Still Fighting Fires After All These Years
By Nora Howard
Since 1803, Wethersfield’s Volunteer Fire Department has been responding to fires, floods, and other disasters. But the modern department has little in common with the old one, except for the dedication, pride and bravery of its volunteers.
The organization began in a time when the best defenses against fire were a bucket by your door, neighbors for a bucket brigade, rakes and brooms at hand, and a night watchman alert for tiny flames.
All of Wethersfield had to be always on guard. Chimney fires were especially common, for once carbon built up among the wood and clay of a chimney and hardened into coal, it was the perfect place for a spark to burst into a fire. Flames could spew high into the air, raining down embers on surrounding buildings.
The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department actually traces its beginnings to 1708, when the town began appointing Chimney Viewers. By 1797, the situation had become so serious that the town voted to require monthly house and chimney inspections. A dirty chimney was such a threat to town safety that it cost a fine of almost three shillings: money, which helped pay that wandering night watchman.
In 1801, the First Ecclesiastical Society appropriated $200 plus funds from a public subscription to buy the first force pump in town. The next year, its members voted to build a pump shed and stable area on the grounds north of the meetinghouse, where its ladders were stored. The pump was such a success that the town purchased a second force pump within two years.
In 1803, the Connecticut legislature passed a law that if a town had certain fire equipment and volunteers, it could charter a Fire Company. On May 10, the State approved a petition submitted by Stephen Mix Mitchell (1743-1835), of Wethersfield, and authorized the establishment of the 16-member Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Company. As an incentive to join the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Company, the 16 volunteer firemen didn’t have to pay their taxes for using the road between Hartford and Middletown. Failure to answer an alarm, however, resulted in a fine. Wethersfield’s was the first volunteer fire company chartered in Connecticut.
Today, the Wethersfield company has the proud distinction of being the oldest volunteer fire department in continuous existence in New England, and possibly the United States. Other companies were established earlier with volunteers, but have since become paid organizations.
Stephen Mix Mitchell was the right person to submit this important petition to the State. Mitchell had been a delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. Senator, and was on his way to becoming Chief Justice of Connecticut. Town leaders then asked Colonel John Chester (1748¬1809) to actually establish the new fire company. Chester had some good organizational experience: In 1775 he had led more than 100 Wethersfield men of the 6th Militia Regiment into the Battle of Bunker Hill.
In 1827, the Connecticut legislature began to consider allowing the various fire companies to incorporate. Wethersfield’s Ecclesiastical Society voted “that the Civil Committee of 1803 under a resolve in the Legislature enlist and organize into a Fire Company and enact suitable by-laws for their attendance and training and to create measures to protect and extinguish fire within the district area….”
The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Company incorporated under a special act in May 1834, with 25 members.
Wethersfield’s eager volunteers were ready to fight fires, with some of the best equipment, talent, and procedures possible. Still, this was not enough. In 1831, prior to incorporation, a fire in John Williams’ barn raged just north of the meetinghouse. It destroyed four homes, several barns, and Allen’s Inn. Volunteers pulled down a fifth house to stop the fire from spreading.
The Connecticut Courant reported that: “Yesterday afternoon, about one o’clock, our citizens were alarmed by the ringing of the bells, occasioned by the arrival of a messenger from Wethersfield with the intelligence that a destructive fire was raging in that place. Several of our [Hartford] Fire Companies with their engineer, hose, hooks, etc., and a large number of citizens, immediately started for the fire, and arrived in person to render some assistance to the almost exhausted inhabitants of the place.
The fire commenced between 12 and I o’clock, in a barn belonging to J. Williams, Esq. and formerly occupied as a Tavern, and the house owned and occupied by Miss Brigden. The fire was one of the most destructive, we believe, ever experienced in the towns in this vicinity, and the ruins, extending for some distance on the pleasant street of this delightful village, present a most melancholy appearance. Part of the property was insured. There is too much reason to believe the fire was the work of an incendiary.”
John Williams’ servant probably set the fire. Williams, gentleman and Wethersfield philanthropist, built his next house (260 Main Street) of brick.
Disaster on Main Street struck again in August 1834. A fire opposite the previous one (in the vicinity of today’s Comstock, Ferre & Co.) consumed seven or eight of James Belden’s barns and seed houses, the houses and barns of three others and a shoe shop. Hartford again sent help. The fire had started in a building belonging to Dr. Erastus Cook, who stored materials to manufacture dyestuffs, medicine and gunpowder for his Chemical Lane (now Hart Street) factory.
The Connecticut Courant reported that: “This place has again been visited with a very destructive fire. It broke out about 4 o’clock last Wednesday afternoon, in the barn of Dr. E.F. Cook, and extending with great rapidity north and south, was not arrested until it had swept away several buildings and destroyed much valuable property. The house and barn belonging to Dr. Cook, with their contents, except a part of the furniture saved from the house, were entirely consumed.
“Loss, estimated at $2,500-insurance $1,500. A barn, three storehouses, and a corn-house, owned by J.L. Belden, Esq., shared the same fate. Mr. Belden’s loss, including injury done to his house and south store, is estimated at $5,500-insurance $2,500. Mr. B. was extensively engaged in the sale of garden seeds, a large amount of which was destroyed. In addition to these buildings, a house and barn owned by Mr. Roswell Clapp, and occupied by Mrs. Dewitt, were burnt. Mr. Clapp’s loss $1,500 – furniture of Mrs. Dewitt $150 – no insurance.
“A house and large wood and lumber house belonging to Mrs. Clarissa Goodrich-loss $2,350-no insurance. Also a store occupied by Ormand Harrison, belonging to Mrs. Clarissa Goodrich-value $500-no insurance.
“As soon as a messenger arrived here with intelligence that a fire was raging in Wethersfield, the alarm was given, and several of our Fire Companies with their engines and implements, together with a large number of citizens, proceeded immediately to Wethersfield, and rendered such, assistance as was in their power. The origin of the fire is not known:’
A big improvement to the town’s firefighters’ ability came in 1858 when the company purchased its first fire engine, a used hand pumper. “The Neptune 9” had a gooseneck nozzle mounted on top that provided enough pressure to shoot water 70 feet high. The town obtained this fire engine through the efforts of Wethersfield’s Jared Butler, who lived in Hartford while he served there as fire company engineer. When Hartford changed over to horse-drawn steam fire engines, Butler saw to it that Wethersfield got what Hartford didn’t need anymore.
Neptune No. 1, 13 feet long, also had leather hoses, buckets, and a bell. Comstock Ferre’s draft horses pulled it or firemen hauled it. Regulations required ten men on the side ropes in transit. Five men worked two-minute relays manning the brakes: the two rocking pump handles on either side. Two foremen counted the rhythm.
Neptune No. 1 was stored in the Stillman Conference House’s basement, a few feet north of the First Church meetinghouse. Deacon Timothy Stillman had built the Conference House for First Church (c. 1814) on his land in the vicinity of 319 Main Street. In 1831, the building was moved to the north side of the meetinghouse, and served as a chapel and Sunday School. With a new brick basement mostly above ground, it was a good place to store the fire engine, and the town hearse.
A new hook, ladder, and bucket carrier, “One Hope No. 1” replaced Neptune in 1872. Civil War veteran Edward G. Woodhouse was instrumental in forming the One Hope No. 1 Fire Company. He can be considered the father of the modern fire department. This vehicle was made by Dibble and Standish Brothers, carriage builders, for $125. It was housed in its own building at the northwest corner of Main and Church streets until the 1920s, when Comstock’s expanded into that space. (This building is now the Red Barn Gift Shop, 133 Main Street.)
The earliest fire alarm was simply the ringing of the First Church bell. Wethersfield had had a bell since around 1645, when construction began on the first meetinghouse. The 1872 Griswoldville Chapel bell was also used to ring alarms. Between 1908 and 1918, fire alarm bell ringers wrote a list of fires on the plaster wall by the First Church stairway near the bell rope. The notations included: Oct. 19, 1913. Chas Wolcott barn and Connors barn 1:30 p.m. Fri 9/1/15 Samuel Woodhouse ice house 4:40 p.m. And Thurs. 10/25/17 Academy Hall.
The most precious section of town in the early 1900s was the intersection of Main and Church streets. That’s where town life centered, with shops, homes, and public buildings. With this in mind, firemen chose that location in 1926 for the first fire alarm box, Firebox 34. This was a telegraph system that tapped out code “34” to the operator at the State Prison, who in turn blasted the prison whistle with a code to communicate the fire’s location. Other boxes were numbered with other grid locations.
The First Church bell continued to ring for fires until 1932 when horns were installed on top of the two firehouses. These horns blast at noon and 6 p.m. The police department took over fire alarm dispatching duties in the early 1960s, when a prison riot compromised the prison’s ability to report a fire.
Firefighters’ response time continued to become quicker. In 1955, short-wave radios went into fire vehicles with a base station at Company N o.1 on Main Street. Firefighters received home alert radios in [966, and now have small pagers for their belts.
Improvements to fire protection followed through the years. In 1909, the Wethersfield Fire District was formed to provide a public water supply. To do this, water mains were extended from State Street and Main Street, and water was purchased (rom Hartford. A private company (which became the Metropolitan District Commission) had been authorized to lay and maintain water pipes. It installed wooden water pipes eight years later.
Other “firsts” include a fire truck with a gasoline engine and solid rubber tires ([915), the first water rescue boat (1962), a 1965 La France pumper equipped with a 500-gallon water tank and special Foam tank to serve against hazards on the new Interstate 9 1, and the first rescue vehicle (1967), the ‘Jaws of Life’ (1977), and a fire truck with a 100-foot high bucket (1997).
There have been two tragic deaths at the Volunteer Fire Department. The first recorded death of a firefighter was just prior to World War II, when J. Stanley Wells, responding to a fire on foot and crossing Griswold Road, was hit by a car. On March 10, 1969, a car struck and killed engineer Michael Mele outside Company 2.
Fires and disasters of note in the 1900s include: The Connecticut State Prison garage fire (I935); Sacred Heart Church, the only major church fire in the town’s history (1938); Hart Seed Company’s offices and seed plants (1943); US. Army Thunderbolt Fighter Plane crash at Wethersfield Country Club (1948); Ammonia leak at Teddy’s Frosted Foods with evacuation of the southeast section of town (1953); Wethersfield Lumber Company (1955); 13 firefighters at NAMCO Swimming Pool Warehouse exposed to chlorine gas and treated at Hartford Hospital; State Police flew Governor Ella Grasso to the scene (1979).
Smoke detectors have dramatically reduced the number of fire disasters. During 1995-96, however, firefighters still responded to 574 alarm calls. And what helps keep New England’s oldest volunteer fire department equipped, trained, and ready? It’s those old by-laws, written in 1803, still making remarkably good sense after all these years.
About the Author: Nora Howard