“Austin Askew”–Chapter XII– Blaze of Glory: The Austin Fire Department and Austin Fire Museum

I can’t vouch for the children of today, but when I was young many boys went through a stage where they wanted to be firemen when they grew up. And why not? The job had everything–adventure, heroism, action. You got to ride around in a shiny truck, set off sirens, and wear snazzy uniforms, and in your off time you lived in an actual fire station, where you slid down brass poles, played with spotted dogs, and ate lots of chili.

I had a large fleet of toy fire trucks, and every Saturday morning, with the order and precision common to an anal-retentive child, I lined up all my trucks according to size and importance, and gave them each a thorough washing and polishing, whether they had seen service the previous week or not.

Of course, even in those tender years, I had an affinity for the past, and I was much more interested in Victorian fire engines and uniforms than in those of the present day. I was especially fond of those old horse-driven steam fire engines. And I also loved those two-tone British air raid sirens.

But sadly, when most of us grow up and out of the sensation-seeking of childhood, firefighters get pushed out to the edges of our peripheral vision, becoming figures we are aware of, but just barely. It takes a major tragedy like 9/11 or the loss of a home or business for many people to pay attention to firefighters, and consider just how important they are to us all and how next-to-impossible it is for us to repay and show gratitude to these men and women on a scale even remotely commensurate to the services they perform.

Speaking personally, the Austin Fire Department managed to save my home from a fire last year, and ever since then I’ve been in a state of mute shock over how brilliantly those men and women performed and how much I truly owe them.

Not long after 9/11, some talking head opined that what make firefighters heroes is that their job description and working philosophy flies in the face of a natural human impulse: whereas most people upon encountering danger and disaster seek to flee it, the firefighter runs head on into it. On the other hand, the firefighter does in fact engage in one very natural impulse: he sees the suffering of his fellow man, and he actively tries to relieve it without selfishly evaluating first what benefit he can personally derive from that action.

Several months ago while I was researching the history of Austin’s City Halls, I came across a time line of Austin Fire Department history. And then, not long ago, I learned that the AFD had recently opened the Austin Fire Museum. It became clear to me that here was a story begging to be told.

Jerry Cohen is one of those lucky few people who actually gets paid to do what he loves. Every day he gets to see the positive, concrete results of his work, and as if all that wasn’t enough, his hobby is the study of the history of his profession. Firefighter Jerry Cohen lives and breathes the Department and his enthusiasm for all things AFD is infectious.

Recently Firefighter Cohen showed me around the Austin Fire Museum (http://www.austinfiremuseum.org, open 12:30 to 5pm Saturdays or by appointment), of which he is President, and which occupies a lobby in the Central Fire Station No. 1 at 401 East Fifth Street in Brush Square, next to the O. Henry house. The museum opened this spring with two rooms, but the the day-to-day needs of running a fire station come first, so only one room is available now. What would be ideal, Cohen said, would be for the museum to be given an old station of its own, so all the artifacts now in storage could be displayed, and various vintage AFD fire trucks could be gathered together in one place.

The Fire Museum has items dating back to the 1870s, including badges, old leather helmets, nozzles and equipment of all sizes and types, a  nineteenth century lantern from the exterior of an old station, photos, documents, uniform caps, jackets, and much besides. Mr. Cohen showed me a pair of fire buckets. They had conical bottoms and as such had to laid on their sides; you couldn’t set them down flat. This was so the buckets would be used strictly for the purposes of carrying water to a fire; when you needed them you wouldn’t find them filled with oats or nails or anything else.

One display case holds the fragments of the marble sign of Protection Fire Company No. 3, which used to be located at 1614 Lavaca. On July 29, 1879, the men of Protection were off fighting the second fire started that day by one firebug. While fighting the fire, one of the men looked over his shoulder, only to notice smoke rising from the vicinity of the Protection No. 3 station. By the time the men got back, the station had burned to the ground, killing several horses. The station was later rebuilt, and is now occupied by Capitol Saddlery.

Years later, the owner of Enchanted Florist, next door to the saddlery, noticed some fragments of what appeared to be marble in the dirt behind his shop. Eventually Jerry Cohen caught wind of this discovery and he and a group of other fire fighters and their families turned amateur archaeologists and dug up the ground behind the flower shop. Thus far, only part of Protection’s marble sign has been recovered, but apparently it bore the name of the company, the date the company was founded (1878), and a design of a fire pump with a hose attached. Mr. Cohen speculates that perhaps there was also a figure of a fireman holding the other end of the hose. But the sign is emblematic of all the AFD history that has passed and is only beginning to get its proper level of attention.

Fire fighting in Austin in the early days was a primitive procedure at best. A General Harney gave the City a small garden hand engine that could hold only a barrel’s worth of water, and had to be filled with buckets. A series of costly, life-threatening fires made Austinites clamor for the organization of a fire company.

Finally, prominent local businessmen John Bremond, Sr. and William Walsh organized Austin Hook and Ladder No. 1 in either 1857 or 1858. Bremond had been a firefighter in New York, so he knew how to organize a company, drill the men, and use the equipment, so he was named Foreman. According to nineteenth century historian E. H. Loughery, Bremond purchased uniforms for the men in New York, “consisting of blue eight-cone fireman’s hats, red shirts with ‘H. & L. No. 1,’ across breast, black pants, black patent leather belts and white gloves….”

The truck was hand-drawn, made locally, and was fitted with ropes, ladders, and other equipment. Wooden buckets were used initially, then replaced with leather ones.

Loughery wrote that the keys for the Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 were kept in a stable near the station house, and that once an alarm was raised, by either shouts, the ringing of church bells, or the firing of pistols, the first man on the scene would get the keys, open the station house, and generally take charge of things until the supervising officer arrived. Then the truck was pulled out, the men would fall into position, and off they’d run, pulling the truck behind them.

In 1866 C. F. Millett was named Austin’s first Fire Chief, and eight cisterns were installed around town to provide supplies of water for fighting fires. In 1870 someone had the brainstorm that fire engines could get to fires faster if pulled by horses than by men, so the companies purchased a few teams. A hose cart was pulled by two horses, while three were needed for an engine or a ladder truck. Fire horses usually came from racing stock, were chosen for “size, strength, speed, and intelligence,” and were trained for at least six months before being allowed to pull any fire vehicle.

Marcus L. Yancey, who joined AFD in 1916 and was for several years captain of Engine No. 9, held forth in 1960 on the intelligence of fire horses:

“When the firebell rang over in the old East Side station, it tripped a drop, and the doors to the horses’ stalls flew open. The fire horses would run out and get under the harness, and stand there waiting until a fireman could snap a bridle and collar on them, and they were ready to go….

“And they really knew their business. They never got frightened, or bolted, no matter how bad the fire. You could always count on them to be right in there working along with the men. Some of them had more sense about a fire than some people!”

“Texas Siftings” for December 24, 1881 stated, “In no city in Texas that we know of or elsewhere, is there so large a proportion of the best men in the community connected with the fire department. The most prominent bankers, merchants, and professional men in Austin are firemen (and there is not an editor connected with the fire department in any capacity). This is sufficient proof of the character and high standing of the men who, without pay, give their time and risk their lives to save the property of others.” (To my own editor I must hasten to add that that was one snarky aside for which I was not responsible.)

Still, can you imagine what it would be like today if the AFD was still composed of prominent businessmen? How could they bellow into their cell phones about their golf games and fight fires at the same time?

According to Homer Olsen, “All the bloods and blades of the early days were volunteer firemen because it was the thing to be. If you weren’t a volunteer you just weren’t–socially. Every man went to the fire or paid a fine of 50 cents if he didn’t have an excuse. He also paid a fine if he didn’t attend his company’s meetings.”

As I mentioned in a previous column, Austin’s second fire company, Washington Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1, founded in 1868, was notorious for its well-to-do membership, to the extent that sometimes when the company went to fight a fire in a low-income neighborhood, the residents would pelt the men with rocks and insults.

Fire fighting appealed not only to society dudes but to teenagers as well. For several years, there was a Juvenile Hook & Ladder Company, No. 4. But these weren’t snotty-nosed punks trying to re-enact their favorite stunts off the show “Jackass”–they were serious young men whose first major call was the fire at the Old State Capitol in 1881, which is still one of the most important fires in Austin history.

The State Capitol fire served as an object lesson to the State Legislature, which, in a rare gesture of frugality with the public’s money, had voted against installing water and hydrants on the Capitol grounds.

One of the apparent benefits of being a volunteer fireman in the nineteenth century was that any time was “Miller time.” The “Daily Austin Republican” for April 22, 1869 describes a great parade the AFD held on San Jacinto Day: “The Hook and Ladder Company, and Washington Fire Engine Company No. 1, were out in uniform–with Trucks and Engine gaily festooned with flowers and evergreens. A band of music preceding, they marched to the Capitol, where interesting addresses were delivered by Captain Fred Moore, chief engineer, and General N.C. Shelly, after which they returned to the office of the Mayor, who (in addition to an appropriate address to the companies) furnished them with a bountiful supply of the Tutonic (sic) Beverage.”

A July 27, 1919 “Statesman” article goes into even more detail about the marriage of smoke and suds, under the sub-heading, “Red Flames and Red Liquor:”

“And these were the happy days of the old fire department. Of course, everyone was sorry when a fire broke out and destroyed some good citizen’s property, but just as they always did their best to drown the flames, they also did their best to drown their sorrows after the battle was over….

In fact, one veteran of the old fire department has a way of measuring fires by the number of ‘quarts’ consumed; but ‘quarts’ were too small a unit of measurement if the fire was anything more than a mere blaze. So there were ‘gallon’ fires, ‘keg’ fires, and ‘hogs head’ fires; and this old timer glories in telling of a fire in the Second ward which lasted from sunset until midnight and required the consumption of the entire stock of a nearby saloon.”

But hey–work hard, play hard, right? It’s not like the guys didn’t deserve a good time. In fact, in the course of my research I found several clippings from nineteenth century Austin newspapers where citizens took out notices to personally thank the “fire laddies” for saving their homes and businesses. It’s a shame that in these hurried and impersonal days that custom no longer persists.

In 1871, the Colorado Fire Company No. 1 was founded, followed in 1878 by Protection Fire Company No. 3, East Austin Fire Company No. 4 in 1886, South Austin Fire Company No. 5 in 1895, which was the only company in South Austin until 1949, North Austin Fire Company No. 6 in 1896, West Austin Fire Company No. 7 in 1904, Tenth Ward Fire Company No. 8 in 1908, and Rescue Hose Company No. 9 in 1913, the last volunteer company organized. West Austin No. 7 is the only company still occupying a station house from the horse-drawn era, and according to Mr. Cohen, it still has an old-style assembly hall upstairs, and grooves in the first floor concrete so fire horses can maintain a firm footing. The original station house of North Austin No. 6 is currently the home of Ballet Austin.

Central Engine Company No. 3 was organized in 1874, but disbanded three years later, while Hope Hook & Ladder Company existed from 1875 to 1882. In the 1870s, Central Engine Company No. 3 decided to go high-tech and ordered a chemical engine. It operated badly, and soon won the nickname of “the soda fountain.”

In 1903 at the ceremony where Will Dill (no kin to Will Wynn) was sworn in as Chief, a Major Carruth made a rather florid speech, where he stated, “When I see this grand array of brawny men standing before me like unto the solid phalanx of the Roman conquerors, it means but two things–for the citizens of Austin, protection; for myself and my youngsters, a picnic.”  While it sounds like the Major badly needed a cold shower, he brought up a good point.

For many years, the AFD was known for holding and a huge picnic every San Jacinto Day, in Hyde Park or Pease Park. They held sack races, beauty contests, and such like, but the custom died out around the 1930s. Fortunately, Jerry Cohen says there’s talk of bringing back the AFD observance of San Jacinto Day. It might start small, with a small gathering at the Fire Museum, but with any luck it will become a popular community event again.

In 1912 AFD got its first motorized vehicle, and in 1916 voters approved changing AFD from a non-paid, volunteer organization, to a full-time, paid, professional department. A farewell banquet for the volunteer department was held at the Colorado fire hall, where many tales of the old days were told and toasted.

One amusing thing I came across in my research was a newspaper article from February 2, 1918: “Knitting Sweaters To Get The Kaiser, Job For Austin Firemen–Ed. Tallichet is Chief High Mogul With Needles–Comrades Follow in Close Order….On with the Knitting Brigade!–Stands there a Man Dismayed?–Austin’s Fire Fighters.”

Yes, long before Rosey Grier took up needlepoint (I’m really dating myself with that reference), the men of the AFD got in touch with their warm and fuzzy side by knitting sweaters for American soldiers in World War I. At least that’s what I gathered from the article. Maybe they were under the misguided impression that Wilhelm II would become less belligerent and dangerous if he chucked his spiked helmet and elaborate uniforms for a relaxed Fred Rogers-style cardigan. Had the Allies pursued a “Won’t you be my neighbor?” policy in Europe World War II might never have happened.

In the early days of the twentieth century there were only two telephones at the AFD central dispatcher’s office. One was a normal telephone, while the other was a hand-cranked magneto. Calls would come in on the main phone, then the dispatcher would crank the magneto and send a signal to all the station houses. Since there were no radios in use yet, a company was incommunicado from the time it left its station until one of its members telephoned the dispatcher to explain what was going on.

During much of the twentieth century, the local newspapers often did human interest stories about the AFD. Apparently a major bone of contention was the image in the public mind of firemen spending most of their free time playing checkers and dominoes, but in 1969, Fireman Curtis Wahrmund of Engine Company No. 1 declared, “There hasn’t been a domino game here since 1926.”

Through the years, though, the AFD has been called upon to provide some unusual services. Longtime Fireman Oscar Lane recalled in 1973, “You wouldn’t believe how many people call here wanting to know street directions to someplace….I wonder how a lot of people get home by themselves. We’ve got about all the business we need as a locater service.

“We get a lot of pretty strange calls, too. A lady called and said there was a dead mouse in her house and she wanted us to come get it. Well, we sent somebody out, and that mouse was lying out in her front yard, but she didn’t want to touch it, so we threw it in the trash can for her.”    

Longtime District Fire Chief John A. Luckey said it was also very common for women to lock themselves out of their homes or for children to lock themselves in the bathroom. In either case, the AFD was often called in to get people in or out. In 1970 Chief Ed S. Kirkman denied that his men were called all that often to rescue cats stuck up in trees, but he added, …“We have removed a few hippies from trees at the university.”

I found an article about a 1952 fire safety show, performed by members of the AFD at the old fire drill tower at First and Colorado for hundreds of amazed school children. The men showed how ladders, life lines, booster lines, large water hoses, and ladder nozzles were used, and staged a mock rescue, demonstrating the use of gas masks and resuscitators. Then the “rakishly costumed firemen” did a skit to illustrate how difficult it can be to properly jump into a life net.

There was also a fairly morbid mock cemetery set up nearby, with tombstones bearing such epitaphs as “I Cleaned With Gasoline,” “I Let Trash Accumulate,” and “I Used A Leaky Gas Hose.”

But not all of AFD’s non-fire related duties were so pleasant. Retired Firefighter Jesse Halm said, “We made lots of drownings. Dragging for people’s bodies. We done a lot of that….I dragged one one time up there right below the old Marshal Ford Dam. Preacher from Elgin was in there. Was the third day we found him. Open some flood gates up and the body popped up, may have hung up somewhere, got loose, popped up. Oh, that’s horrible. Man, that’s horrible. The bodies, odor comes up when you get ‘em out on land. Whooo. If you ain’t got a strong stomach that’ll turn it. A burn person’s all stinky too. Oh, boy. They’re nasty.”

1952 saw the AFD hiring the first three African-Americans to serve in a municipal fire department: Willie Ray Davis, Nathaniel Kindred, and Roy D. Greene. Greene eventually resigned from the AFD, Kindred died of a heart attack while fighting a fire in 1977, and Davis retired in 1983. Their years with the Department were by no means easy, because integration did not necessarily mean acceptance.

The three men were assigned to Fire Station No. 5, where they were made to use separate toilet stalls, sinks, plates, and utensils from the white officers. Instead of bunking in the dormitory, they were crammed into a ten foot by ten foot bedroom. And African-American firefighters were initially not allowed to get off the truck and fight fires outside of East Austin. According to Davis there was a prejudice in those days that African-Americans were afraid of various aspects of firefighting, so he had to go out of his way to be brave and useful in order to prove that belief to be incorrect.

Davis also discovered that every time he tested for a promotion, the Department would modify its personnel needs, based on how Davis would score. If the AFD initially said it need three men and Davis would come in third, the Department would announce it needed only two men. Documentation of this official discrimination is on display at the Fire Museum. Davis in fact didn’t get a promotion until 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In 1969, Davis was named Fireman of the Year for rescuing a baby from a fire in the Booker T. Washington housing project. He recalled, … “When I got this baby out of this bedroom that was upstairs up there and you had to crawl to find out where the bed was, I’d been there to the projects many times before, and I knew pretty well the layout of the rooms and stuff like that, but when you had to crawl to find it, and you look over there and see what you came for, and you get it and you go downstairs and then you start giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and all of a sudden you hear a cough…and then start crying, then that’s one of the most gratifying moments that I’ve ever had.”

Willie Ray Davis finally made Captain in 1973, becoming the first African-American in the State of Texas to achieve that rank.

The AFD hired its first Hispanic, Joe Villareal, in 1963, and its first woman, Lucinda Hough, in 1976.

Today the AFD serves a 248 square mile region and a population of over 688,000. It has 223 vehicles, 1,032 uniform personnel and 56 civilian personnel, 43 stations, and in fiscal year 2003-2004 went on 58,943 alarms and 41,041 medical assists, with a 4.34 minute average response time. That’s quite a difference from the days of that hand-pumped garden engine.

But I’ll give Captain Davis the last word: … “I’m not a brave person. I just feel like that I do what I feel like it’s necessary to do at that time, regardless of the circumstances. That’s my job and I try to do it. I might–I think a person is crazy who isn’t scared. The more scared you are, you’ll watch more what you’re doing, but if you just jump in there real quick and say you’re not paying attention to what’s going on, that’s when you can get hurt….

“[The younger guys in charge now]…they have a little different outlook on life and on people than they did some time in the past. It seems like they’re more apt to give a person a chance if he’s, if he can do it, he will give them the opportunity to do it. And I believe this is where the department is heading, and this is what will eventually make this a great department, much greater than it is now, although it is a great department right now.”

–July 28, 2005 and August 11, 2005


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