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Bucket Brigades

On September 4, 1865, the dark night was brightened by sharp flashes of light which appeared high in the blackness and traveled sharply toward earth. Cornelius B. Campbell was aware of the storm and listened attentively from his Park Avenue residence. Suddenly, there was an awesome, crackling sound which sent a chill down his spine. He rushed to the window and was forced into action as he saw his barn become inflamed. Neighbors ran to his aid, but Campbell’s barn was destroyed.

This was the first fire recorded in the initial publication of the Vineland Weekly. In those days, most people did not have insurance and when property was destroyed the loss was usually suffered without compensation. However, there were times when neighbors offered assistance. In the case of the Campbell’s, John Gage and Truman Mabbett, Sr. started a subscription paper and four hours after the fire brought Mr. and Mrs. Campbell $100.

In the early history of the Borough of Vineland, before the forming of an organized Fire Department, each householder took fire precautions as he deemed necessary. Buckets were the main implement used, either the ones commonly found about the home which could be taken to the well in time of need, or special ones standing filled for an emergency. The leather fire bucket was the first specialized equipment, usually of three gallon capacity. In Vineland, cisterns were established at various corners on Landis Avenue to supplement the individual wells. When fire struck, citizens formed human lines called “bucket brigades” stretching from the nearest well or cistern to the fire. It was not uncommon in most communities to see woman and children in these lines. When it came to fire, everyone who was able helped.

Most citizens were fairly content with this arrangement although there were some who tried to enlighten the town to the dangers of not having some better means of combating such an unrelinquishing fiend. Mr. C.B. Bagster was one who tried to touch the consciences of those who ignored the problem. He stated in an article in the Vineland Weekly on June 22, 1867, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and it is better by foresight to save than by aftersight to repair.” He urged the town to purchase some simple apparatus to aid the population.

Surely everyone was aware of the danger, but it seems they held the attitude why do today what can be done tomorrow. On July 2, 1872, that tomorrow came. In the early hours of the morning, the town was awakened by the alarm of fire. The fire originated in a wooden building owned by Silas G. Sylvester. Its lower part was divided into two shops occupied by Samuel E. Baily, harnessmaker, and Casper Hoffman, barber, while the upper rooms lodged Daniel A. Russell and his family. Quickly, the fire spread to Sylvester’s brick black which consisted of several buildings housing approximately seven businesses on the north side of Landis Avenue between the Boulevard and Sixth Streets.

The flames roared out of control. They were finally arrested by tearing down the wooden structure in their path used by James Chance for his grocery store, thus saving the mechanics block. No one was injured, but this was the most destructive fire the town had known ending with $20,000 in damages. After this disaster, the people were finally moved to discuss a means by which they could be protected.

Several suggestions were proposed for the prevention of future disasters. The most feasible was the purchase of “some hook and ladders, with a company to handle them together with several Babcock Fire Extinguishers to be kept at convenient points always ready for use.”

Vineland’s First Fire Company

On July 23, 1872 a meeting of the Fire Department was held at the Union Hall. George Souther submitted the draft for a constitution which was adopted with few exceptions. The first officers elected were: Ezekiel Morely, Foreman, a carpenter from New York who settled in Vineland in 1863; William V. Prince, First Assistant, who came to Vineland with his family when he was 20 years old and went into business with his father at Kimball and Prince Lumber Company; John L. Ring, Second Assistant, a farmer and later a shoemaker who settled here in 1864; Rev. Oscar Clue, Secretary, a former teacher and Mathematics Professor who arrived in Vineland in 1867 to take charge of the Unitarian Society; and George Pearson, Treasurer, a Pennsylvanian and one of Vineland’s older citizens who settled here in 1864 and purchased 20 acres of land on Landis Avenue.

Several days later another meeting was held at the Union Hall. The company adopted “Vineland Hook and Ladder Fire Company” as its official name and five new volunteers were admitted. The Foreman appointed as Fire Police: Lucius H. Babcock, Proprietor of a small supply store; Eli H. Pierson, a Blacksmith and owner of livery stable on Landis Avenue; Nathan P. Wiswell, a Shoecutter and co-owner with his brother of the first shoe factory in the settlement; William Dawson, an England born Plasterer and Mason; Charles D. Baily, owner of a confectionary and bakery shop; and Dr. David W. Allen, Dentist.

The Fire Police were to have the care and protection of all goods removed from the buildings during a fire, with the power to arrest those tampering with any of the properties. They had the same privileges as the firemen, exemption from jury and militia duty. John Huggett, a road master on the Vineland section of the West Jersey Railroad and a foreman supervising the laying of the West Jersey and Atlantic Railroads; Charles Bracket, a lumber foreman and salesman; Truman Mabbett, Jr.; and Albert Markland, shoemaker and buttonmaker were appointed as Axemen.

The Foreman also appointed an Executive Committee consisting of Edwin M. Turner, Charles K. Landis and George Pearson to purchase hooks, ladders, buckets, a fire extinguisher, chains crowbars and badges for the hats of the men and also to order a Hook and Ladder Truck. Mr. Turner was a lawyer from Pennsylvania with great ability in the music field. In 1865 he and his partner, William A. House, formed the first bank in Vineland under the name of House and Turner. And of course, Charles K. Landis the founder of Vineland was born in Philadelphia, practiced law and later became involved in real estate. He founded Vineland in 1861 at the young age of 28.

A fire station to house the equipment was erected on the south side of Landis Avenue between the Boulevard and Sixth Street. On October 19th, the new Hook and Ladder Truck, made by Ed. H. Hoffman and painted by Justus A. McGargle, was completed. This was a four wheeled frame with brackets on top to transport the ladders. If also carried buckets, crowbars, axes, hooks, picks, and torches if needed. When the truck was loaded if often weighed a great deal and to compensate for the extra weight there were iron protection bars on each side for the firemen to grasp along with the tongue or rope attached to the front.

The “Hook and Ladder Boys” paraded their machine on Thanksgiving Day. The town band marched musically behind the men as they walked with their heads high prominently displaying the new badges on their hats. These hats were made mostly of leather with iron or metal reveted segments and were designed similar to the modern hats worn today with the rearward extension of the brim. This attempted to prevent water from running down their backs. The crown was designed as a shield for the face against the sudden confrontation of smoke or fire. Overall, the hat protected the firemen from falling debris. The entire town came out and shared with the “Rough and Ready” men, as they called themselves, in the pride of their new machine.

Niagara Fire Company No.1

The feeling of confidence in fire protection was destroyed on September 20, 1877 when Vineland’s second disastrous fire took place. Again, in the early morning hours between two and three the citizens were aroused by the cry of “Fire!” The bells of the Methodist Church and the High School building rang out the alarm. Several businesses were destroyed on Landis Avenue, the loss amounting to $8,000.

Although the citizens worked heroically, their means were still insufficient to prevent the destruction and they realized that something more must be done. A meeting was held in the Baker House on October 2nd. Another group of men joined the department calling themselves the Niagara Engine Company and they took immediate steps towards procuring a fire engine and hose wagon.

The new hand pumper arrived in March 1878 and on the 26th an entertainment was given to raise funds towards its payment. During the show, the new engine was displayed for the first time to the public. It was of 7″ to 9″ cylinder velocity and required eight men to operate. The nozzle tube was attached to the side with hooks for buckets and a bell on top. There was a long handle in front used in transport. Everyone marveled at this little pumper and the town once again inspired with confidence and pride.

The hose wagon arrived the following month. It was called a “jumper” because being drawn on only two wheels it could easily be jumped over curbs and other street obstructions.

Until the close of the 18th century, fire engines could only pump water directly into the blaze. If the fire was beyond the reach of the nozzle mounted on the pumper, nothing could be done except with buckets. The invention of hose was a tremendous step forward. Firemen could enter the burning structure with a hose line and go directly to the flames while the engine was operated on the street. Unlike the old engine which had to be filled manually with buckets, the new hose engine could draw water through a hose line directly from a cistern of lake by means of suction. Every hundred feet of hose was as effectual as sixty men with buckets. This first hose was made of leather which was riveted in sections. The hand sewn leather hose often leaked or cracked and was replaced by rubber hose in later years.

Pioneer Fire Company No.1

As the year 1878 came to a close, Vineland had a Fire Department consisting of a hook and ladder company, an engine company, with equipment for each, fire police, a few uniforms, helmets and badges. To avoid friction and avail the city with the best, most smoothly operating fire protection, the Town Committee appointed five Fire Commissioners, giving them full control over the department and its property as a whole. They were also responsible for upkeep and care of the latter. A Chief Engineer was in charge of the department at fires while the officers of each company were to be a Foreman, Assistant and Secretary, elected annually and subject to approval of the Commissioners. The first Commissioners appointed were Freeman S. Hale, President; James Loughran, Secretary; M.J. Kimball; Ezekiel Morely and Joseph Mason. William V. Prince was elected Chief Engineer. With a well organized Fire Department, there was a necessity for more water access and within less than a month three new cisterns were built, all on Landis Avenue.

Although the citizens worked heroically, their means were still insufficient to prevent the destruction and they realized that something more must be done. A meeting was held in the Baker House on October 2nd. Another group of men joined the department calling themselves the Niagara Engine Company and they took immediate steps towards procuring a fire engine and hose wagon.

Along with these assets, the department faced financial problems. Before 1878, there had been no appropriation from public monies and that year it totaled only $256.78. Expenses had to be met through private donations. Of course, everyone relied on the department in time of trouble but the donations were much slower in arriving than the speedy firemen in response to fire alarms. Ungratefulness was not the reason. Its was just that the people had so little. The settlement of only seventeen years was struggling with the many personal and public problems confronting a new town, complicated by an increase in population. There were new roads to be opened and old ones to be repaired; schools and churches to be built; sidewalks to be laid to replace the casual board and a simple system of street lighting to be installed. And so the men of the department paid personally the smaller bills and held community suppers, balls and musical entertainments to liquidate the larger ones.

As the city grew, other means had to be found to support and develop the water supply and provide new apparatus for the department. The Town Committee engineered a new plan for securing the monies necessary to build up equipment. In March 1880, they organized a regular Fire District in accordance with State Law and the legal voters within that district elected five Fire Directors. The first directors were Freeman S. Hale, Chairman; Hosea Allen, Clerk; John Prince; Eli B. Hendee and Oliver D. Graves and the sum of $200 was then appropiated for fire purposes.

The Rough and Ready Boys of the old “Hook and Ladder Company” and the men of the Niagara Engine Company found it increasingly difficult to procure space for the purpose of their meeting and the rental of the various rooms became more of a burden. It became apparent with the increase in the fire equipment and the number of men in service that one fire house large enough to house together all the men and equipment was necessary.

A lease was obtained from the Town Committee for a lot on Sixth and Wood Streets and during the spring and summer the building of the new firehouse proceeded. The firehouse cost less than the estimated $1600 and was raised by tax on the property in the fire district. It was completed on October 1st and the Vineland Hook and Ladder Company and Niagara Engine Company combined forming Pioneer Fire Company 1.

A two story brick building, with apparatus quarters on the first floor, a parlor, meeting room and recreation apartment on the second, the new firehouse meant a great deal to the men of Pioneer Fire Company. They were now one Fire Department and had great pride in it. They felt a sense of belonging and comradeship. The firehouse became a social club where community picnics and dances were held. It was a place where the boys could gather and talk. They could often be found at the firehouse on cold winter nights drinking hot coffee and listening to old timers tell tales of bygone days. On summer nights, they would collect in front of the station while someone played a harmonica or other instrument.

The volunteer firemen became friends of the community. They were dependable and very generous. Often, when a family lost their home and didn’t have a place to go, the firemen offered the protection of the firehouse. There they gave whatever was necessary to make their neighbors comfortable until further arrangements could be made. It was a time of neighborly spirit where almost every face was familiar and the small settlement was like a large family unknowing and untouched by the pangs of the modern, noisy existence of today.


It seemed with each major fire, the city had continually installed new cisterns so that by March of 1882 fourteen had been built including the large one sunk in front of Pioneer Fire Station. Feeling it advisable to know the exact locations of these, Dr. Allen drew a map of the cisterns for the company. It was framed and mounted and Dr. Allen was paid $5 for his trouble.

During this time, a horse drawn chemical and hose wagon was purchased. The chemical engine carried 3/4″ hose and two 50 to 100 gallon tanks containing water. A mixture of sodium bicarbonate and sulfuric acid were used to generate pressure and provide an extinguishing agent. If the supply of soda and acid became exhausted, the engine could continue operation as a worker pumper.

Fire Horses

“The elements of nature such as mud and deep snow of the good old days often stymied the firemen in their efforts to reach the fires.” A fireman who owned a horse and was the first to arrive at the fire hall and hook the pumper to his horse received $1.25. Although domesticated to pull man’s load for thousands of years, this faithful servant and companion only became associated with the fire service in the twilight of the horse era. Firefighters felt that America was founded on brute strength, a strength and courage that could not and should not be replaced. They felt it was their duty to continue the heritage their forefathers had left. They were reluctant to allow the horse replace their own muscle power and claim the honor of pulling their beloved machines. They did finally realized that by giving the horse the task of getting the fire apparatus to the scene, their strength would be saved for the more serious job of extinguishing the fire. Through the years, the firefighters grew to love and respect their fire horses and marveled with pride at the beauty those noble creature manifested as they ran, hoofs tapping and fire bell ringing pulling the fire engine through the streets.

A Bell For Pioneer Fire Company No. 1

On January 8, 1883, Mrs. Emma H. Coomper, a dressmaker living on Seventh and Landis across from the Methodist Church spotted smoke seeping from one of the church windows. She ran across the street and being the first to arrive began piling cushions on the floor above the fire which barred the draft and partially smothered the flames until help arrived.

The alarm had been given promptly by the bell of the same endangered building. Men from neighboring homes brought buckets filled with water controlling the surface fire. When the firemen arrived with the engine truck more efficient work began. They found it necessary to cut away portions of the woodwork to stifle the flames. They worked for more than an hour after which several men offered to remain during the night with water supply to prevent a second outbreak.

After this incident, it became clear to the firemen and citizens that a fire bell specifically for that purpose was needed. This feeling was stated in the Evening Journal on January 10th when it started: “Vineland needs and must have a first class fire bell, which should be of incalculable advantage in many cases. As it is, firemen and citizens generally find it impossible to distinguish any particular difference between the ringing of the church bells for fires, funerals or meeting. A good bell could be procured for about $300.”

The Weekly-Independent seconded its rival by stating on January 11th: “In view of the trouble in this case to raise on alarm, the suggestion that a bell be placed on Firemen’s Hall and sounded only in case of fire is particularly opportune and is respectfully recommended to the powers that be.”

The firemen appointed a committee to secure information on the bell and cupola. The report was presented to the Fire Directors with a recommendation of raising $400 to cover the cost. The recommendation was accepted by the Directors and favorably voted on by those within the voting district on March 11th.

The committee worked rapidly and on April 19th the Weekly-Independent stated: “A tall tower arrangement is being placed on the engine house. A fire alarm bell will be placed in the same, and our people will know they ought to go to a fire when the bell rings.” On the 26th another announcement stated, “The Fire Bell is in town.”

The bell itself was purchased from McShane and Company for $196.00 and the total cost of building the cupola and installing the bell came to $411.08.

Through the passing years, many hours of sleep were lost to the clanking of Pioneer’s bell. As it sat in its pedestal above the fire station ringing out alarms which were answered by the first settlers of Vineland, it was still there awakening their sons and grandsons. Through the turn of the century, it competed with the noise of a growing town. From the clatter of horse hoofs to the roar of the automobile, it rang out its dire warning. And it saw the young town mature to a prospering city with telephone wires strung to its own height.

Yes, the fire bell was in town and it served its time well. And then the day came when its ringing could not be heard above the sounds of progress and the cupola had become weak with age. The bell was taken down to be stored in the City’s warehouse until sold as old metal.

Before this fate became a reality, it was rescued by members of the Fire Department and Historical Society. It now rests in silence at the corner of Seventh and Elmer Streets with a bronze tablet inscribed, “Fire Bell of the Pioneer Fire Company, Vineland, N.J., April 1883.” And if you listen carefully, you may be able to hear through its silence the sounds of the past.

A History of Reliance Fire Company No. 1

In the early years of this century, a new era in firefighting opened through the invention of the automobile. Firemen were slow to recognize it, just as they had been slow in accepting the horse, and automobiles were first used only to transport men to the fire while engines remained much as they had been–horse drawn. Anyone with an aesthetic eye could not fashion replacing the graceful fire horse with a noisy gasoline engine.

While this struggle continued in the larger cities, Vineland was faced with a struggle against the human element rather than machine. The budding town had grown and matured much and in 1915 a small group of men gathered together and decided that Vineland should have a larger fire department, thus giving the town better fire protection.

The Pioneer Fire Company had its full quota, so the only alternative was to form a new company. This was not easy. It was frowned upon by many; even the Borough Officials of that time refused to recognize the new group as a fire company. They were only supportive of Pioneer which was now very well known and established in the community. After all, the town had grown and experienced much with the men of Pioneer.

These unpopular men were unwavering in their purpose and with the help and support of the late Royal P. Tuller, all the necessary legal papers were drawn and the Reliance Fire Company was born.

With lack of proper equipment, scarce finances and the criticism of those bitterly opposed to the new company, the early members of Reliance struggled down a rough and burdensome path. But their courage in the belief that this was right and good for the town was rewarded. They began taking in new members which brought encouragement and energy to continue despite all handicaps. Hamilton Gebhart was named first Chief and the little fire company located in the old Palace Garage building (currently J.C. Penny Company) made itself a significant part of the city.

One of the first fires Reliance responded to was at the Kimball and Prince Lumber Company located on South East Boulevard and Almond Street. Here they had to use the little hose wagon found on the premises. It was not easy to call oneself a fire company having no equipment with which to fight fires. They were steadfast and with the help of the late G.B. D’Ippolito and Nicholas D’Pasquale, who signed a note, Vineland’s first motorized firefighting equipment was bought in 1916. This was a gasoline powered chemical engine.

The early prejudice against the gasoline powered engines did not affect the men of Reliance. On the contrary, they had great pride in their first engine. The old Brockway nicknamed the “Little Red Wagon” meant a great deal to those men determined to bring better fire protection to the Borough of Vineland and it paved the way for the modern trucks in use throughout the city today.

Everything was not settled with the buying of a truck. There was still the overdue note. Mr. Roy Brooks, a member of Reliance, took the truck everyday and made house to house visits for funds.

During those early years, distress and mirth both played their parts. There was the first parade held on a hot Fourth of July with members of Reliance marching up Landis Avenue clothed in their rubber coats and helmets. John Pennino led the company carrying a large bouquet of flowers. Reliance went in dept time and time again, but fate was always kind. The men bought their own uniforms, coats, boots, helmets and two trucks. Later, the two trucks were turned over to the Borough of Vineland for $1.00. This allowed Reliance to be funded by the city and they then received their fire hall on South Sixth Street.

While the forming of Reliance in the early 1900’s afforded Vineland with greater fire protection, it also created a fierce rivalry between the two companies.

In a day almost lacking in athletic competition and social contests, the incidents of firefighting made up the void for many men. At first the volunteer firemen wanted merely to extinguish the fire; then they wanted to do so before their rival. When a man devoted the major portion of his time and effort to his company, he wanted to be sure that other companies were regarded in an inferior light. Several means were used to keep one’s adversaries form getting there first. Some of these were street fighting or racing one’s engines on the more smoothly surfaced sidewalks, at a great risk to pedestrians; or sounding false alarms to weary one’s rivals so they could not run so swiftly to a genuine fire, the later crew was said to be “passed” and this was a feared disgrace.

This rivalry continued between Pioneer and Reliance until the late thirties when it subsided somewhat. In 1948, under the Fire Commissioners Ordinace, the two companies merged.

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