Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.
Captain Borner spent 55 years in service to the citizens of Memphis. Born on February 11, 1868, Died on March 6, 1957, at age 89.
When E.H. Crump arrived in Memphis from Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1894, he got off the train at the Illinois Central Poplar Street Station, walked south to Adams and then east on Adams. As he walked past he saw a firefighter sitting on a bench in front of Fire Station number 1. He asked the firefighter where he could get a cup of coffee. The firefighter said come on in and he poured him a cup and offered to actually fry him an egg. This chance encounter would be the start of a lifelong friendship between two men who respected each other’s positions in life. Crump was appreciative but said no thank you. Crump had never seen such a shiny and fine fire engine or the trained horses in stalls behind the engine. He talked to the firefighter as he would on many occasions over the next 50 years. That firefighter was Driver Richard F. Borner.
Richard Borner joined the MFD on 8-1-1885 as a Pipeman on Engine Company 2. In 1888 he was promoted to Driver of Engine 1, then in 1900 promoted to Lieutenant of Engine 2. In 1906 he was promoted to Superintendent of Stables. The Memphis Fire Department stables were at Butler and Hernando. Richard Borner had the reputation of being the very best horseman on the job. His peers said there was no one who had a better command of the reigns than Richard Borner. As Supt. of Stables, it was his job to train the horses and the drivers of apparatus.
In 1910 he was promoted to Captain of Engine 11 A shift. Then in 1920, he was sent home to the 2’s, where he spent most of his early fire service life. In 1920 when the Fire Department struck, he did also. In 1931, when long-time Captain Jim O’Neil who was in charge of the Water Tower retired at 73, Captain Borner was moved to command the Water Tower. The Water Tower was a very unique and specialized piece of equipment. The Water Tower required a Captain with extreme skills. Placement at fires was mission-critical as well as its operation. This apparatus could flow more than 3000 gallons per minute in 1931 and place a heavy stream 7 stories up easily. He was in charge for the next 10 years.
Our research shows that Richard was one of 15 firefighters who contributed money to St. Thomas Church for the Fire Service-Stained glass window in 1925. This stained glass window is now on display at the Fire Museum of Memphis. He retired in 1941 after 55 years on the job at age 75. In Fire Chief Irby Klinck’s personal notes, he stated that this man was very efficient at his job even with his many years in age. He was a true credit to the MFD. Anytime you see a picture of the Crump Steamer in a parade, Richard Borner was at the reigns.
Every mayor prior to Crump had failed to provide the Memphis Fire Department with enough men and apparatus to properly handle a major fire. The past 12 Fire Chiefs had asked for more men and equipment but the request fell on deaf ears. In 1900 Fire Chief William Carrol even stated this in the Memphis Digest. As a Fire Department historian, I believe the relationship between Crump and Borner had an impact on this. Because Crump had an understanding of how the fire department actually works through his many conversations with Borner. I believe that through his relationship with Borner he had a better knowledge of the Fire department than past mayors had. All of this changed when Crump was elected Mayor. Crump never tried to micromanage the Fire Department. He loved the MFD and wanted it to have the best and wanted the best. He actually left them alone, something he never did when it came to the Police Department or any other department in the city or county. He had a toy fire engine on the mantle in his living room.
In his book Mr. Crump of Memphis, William D. Miller states “Borner was the kind of man Crump thought well of, a simple, kindly person, happy with his lot in life” Richard Borner and Mr. Crump would maintain a lifelong friendship. When Crump died, Captain Borner cried for the loss of his friend.
In Fire Chief Irby Klinck’s, (1934 to 1943) personnel notes from 1941, he stated that Richard Borner at age 75 was a very efficient employee. Crump thought he was too. In a Commercial Appeal article, someone asked Captain Borner, what was the worst fire he ever attended. He stated that on February 8, 1892, as the driver of Engine 1 a fire swept through a block of buildings between Main Street and Second Street and Monroe Avenue and Union Avenue and remained the worst in his memory. This million-dollar loss fire was started by an electrical defect and the following buildings were destroyed: Luehrmans Hotel, Lemon, and Gayle wholesale dry goods, Langstaff Hardware Company, Wetter and Company, Binne Bruce Hat company, Levy Trunk factory, Jack and Company, Wilkerson and Company and several other smaller businesses.