VERNON TOWNSHIP – A lot has changed in Vernon Township over the past 47 ½ years, but one thing about its advisory board has remained the same.
Gary “Toastie” Sharrett.
The Republican elected official is stepping down from his post after nearly 12 terms. Throughout that time, fire protection remained one of his top priorities.
In 1974, Sharrett first joined the board, helping to oversee the township in Hancock County’s northwestern corner that includes the towns of Fortville and McCordsville.
He started serving on the Fortville Volunteer Fire Department several years before that.
Negotiations between the township and the towns heated up every year over funding for fire protection, Sharrett recalled. Then there were concerns over how much in taxes the township would get to provide fire protection along with other services like poor relief and taking care of cemeteries and parks.
“And there was always hassle with that,” Sharrett said. “So I thought, well, I’ll get on the board and see if I can help out and try to get more.”
Sharrett served in the fire department for about 50 years. He worked for airlines in Indianapolis and also farmed.
He remembers what fire protection looked like in Vernon Township in the 1960s and 1970s well.
“We had a top-notch team,” Sharrett said. “But we did not have EMS. That’s one of the big changes. We relied on the local funeral home.”
Fire protection in the township recently transitioned to a paid model as interest in volunteer firefighting wanes.
Decades ago, however, participation was robust in large part due to the kinds of jobs volunteers had and the way they could work volunteering into their schedules.
“We used to have a lot of people around here,” Sharrett said. “We could have as many people at nine o’clock in the morning as you could at nine o’clock at night because people worked around and worked shifts.”
Then companies with presences in the area where many volunteer firefighters worked diminished, like General Motors, Ford, Western Electric, Chrysler and International Harvester.
“It’s a whole different world out there right now,” Sharrett said.
Finances remained a challenge. Sharrett recalled participating in fundraisers, including a particularly brutal one.
“It was a good fundraiser, but it was bad,” he said. “We had a car-wash one time to make money. And if we’d have had a fire that night, it would’ve burned down because we were dead. We washed something like 90-some cars, a couple semis. We made some good money, but let me tell you, it was work.”
Sharrett has seen Vernon Township’s landscape change significantly as well. He remembers when Fortville had 12 gas stations, three car dealers, three jewelry stores, five grocery stores and a movie theater.
“We had a lot more people, especially in the fire department, involved in the community and all that,” he said.
Sharrett faced little election competition over the decades as he made the decision to return again and again.
“I had some goals I wanted to meet, and no one else would run,” he said.
While some have called to do away with township government, Sharrett said it’s best to keep government as close to its constituents as possible.
“I think it’s a good move to keep that, and keep local people involved,” he said.
Sharrett has served with seven Vernon Township trustees, including Florence May, who’s currently in the role. She called his longevity remarkable and said he was an asset to the township as fire protection underwent a significant transition over the past several years.
“To have somebody who brings that type of experience, you certainly do not get every day,” May said. “What he has seen in his 47 years and the fact that he has served as a volunteer firefighter himself, and to bring that type of knowledge of the fire department really added tremendous value as we were going from volunteer to the Vernon Township Fire Department, and then to the (fire protection) territory. It was just great to have somebody with fire service expertise on the board.”
His decades as a farmer call for recognition as well, she said.
“Incredible service to this community all the way around,” she added.
May recalled how Sharrett, after hearing of desires for a township community garden in 2020, brought his tractor to the former township office’s grounds to prepare the field.
“And the next day we had a community garden,” she said.
Sharrett and his wife moved just outside of the township to downsize on land he’s owned for over 45 years and farmed.
With six months left in his term, the Hancock County Republican Party will have a caucus to determine his replacement. Republicans slated to appear on this November’s general election ballot for the three-member Vernon Township Advisory Board are incumbents Tim Plank and Marybeth Sears as well as newcomer Anthony Wayne Buechler.