Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Engines and Silver Trumpets

By Alice Askins, Site Manager of Rose Hill Mansion 

While looking for information on the naming of Linden Avenue (said to have been named for singer Jenny Lind) I read the Geneva village meeting minutes from the early 1850s and there is a lot there that is interesting.  One topic that takes up a lot of space in the minutes is fire – not surprising in a world of fireplaces and wooden buildings.

The American Fireman by Currier and Ives ca 1858 

Firefighting has a long history, dating back at least to the third century BC in Egypt.  There is evidence of firefighting machinery from that era, including a water pump invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria.  Here in the New World, as early as 1631, Boston governor John Winthrop outlawed wooden chimneys and thatched roofs.  In 1648, Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam appointed fire wardens (men who inspected all chimneys and could fine people who violated the rules).  Later there were fire watchmen who patrolled the streets at night, alerted the citizens to fires, and organized bucket brigades.  In 1678 the first fire engine company went into service.  

The United States did not have government-run fire departments until around 1860.  Before that, private fire brigades competed with each other to be the first to respond to a fire, because insurance companies paid brigades to save buildings.  There were even some incidents in New York City where buildings burned down while rival companies engaged in fist fights to determine who got to put out the fire. In 1853, the Cincinnati, Ohio fire department became the first full-time paid professional fire department in the United States, and the first in the world to use steam fire engines.   In Geneva, the fire companies appear to have worked closely with the village government.

Based on the minutes the exact organization of the fire fighters is unclear.  There seem to have been four companies in 1851, and a fifth company added the next year.  There are some variations in names, though – is Hook and Ladder Company #3 the same as Fire Company #3?  We do, however, find some clues about how the fire fighters worked with the village. The companies presented lists of new members and officers to the village board for formal approval.  The companies apparently handled their own discipline.  For example, on June 2 1851 “Patrick Bradley was Expelled for disorderly Conduct” from Company #4 and the board was informed.

The companies often requested money from the village for new equipment, although it seems they also spent their own money for the newest in hoses and engines.  In 1851, one of the companies proposed to buy a new engine for $500.  They did not want the village to help pay for it, but asked approval to go ahead with the purchase.  In other cases that year, the village board voted $300 for a new “aparatus” for Hook and Ladder Company #3, and $800 for a new engine for Fire Company #2.  In July, the board gave permission for Engine Company No 1 to “Erect an aparatus for Drying their Hose not to exceed $8.00 at the Expence [sic] of the Corporation.”  To give these figures some context, the farm workers at Rose Hill were earning $10 per month.

Geneva also had fire wardens.  In May of 1851, the board resolved “that the Fire wardens . . . are hereby directed to report to this Board . . . how they find the condition of the Village as to the liability to fire or unlawful deposit of Powder and usual deposit of ashes and all Such other things pertaining to their office . . .”  The next January, we find “On Motion Resolved – that the Fire Wardens give notice again to all delinquents in their beat – that the fine as fixed by the Bylaws will be enforced unless they comply with their requirements immediately – Whereas It has been reported to this Board that J.S. & H.C. Prouty, Wm [sic] Hudson and Prouty & Chew have violated the Village By Laws – by keeping a greater quantity of Gun Powder on their premises than allowed by Law – Therefore Resolved – that they be proceeded against for Violation of Chapter 3 Section 4: & 5: [sic] of the Village By Laws.“  It seems that Phineas Prouty (of Prouty and Chew) must have changed his ways after that, because in October of 1853, the board appointed him, Ira Powers, and Abel Steer as Fire Wardens.  They replaced three men who were “removed from office . . .  for not attending to the duties of said office,” and fined $10 apiece.  

A variety of fire-related issues came before the village board.  In May of 1852, the board resolved that “Franklin Ally [sic] be repaired and kept clear of obstructions, so that the Engines can have ready access to the Lake.  Also Res[olved] that the entrance to the park reservoir be widened so that the engines can have ready access to the same.”   The village approved accessory expenses for the fire companies – “Resolved that the trustees, Fire Wardens and Police Constables be furnished with appropriate badges to be worn at fires.”   “A bill for 4 Brass torches or Lamps for fire companys [sic] was presented by W Hayward $3.75 each $15.00 ordered paid.”  The Chief Engineer of the Fire Department was authorized to purchase a German Silver Horn or trumpet for the use of the Fire Department, not to exceed $25.  The board also authorized payment to the chief engineer of $2.50 for repairs to his hat. The minutes, however, do not tell us what happened to it.

Fireman with trumpet, Litchfield Connecticut, ca. 1850s

The village board had some control over the use of the fire equipment.  In 1853, the trustees authorized their president “to forbid the Fire companies from using their Machines for any other purpose than for Fires and ordinary exercises unless by consent of the Trustees.”  They granted their consent when “Ocean Engine Company No. 1 asked permission to take their Engine to Rochester in September next at the time of the State fair.”  Perhaps in partial return for such consideration, in October 1853, the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department invited the board to the Fireman’s Tournament in the public park on the 19th.

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