-drawn hose wagon that was eventually housed at City Hall. In 1898, a fire bell was placed in the tower of the new City Hall to alert the volunteers to a fire. Firemen hung their hoses to dry in the tower below the bell.

On Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, so many Lake Foresters flocked to City Hall to ring the fire bell in celebration that the bell cracked and “the pullers at the rope could barely hear it,” according to the Lake Forester.

Many iterations of the city’s fire alarm followed. A steam whistle was installed at a laundry as a temporary fix followed by a heavier and larger bell. Complaints of it being hard to hear if people were inside buildings led to the next option: an electric siren of the “devil whistle” variety. The city adopted the practice of testing the siren every day at noon.

“It was important to be able to hear the whistle as that’s how they would rally all the volunteer firefighters who were butchers, bakers and other business owners,” says Superintendent of Public Works Dan Martin. “They would drop their aprons and go help put the fire out.”

In the 1920s, the City Council assigned specific siren blast and fire bell alarm signals based on the area of the city where there was a fire. When fires were put out, the bell was tolled. Then, in 1928, the city purchased what was considered the “most approved and efficient alarm device on the market,” according to the Lake Forester. This device had a lower tone and was able to signal the exact section of town where the fire was.

Alas, the lower pitch was deemed unacceptable as residents couldn’t hear it easily. Back came a whistle with a higher pitch. By 1943, the fire department was still using three short blasts to call volunteer firemen to a fire. The siren also alerted people to air raids.

In 1997, the city mounted 12 sirens on telephone poles located strategically throughout the city to alert residents to weather emergencies, hazardous waste spills and other potential disasters. Each siren rotates in four directions and can be heard within a one-mile radius. These sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of every month at 10 a.m.

“The sirens are designed to be heard when people are outside,” says Fire Chief Peter Siebert. “We physically examine all sirens every month to make sure they are operational.”

In the late 1990s, the siren at City Hall ceased working. Martin recalls receiving calls from residents about the distress this caused them. “One couple told me they remembered to take their medicine when they heard the siren every day,” he said.

Former Mayor Morrison Waud and his wife, Anne, generously donated funds in 1998 to purchase the latest siren, a multi-tiered, speaker-type one that emits its whistle in four directions at once. “It’s not Lake Forest without the noon whistle,” asserts lifelong resident David Waud, the son of the donors. “You didn’t mess with that bell as a kid. It was almost sacred.”