The Volunteer Laddies
Some Interesting Facts about the “Old Timers” and their Work.
The first fire company Dayton had was what was known as the Independence Company. Just when the organization was formed is doubtful – it sprang into being from necessity, and existed in an indifferent way for many years before a formal organization was effected. Other similar companies were in vogue, and after the Independence Company was once organized, others followed, and as early as 1846, Dayton was the proud possessor of three crack fire companies, “The Independence,” “Vigilance” and “Safety,” and soon afterwards “The Oregons,” “Pacifics,” “Miamis,” “Neptune” and “Deluge” Companies were organized. There were other names given these companies at diverse times, such as “Wooden Shoes,” indicating the company composed largely of Germans, and so long and creditably commanded by Tony Stephans, who finally lost his life while making with his boys on exhibition run, with their old engine, at the Centennial Parade on September 16, 1896, on south Main Street; the “Silver Tails,” a name used to represent the company made up largely of merchants, and the “Plug Uglies,” the name given in derision to the company made up largely of the wealthier classes, because of their habit, then in vogue, of wearing plug hats.
The rivalry existing between these companies was very intense, and often it led to bitter encounters when one or the other attempted to take an advantage in running to, or fighting a fire. Each of the companies had about one hundred men enrolled, and an alarm of fire invariably brought them all out, and a fire was often reached by one or the other of the companies, as quickly as it now is with horses.
The Vigilance Company was disbanded by the mayor of the city in 1856, after the fire at the Morrison residence, because of the murder of William Richards, one of the “Wooden Shoe” or Deluge Company. The two companies reached the scene of the fire together and were soon engaged in a bitter battle for vantage position. The air was full of flying bricks and clubs, and when it was all over, Richards was picked up with his skull crushed with a brick. Other serious incidents of this character can be cited, but this one will suffice to describe the rivalry existing between these organizations, which condition manifests why these primitive fire fighters so often did such effective work. No amount of work was too great, and the daring displayed was often foolhardiness in the extreme.
The Vigilance boys sometime after their official disbandment, were reorganized into the Miamis, and remained in active service as long as the other companies.
The primitive modus operandi of fighting fire was by the use of leather buckets. When an alarm was sounded the boys who considered themselves firemen would rush to the firehouse, grab a bucket and run. Others had buckets at their house for use. Later the engine came into use, the first one coming to Dayton being built by William Jeffers, brother of Allen Jeffers, who at the time was one of the important officers of the Independence Company. The engine was built in Pawtucket, R.I., and when it arrived in Dayton it was the seven day wonder for a time. It held several barrels of water, and was filled by the leather buckets, by forming lines from a cistern to the engine and passing the filled buckets along the line. The two pumps were operated to throw the water through the hose on to the fire. This was the sort of engine in use up to about 1855, when a suction engine was purchased by the Neptune Company. Others, some of them double deckers, followed, and every company soon had a very satisfactory machine. They were of different makes, and their value and importance as fire extinguishes only added to the rivalry extant. These were used until after the war when the steam engine made its appearance, and with it and a paid fire department, the old fire companies soon began declining; until all passed out of usefulness and existence.
The “Oregons” still maintain their organization, but no meeting has been held for several years. This company was probably the most prosperous company the city had, and it is due to this prosperity the organization is, in a manner, kept alive. When the steam engine relegated the laddies of the company to a state of uselessness, they possessed horses, money, property, and the present Oregon Engine House, on Fifth Street, opposite Brown Street. A Board of Trustees was elected to take care of this. This board consisted of James Turner, John Butt and A. Shinn, and they with the consent of the members of the company, used the money they had for the relief of soldiers families living in the wards where the boys composing the company lived – thus establishing the first Soldiers Relief Commission in the state. All the money secured by the sale of their horses and other property was turned over to the city by the company, without any consideration other than that the place must be used always as a fire house, and if not, it must be sold, and the receipts divided among the surviving members of the old Oregon Company. This is the object of keeping alive the old organization, which is the only company in the city chartered by the state.
The members of the company still alive, and whose whereabouts are known, are George Lehman, now residing in Chicago, A. Shinn, Samuel Estabrook, William Altick, William H. Finch, Isaac D. Mitchell, Joseph Mitchell, Amza Gilbert, Anthony Bartholomew, William Kleger, H. Perrine, Wm. McHose, Thomas McHose, Edward Whitcomb, George Goldshot, John Goldshot, William Legler, Henry Hellrigle, Geo. Wentz, J. W. Allison and Mat. Harter.
These various fire companies were supported entirely by themselves, receiving no aid whatsoever from the public treasury. After the Neptune Company secured a suction engine, the city allowed $150 a year to keep the machine in good repair. But beyond this, nothing was given by the city, until the steam apparatuses were purchased, and a paid department was established. This was finally brought about, mainly through the persistent efforts of Ezra Bimm and Geo. Lehman, the former being then a member of the city council. It is due largely to his untiring efforts at that time that something effective was accomplished, and in fact his interest in the department has never lagged, from the time he first became a volunteer fireman, at the age of fourteen, up to the present day.
All sorts of projects were resorted to by the different fire companies to keep up with the times and to pay expenses. They gave all sorts of entertainments, balls, fairs, sprinkled the streets, and sought subscriptions on all manner of schemes. Some of the companies had particular friends among the wealthy men of the day, and always could depend on them in grave emergencies. John W. Harries was a favored friend of all the companies, and they always could depend on him when necessity pressed them. His son, John Harries, now one of Dayton's oldest, wealthiest and best known citizens was also always a great friend of the fire laddies. He also served his time "running with the machine."
Frank Baker was one of the leading spirits of the Independence Company, and his bank account often came to the aid of the company. His brother, William and sister, Miss Belle, were also liberal benefactors of the company. Other companies were also favored with special friends of influence, but still the burden of expense fell on the efforts of the members of the diverse organizations.
The tournaments of the fire companies held at intervals in different cities throughout the state, were great events in those days. Dayton was always represented on these occasions and entered the contests. The companies always carried their own apparatus, and on one occasion, that of a great tournament at Sandusky, when the Neptune boys returned home with the first prize, all Dayton was in glory, and for some time after this event it was an enviable honor to be a member of the Neptune Company. The fire-men of the different cities of the state made periodical visits, always in full uniform, and a parade and picnic or banquet was the order of the day.
These things continued up to the outbreak of the war, when the members of the various companies enlisted in great numbers at the first call. Cal. Childs, who was captain of the Independence Company, became captain of Co. A., 11th 0. V. I., and took with him fifty-four of the boys of the fire company.
It was somewhat the same with all the companies of the city, and the natural result was that all of them were partly decimated and broken up. It was here that the circum-stances prevailing- aided the men who were struggling to establish a paid department, and though the organizations were maintained in a way to the close of the war, with its termination came the finis of the volunteer fire companies. Probably the last big fire at which the volunteer companies of Dayton may be said to have still been intact, was the mobbing and setting on fire of the Dayton Journal Office, though even then many of the boys differed on the war question. There was some hesitancy in pulling out the engines, for fear of the mob destroying them, but when John W. Harries offered to replace them with new ones if destroyed, one after another soon were at the scene of the fire. There, the Committee of Safety, consisting of Staff. Young, Judge Haines and Henry Fowler took charge of affairs, and backed up by the soldiers, the laddies, with some annoyance and difficulty, were soon at work on the fire, leaving the soldiers to take care of the mob.
The first fire in Dayton on which a steam engine was used was at the Huston Hall fire, and some of the volunteer firemen relate with smiles how they stood over on the opposite side of the street and condemned "the thing as no good," but a little familiarity and experience with "the thing" caused them to change their minds.
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