Technically not all fires are natural disasters - certainly not those that are the result of arson, or perhaps not even some instances of "spontaneous combustion". Nevertheless, one of the very first things that I learned about Wethersfield was its strong history of volunteerism, as exemplified by our volunteer fire department that for over one hundred years has provided protection to our town from conflagrations large and small.
In 1803 The First Church Society (then known as the First Ecclesiastical Society) initiated the political activity of applying for a state charter for a volunteer fire department.
"RESOLVE ESTABLISHING A FIRE COMPANY IN WETHERSFIELD, PASSED, MAY 1803.
"Upon petition of the First Society in Wethersfield, shewing that they have procured two fire engines.
"Resolved by this Assembly, That full power and authority be, and is hereby granted unto the Honorable Stephen M. Mitchell, Esq. and the other civil authority, and the committee of the said society for the time being, to raise by voluntary enlistment ' A Fire Company,' within the limits of said society, to consist of not more than sixteen men for the purpose of working said engine, and to organize said company with proper officers, and also to form regulations and by-laws for the same, which regulations and bylaws shall be enforced by the officers of said company by penalties not exceeding ten dollars.
"Provided, however, that said by-laws are not contrary to any laws of this State, and said civil authority and society's committee are impowered to exempt the poll of each and every person that shall enlist into said company, after it shall be organized and furnished with fire engine and apparatus therefor, from the highway tax, so long as they shall actually serve in said company." (XXXI)
Despite the existence of the oldest volunteer fire company in continuous existence in Connecticut, and the oldest in New England, there were two major conflagrations in Wethersfield during the 1830's - both of which caused noteworthy changes to the town. There was a miniature recreation of the two fires at a Wethersfield Historical Society exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of the town's volunteer department.
"The first fire began in the John Williams barn north of the meetinghouse [next to the First Church] on the east side of Main Street in 1831, and resulted in the destruction of several barns and six homes, one of which didn't burn but was pulled down by volunteers to halt the fire from spreading further." (XXXII)
"A very disastrous fire occurred at Wethersfield on Monday last. It broke out between twelve and one o'clock, in a barn belonging to John Williams, Esq. contiguous to his dwelling-house. The conflagration soon extended to the adjacent buildings, and continued its ravages until five dwelling-houses, and two barns, attached, were entirely consumed.
"The buildings destroyed, were, the house owned and occupied by John Williams, Esq.; Mrs. Tryon's house; Dr. Samuel B. Woodward's house; a large building owned by John Williams, Esq., and formerly occupied as a Tavern; and the house owned and occupied by Miss Brigden.
"So soon as intelligence of the calamity reached this city, our Fire Companies, with their engines, hooks, ladders, hose, &c. repaired to Wethersfield, and were instrumental in preventing a still greater extension of the fire. The meetinghouse was several times in imminent danger.
"The only insurance effected upon the property destroyed, were $4,300 on the dwelling of Mr. Williams. The fire was communicated to the barn, it is believed, by an incendiary--an Irishman--who had long harbored revenge for a fancied injury, and had often, as we understand, threatened to perform the base deed which there can be little doubt he has at last committed. We learn, also, from a New Haven journal that the Bake-house occupied by Messrs. Flagg and Lego, at the head of the long wharf in that town, was destroyed by fire on Saturday evening last." (XXXIII)
"The History of Ancient Wethersfield" says "The fire was of an incendiary nature, by a servant girl of Mr. Williams." (XXXIV)
Three years later the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department was legally incorporated...
"RESOLVE INCORPORATING THE WETHERSFIELD FIRE COMPANY, PASSED, HAY 1834.
"Resolved by this Assembly, That James Smith, Abraham Skaats, George Stillman, Junior, Charles Shepard, and others, who are or may be associated with them, not exceeding at any one time, twenty-five in number, be, and hereby are made and constituted a corporation, by the name of ' T/it Wetherffield Fire Company (XXXV)
...and the second major fire of the 1830's occurred. "The second fire, which occurred in August 1834 on the west side of Main Street, destroyed James Belden's barn and seed houses, three other houses and barns, and a cobbler's shop." (XXXVI)
This conflagration began at 2 a.m. in an outbuilding located about 200 feet behind the premises of Lockwood Belden (now Comstock, Ferre & Co.). Seven or eight of Belden's barns and side houses were destroyed as well as the barns and houses of Roswell Clapp, Dr. Cooke, Levi Goodrich and the shoe shop of O. Harrison. The cause was attributed to spontaneous combustion of some laboratory material that was stored in the building occupied by Dr. Cooke.
Wethersfield did not have a fire engine at the time - but one from Hartford arrived in time to be of some assistance. Shortly thereafter that engine was purchased by Wethersfield for $400.
Three or four other incendiary fires occurred at a later date resulting in the loss of buildings belong to Dr. Tenney, James Smith and others - as well as Mr. Crane's tavern. As a result a night patrol was organized resulting in the capture of the arsonists.
"Recovery from the fires was slow. Between 1836 and 1850, the use of fireproof brick or stone construction was introduced. Replacement buildings were erected in place of burned structures, including a stately, "Southern-style" brick dwelling built by John Williams next to the meetinghouse. This house was perhaps the first example of a Greek Revival house in town. Construction of this house between 1832 and 1836 also introduced building setbacks in the central village streetscape. Wethersfield's fire company was incorporated in 1834, but fire protection did not improve substantially until it bought its first pumper engine from Hartford in 1858." (XXXVII)
At a public hearing of the Wethersfield Historic District Commission on March 23, 2004 to discuss improvements to the Osmund Harrison House at 271 Main Street (across the street from the 1831 fire) Anne Kuckro reported on the fires and the subsequent changes to Wethersfield.
"She said that fortunately the house that James Belden's father built in 1767 was saved. Mr. Belden was determined to rebuild his seed business and according to local tradition he moved and reused the old Robertson store which is the wooden section behind the brick front of Comstock Ferre.
She said that if one looks at the south side of the Harrison house the window pattern of an 18th century house; a pair of windows on either side of the side porch entrance and a center chimney. She thinks that Mr. Harrison salvaged the chimney and frame from one of the burned houses and turned it 90' and rebuilt the facade with three windows on each floor and a decorative rectangular window on the gable end. He retained the colonial interior layout with the main door in the center along the side of the house even though he turned it around. (XXXVIII)
The Connecticut State Library has a copy of the original Wethersfield Fire Company Charter, which was passed in 1803 with the signatures of Colonel John Chester and Ezekiel Belden.
(Please click on the underlined name to go directly to that chapter or the WHS Website Home Page)
1. The 17th and 19th Century Floods
2. The 1727 Earthquake
3. The 1787 Tornado
5. The 1888 Blizzard
6. The 1936 Flood
7. The 1938 Hurricane
8. The 1973 Ice Storm
9. The 1978 Blizzard
10. The 2009 Tornado
Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.