Probably New Woodstock's
most spectacular fires were the E.W. Gunn fire in October 1890, and the
destruction of the mill of the New Woodstock Milling Company's property
on Railroad Street on February 13, 1879, which wiped out another of the
community's enterprises. The first of these conflagrations destroyed
It originated in the store of E.W. Gunn on the northwest corner of the intersection of Main and Mill Street, shortly after noon on October 9, 1890, a sunny, Fall day. Mr. Gunn was producing his patented and popular wire tooth rakes.
It burned west to the store and residence of Dr. A.D. Smith, (later owned by the Parker Drug Company & Lewis McManus), and north on Mill Street to the residence occupied by L. Smith. It resulted from the explosion of benzene.
Mr. Gunn used the second floor as a workshop, while the lower floor was occupied by P.E. Jaquith as a general store. Mr. Gunn, with his hand in a tank of benzene, accidentally spilled some of it into a lamp and an explosion instantly occurred.
Mr. Gunn was very badly burned. He was too much stunned to take instant measures to extinguish the fire, which immediately communicated with dry lumber stored overhead, and a first class conflagration was under way before anyone knew what had happened. So rapid was its progress that flames were bursting from the upper windows before the first alarm was sounded. It was evident that a big fire was on hand, and that the sources for fighting it were totally inadequate.
At 2.30 P.M. a call for aid was telegraphed to Cazenovia, and in eighteen minutes their hook and ladder truck was run to the E.C.& N. (Elmira, Cortland & Northern Railroad) depot, having been loaded onto a flat car and made the run of six miles to Main Street of New Woodstock in six minutes. Because of the probable lack of water, only the hook and ladder was brought down. Further inspection indicated several cisterns available, so the locomotive was returned for the hand pump and hose. In eighteen minutes the equipment was on the scene.
For all time these were the fastest runs over that section of the railroad. Engine No. 18 in charge of Conductor Shepherd made the run. The name of the daring engineer has not been ascertained. The run back to Cazenovia was made in six and a half minutes; the return to New Woodstock in about eight more.
Chief Webber of New Woodstock was out of town and Dr. I.N. Goff was elected first assistant. George T. Atwell, who was on the train, directed vigorous measures which helped to stay the progress of the fire.
A shed north of the burning block was torn down by the Hook and Ladder Company, and another between it and Dr. A.D. Smith's After a hard fight in which the local citizens fully participated, the fire was brought under control. Burned out, besides the corner store, was the meat market occupied by P.E. Jaquith, the hardware owned by Henry Rider, S.S. Hayes' boot and shoe store and residence, M.C. Wood's Justice Office, and the AOUW Lodge (Ancient Order of United Workmen) rooms. All except the corner building were owned by the estate of Benjamin Wightman, and were a total loss. The property remained as burned out cellar holes for several years.
The exhausted firemen were given a substantial lunch, using an entire hurriedly emptied counter in the center of C.A. Fox's store. There is no record of thanks to the engineer or the dispatcher in Cortland who gave them the railroad. The E.C.& N. (Elmira, Cortland, and Northern Railroad) was notable for extending help to villages and shippers along its line.
For a great many years by common consent each property owner kept a pail for the passing of water along a bucket brigade line. The call of "fire" was taken up by each person who heard it and spread rapidly through the community. An adjacent pond, creek, or cistern was depended upon for a water supply. Much of the efforts of the impromptu firemen were directed to the saving of the contents of the threatened buildings, or the adjacent properties, if any. In summer, dry shingled roofs added to the danger of a fire spreading.
The cry of "Fire" has always been one of the most dismaying sounds to be heard in a small nineteenth and early twentieth century town. If an isolated building was involved, it was more often than not burned to its foundations. If the fire was in a structure in close proximity to another building, that more often than not was a complete loss. If the blaze was so located, the hastily assembled bucket brigade provided the only help of preventing its spread to other buildings.
The distance from a creek, pond, or cistern determined the length of the bucket brigade and the number of people necessary for its operation. If a high wind was blowing the brigade had a lesser chance of controlling the fire. Fires originating in rural sections required more time for the citizens to organize and added to the difficulty of prompt response, so essential to the control of a blaze.
About 1912 the formation
and equipment of a fire department became the subject of an informal discussion
of property owners, concerning the formation of a better source of fire
protection. This discussion continued through 1913. Plans slowly
developed along these lines.
There developed a plan for the purchase of chemical equipment and the construction of a building in which to house it. Voluntary contribution was the only means available to finance such a step. There was informal discussion around the pot-bellied stoves where the male citizenry congregated. This led to a more formal meeting of the general public at Stoddard's Hall an January 13, 1914 to more thoroughly consider the proposal. This led to a demonstration of chemical hand drawn equipment by the American LaFrance Company in the ensuing summer.
A plank shed of ancient vintage and absorbability was placed on Main Street in front of the hotel, and heavily saturated with kerosene oil. The soda operated, two wheeled apparatus then extinguished the fire which had been kindled and allowed to attain a good, vigorous blaze.
The test must have been deemed satisfactory because two of American LaFrance forty gallon, hand drawn chemical engines were purchased at about six hundred dollars each.
On June 18, 1914 the Department, known as the New Woodstock Chemical Fire Company, with twenty seven members, purchased land for the fire house, this being the little first building on Elm Street next to the hardware store. Payments were made entirely through public subscriptions. Trustees to manage the legal affairs of the company were Morillo Smith, George M. Thompson, and Gardner Freeborn.
Most of the able bodied men of the village were members of the Department as originally constituted. The officers chosen were:
I was often amazed by the
rapidity with which an alarm was spread from end to end of the village.
It was faster than the telephone when that instrument was available.
The warning was not ignored by any able bodied man. The spirit of
neighborliness and civic duty was paramount.
Each available man, equipped with at least one pail or a ladder, appeared on the street in record time. All too often, however, the best efforts were limited to saving surrounding structures, and the contents of the burning building. Night fires in isolated locations sometimes destroyed half of a mill or other uninhabited building before it was discovered.
Shops and mills were, in fact, the greatest victims of fires. The record of such destruction in New Woodstock is not unlike the experience of hundreds of small towns. Some disappeared as the result of the burning of a key industry.
A full record of the economic changes brought about in this community are not available, but we know that conflagration here, ranging from the destruction of the wool carding and oil mill, erected in the 1830's and burned in 1864, to the Mew Woodstock Milling Company property lost on February 13, 1979, mark a tragic loss of business property.
Samuel Baker's grist mill was carried away by high water in 1837. It was rebuilt, and burned in 1896, while owned by Randall and Wood. Sims' Flour and Feed Mill burned the same year. The Chair Factory burned in 1898. The first cheese factory in town burned twice. K.E. Cardner's mill was twice destroyed by fire. In more recent times the Cardner Box Factory and Seymour's Grist Mill were destroyed by arsonists, after each had closed operations.
The formation of the New
Woodstock Fire District was unusual then and now. Its inception was
a fire at the Frank Damon residence on Erieville Road. At the time
of its formation, fire districts were the only form of special district
permitted by New York State law. Ours was one of the earlier districts
organized and the only one in Madison County.
That sunny fall day of the fire, William S. Huntley and Walter F. Mann were perched on an exposed beam, pouring a chemical stream on a stubborn fire in a partition, when the latter brought up the subject of a fire district and motorized apparatus. The next day E.E. Cummings was circulating among the residents a petition to the Board of Supervisors, required for the application for such formation.
The required number of signatures was quickly obtained. The Board of Supervisors held a hearing in early 1928, as required by statute, on the question of the creation of a fire district in the First Election District of the Town of Cazenovia, and the northern end of the Town of DeRuyter, including Sheds. The Board recommended its formation. It is interesting to note that of the ninety nine people who appeared at the hearing, Mr. Mann is the sole survivor.
The committee filed a favorable report on May 29, 1928, and the Board passed a resolution creating the district on August 7, 1928. This was one of the elements of a very good year for New Woodstock.
A few years ago it appeared more space was needed, especially a heated meeting room and added space to serve meals, notably the annual beef supper, a fund raiser. An addition was made to the fire house, paid for by the fire department, with the new electric heat service being paid for by the fire district.
Fire districts eventually were placed under the jurisdiction of Town Boards, as are all other special districts created by the State Legislature. That the system had its inception and development through the agency of the fire district is a matter of considerable interest.
Realizing the dire need for a water system a group of citizens working through the fire district became responsible for the cost of construction, before the broadening of the state law made the development of a water district possible.
In the Fall of 1929 the fire company undertook the work of installing such a system, to provide an adequate supply of water. It also assumed the burden of financing such construction. A dam site and water rights were purchased and a million gallon reservoir constructed. Water mains and hydrants were installed.
When the water district was established, the Fire Department was reimbursed nearly nine thousand dollars to cover the cost of their advances to initiate construction. This same year a Buffalo five hundred gallon pumper was added to the equipment, with fifteen hundred feet of high pressure hose, gas masks, fire coats and boots. An engine house was erected at Sheds, and one of the chemical engines was located there.
The department then had twenty four men, and felt justly proud of the progress they had made. They felt no department of their size in New York State had done more for community betterment and protection from loss by fire, under as great a hardship as they. When necessary to take the engine out of town, any truck that was available would serve the purpose. This often led to a merry and bumpy chase.
Early fire commissioners were: Arlington Morgan, George N. Thompson, E.E. Cummings, Robert Smith, and Barnard Fuggle. As many as seventy eight votes were cast in an early fire district election. These elections have become largely perfunctory, participated in by a minimal number of people. Annual budgets throughout the period of the 1930's ranged from twelve hundred to eighteen hundred dollars in amount, being held at the lowest possible level.
As time went on the commissioners recognized that the average volunteer department suffered from too many members, rather than too few. The local membership was held rigidly to twenty four men, Application for membership was maintained on a numerical order, and membership was a prized possession. Elwyn Judd was the first to go through an induction ceremony upon the occurrence of a vacancy.
Records of actions and events following 1940 are much harder to locate than for the earlier period. The secretary at that time maintained detailed records of the period, but they have not been preserved.
During the half century of its existence, the department has suffered only two casualties while fighting a fire. At Ivan Hirt's residence on March 4, 1942, E.E. Cummings suffered a heart attack, and died instantly. Lewis McManus was the second casualty on May 6, 1973, at a mutual aid fire on DeRuyter Lake Road. Injuries to personnel have been few in number and mostly
of a minor nature.
To replace the Buffalo Pumper, # 262 was purchased in 1962. The new pumper was a Chevrolet, five hundred gallon tank, with a seventy five hundred gallon midship pumper, and a high pressure pump. The Buffalo became the second. In 1970 another Chevrolet one thousand gallon tank with a high pressure pump was purchased and the Buffalo was retired. The underwriters were satisfied.
In 1992 the commissioners purchased a one thousand gallon pumper with a crew cab for six, thus providing an efficient piece of equipment.
The present (1992) commissioners are: Richard Babel, Roger Davenport, Henry Brooks, Gary Foster, Donald Burden, Sr., and Louise Clark, Secretary and Treasurer.
Officers of the Fire Department, 1992, are: Chief Walter Starkweather; First Assistant, Terry Austin; Second Assistant, Thomas 0'Hara; Captain, Ted Parisou; 1st Lieut., Mike Babel; 2nd Lieut., Larry Wallingford; Fire Police Captain, John 0'Hara; County Fire Advisory Board, Ned Holmes.