2023 Outstanding Student Athletes recognized at the Partlow Insurance Sports Breakfast (2023)

In the eighteenth century, fire protection was usually by citizens rallying around the fire battling the flames with bucket brigades. Winchester required buckets on each floor of every building and fifty-gallon tubs of water placed about the town. If a fire broke out, a bell was rung and the towns folk were expected to turn out and fight the flames including women and children.[1]

In early days, people were the original fire alarms. These individuals would hustle around the town, ringing bells to warn the community of imminent danger and alerting folks to come equipped with buckets to fight the fire. Very often, by the time the bucket brigade volunteers were organized to fight the fire, there was nothing but glowing embers remaining at the scene.

Throughout the 1800s, the purpose of firefighting was more about salvage. If fire struck and the house looked to be a loss, the next priority would be to save the occupants’ moveable wealth. The bed was usually the most valuable item to be salvaged. Made of solid, hand-carved and joined wood, beds would be expensive to replace. Firefighters used a forged metal tool, the bed key, to quickly disassemble the pieces of the bed and remove them from the house.

In 1788, records indicate Winchester acquired a small gooseneck style hand pumping engine from England, probably a Newsham & Ragg. The engine was housed in a shed like engine house in the public square beside the courthouse on the corner of Loudoun Street and Rouss Avenue. There may have been just a town brigade or perhaps as many as one, two or even more organized fire companies. It may never be known as early records are reportedly lost.[2]

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By 1800, Winchester reportedly received a larger hand pumping engine. Probably another Newsham & Ragg from England. No fire hoses yet existed as citizens were still required to maintain tubs full of water in the event of a fire. In 1829, the informal Union Fire Company (name change to Charlie Rouss Fire Company in 1899) reportedly purchased a hand pumper. In 1831, the Friendship Fire Company is reported to have officially organized.[3] It is likely these organizations purchased bigger and better hand pumping engines, leaving surplus hand pumpers available for sale.

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1840 Sarah Zane hand pumper was built by Jos. Share & Sons, Baltimore MD. The hand engine is carefully preserved in the Rouss Fire Company at 3 South Braddock Street, Winchester VA. The Sarah Zane Fire Company established in 1840, merged with Rouss Fire Company in 1984. Courtesy Mark Gunderman.

Remnants of an August 1831 town meeting minutes document the authorization for Newtown/Stephensburg to spend one dollar and sixteen cents to purchase timber for the engine house?[4] This purchase could have been to build or repair an existing fire house in town. During this time, Winchester had established two fire companies and possibly could have sold Newtown an older surplus model hand pumper engine to be stored in a similar type shed. Newtown could have followed Winchester’s early example of establishing a citizen fire brigade.

In June 1848, the Newtown Meeting Minutes cite:

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Be it enacted that the Town Sergeant be required to have the town fire ladders in Frogtown (north Stephens City) put under sufficient covering as soon as possible.

Be it enacted that the law concerning the using of the town ladders be amended as follows, a fine of fifty-cents will be required of all persons who may use the ladder and twenty-five cents additional be required for every twenty-four hours the same is kept from its proper place. This act shall be in force from and after the passage thereof.

The Town Sergeant was responsible for the hand pumping engine and fire ladders which were stored in Frogtown.

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L to R: Photo of John J. Hawse Winchester Fire Chief circa 1970. Hawse was an active firefighter from 1927 to 1975. 1950s firefighter helmet made by Cairns Brothers of New York. The quality of Cairns Helmets has been trusted by firefighters since the mid-nineteenth century. Although the company is now owned by the Mine Safety Appliance Company, they still produce many of the finest fire helmets in the world. Courtesy Mark Gunderman.

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Rick Kriebel, Manager of Collections & Programs, Stone House Foundation, Stephens City, provided pertinent information regarding leather fire buckets. Early firefighting was as a grassroots collective. “You can get a clear idea of [a fire bucket’s] identification from [the bucket’s in] the image. Each bucket has a name and a lot number. Lot numbers functioned the same way as street addresses do, so that information is enough to make sure that every residence has a bucket. These buckets were used in a classic bucket brigade: form a line from the fire to the nearest water sources, and pass the buckets back and forth until the fire’s out. People stored these at home, ideally by the door but really, we should assume that any easy access point was fair game,” said Kriebel. Maintaining a fire bucket in your home was a civic responsibility. Neighbors from all around the fire zone would run to help or at least toss their buckets into the street for volunteers to use.

“It makes sense to have as many buckets as possible if you’re a business owner because they operate as a form of insurance: if your business catches fire, then the closer you have a bucket on hand, the sooner you can put the fire out,” Kriebel said. The Stone House Foundation historians also believe that not everyone adhered to their civic responsibilities. We cannot assume there was any town enforcement for maintaining a fire bucket beyond a head of household having one at their residence.

Later, with the invention of the hand pumper, bucket brigades were used to keep the pumper full of water. Hooks and chains were used to make firebreaks by pulling down walls of burning buildings to keep the fire from spreading. Swabs (mops) were used to extinguish embers on thatched roofs.

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Circa 1880s ceremonial axes (Rouss Fire Hall) were often carried by fire company color guards and honor guards in Fireman’s parades. Courtesy Mark Gunderman.

Firefighting technology advanced with the invention of the hand pumper or hand tub. This engine was pulled by hand to the fire. The hand pumper could be filled at the sides with buckets. Teams took turns pumping while others directed water through a long nozzle for spraying. Firefighters then lifted the tub and pump from the chassis and carried it to the burning structure or to some other position of advantage. Water was dumped in the open tub by buckets, and could be sprayed at the fire.

In April 1853, Newtown meeting minutes record a motion to build a new roof for the fire engine house. Another motion reflected that the Trustees purchased shingles and nails, and someone was employed by the day to do the work. The Newtown President was tasked to have the pipe to the fire engine repaired.

In June 1860, a motion was passed that Trustee, J. C. Lemley, be employed to see that the fire engine was put in proper order.

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L to R: Iconic Old Jake Weathervane representation of 1800s firefighting using a bugle or speaking trumpet to amplify the voice of the officer in charge when giving commands. A Rouse Fire Company leather hat. Courtesy Mark Gunderman.

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In 1871, town meeting minutes cite that citizens deemed it important that something should be done in the fire department in order to secure the safety of all property in the town. A motion was passed to examine the old hand pumper engine to determine if it could be repaired or replaced. New fire ladders had to be procured and placed at convenient locations for all residents. Later that year, the town repaired the hand pumper engine for twenty-five dollars and procured eight new fire ladders (of good material and made in workman like manner) for one dollar each.

No town meeting minutes describe maintenance of the fire house or equipment after the 1870s. An assumption regarding this matter could possibly be that around 1886, Stephens City (officially changed from Newtown in 1880), received a phone connection from the Winchester Telephone Company. Now the town had a direct communication with the county seat and would allow Stephens City to rely on the more sophisticated Winchester firefighters to provide the fire protection the town sorely needed.

According to the late town historian, Mildred Lee Grove (1902-1997), whenever a Stephens City fire was first discovered, someone in a position of authority (mayor or town councilman) had to phone Winchester and request one of the city fire companies respond. The responding fire company needed to ascertain, in advance, if there was adequate funding available to cover their services. Since the town had no water system and cisterns were the primary source of water, the town bucket brigade would often have to dam up Stephens Run, located south of town, during town fires so Winchester firefighters could pump water into their hoses.[5]

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The inside of a Cairns Brothers firefighting helmet. Courtesy Mark Gunderman.

During the 1930s, there were several devastating fires in Stephens City. Two great fires prompted the town to consider establishing a fire department. The first fire was in 1936 at M.J. Grove Limestone Company in the Mudville District and the second was a major commercial fire at Willie Boyd “Pud” Steele’s magazine and newspaper store at 5317 Main Street in 1938.

The Mudville fire was fanned by November high winds that roared in from the west with gale-like force. The winds caused the fire to spread quickly and by morning the flames had consumed the evaporator plant of the Vinegar and Cider Company, the cooperage (barrel-making) plant, the apple packing shed, a storage house, a corn house, and an auto shelter. The fire also damaged a blacksmith shop, a grocery business, a restaurant and property of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Steele magazine store fire was so intense, the paint blistered on the residential homes across Main Street.

In April 1939, Robert E. Aylor and ten others organized the Independent Hose Company. The new fire company requested financial assistance from the Stephens City town council. Mayor Lomax Parker called a bond issue election for providing a water system to improve firefighting efficiency. On November 4, 1939, during a special meeting, the council voted to build the first town water system.

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Stephens City businesses-maintained leather fire buckets on site with name and lot number painted on each item for easy identification after the fire (circa 1870s). Courtesy Stone House Foundation, Stephens City, VA.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the town’s water storage tower in 1940. The town well and storage tank were located at the north end of Germain Street. The Independent Hose Company’s first fire engine was a 1933 Dodge 6-cylinder, one and half-ton chassis, with a water pump mounted on the equipment. It had been converted from a soda pressure unit to a front mounted 250 Gallons per Minute pump. The members purchased the fire truck for $1,000 from the South End Fire Company in Winchester. The truck was housed in the high school basement on Main Street until 1941 when members built the original one bay door section of today’s fire hall on Mulberry Street. In November 1947, the company’s name was changed to Stephens City Fire Company, Inc.

From early times, people have always seen fire companies as the epitome of selfless heroism. Firefighters are ever vigilant and prepared to protect families and homes in the community. Men and women volunteer because no other organization can match the adventure that is found in a fire fight or the satisfaction of saving human life and property.

Volunteer fire companies remain the heart of their neighborhoods and have overwhelming support from local stakeholders including town and county governments, citizens, and businesses in which they serve. Fire companies are always upgrading their property, equipment, and fleet as firefighting technology progresses. However, what is constant is the courage of the men and women who are called to public service to fight fires and protect their fellow citizens.

May God continue to bless them. Amen!

[1] Historic Chronology of Frederick County Virginia and Winchester’s Fire Rescue Services, A Fire Buffs Perspective, by G.B. Rusty Gill, page 7, 2006 edition.

[2] Ibid, page 8

[3] Ibid, page 8.

[4] Linden A. Fravel, unpublished notes from Mildred Lee Grove collection of loose papers in possession of the Stone House Foundation, Stephens City, VA.

[5]Stephens City boasts Frederick’s oldest firefighting crew, Stephens City History from the files of The Winchester Star, by Linda McCarty, October 1988.

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