The Evolution of the NG Fire Department, Part I: Following Smoke


By Penny Hilton
July 2017

A Several Part Series on the evolution of the New Gloucester Fire Department from the early 20th century to the present. Part One, 1899 – 1939, is history as interpreted through annual town reports of New Gloucester, Gray, and Auburn; New Gloucester Town Meeting Minutes; books on the history of these towns, plus Pownal; a number of articles and data from the State of Maine and other reputable on-line resources. Corrections and additions are welcomed. While not a source for the information below, Acadia Transformed: New Gloucester, Maine and the Rise of the City, 1740 to 1930 by Geoffrey Rosanno, was extremely helpful in confirming some of my conclusions, and a fascinating examination of New Gloucester.

The town of New Gloucester at the turn of the last century was a well-established rural community which had evolved from agrarian self-sufficiency to being part of the complex network of rural towns supplying the metropolitan centers of Portland and Lewiston Auburn with dairy and farm products, workers, and new customers. With many farms, more well-acred “homesteads”, some mills, a blacksmith, three churches and several one-room schoolhouses, New Gloucester spread over 47 square miles, with a sparse network of dirt roads connecting everyone. The town was governed by a board of three selectmen who were elected at the annual town meeting, when all the town’s most important decisions were made. As revealed in town reports down through the years, these voters were not a hasty bunch. They were inclined to put new ideas on hold at town meeting for several years before finally discarding an unpopular notion, or, in some cases, voting yes. One of the ideas that took years to become accepted as a  routine town matter was municipal fire protection. 

Before the advent of pressurized water systems and motorized firetrucks, fire was an ever-looming catastrophe. Here in Maine, the Great Portland Fire of 1866 which left 1,500 buildings destroyed and more than 10,000 people homeless was the worst example of what fire could do. That fire may well have provided the impetus for the creation of fire departments in many Maine towns. In the bustling manufacturing hub of Lewiston and Auburn, companies of volunteers had formed years earlier on both sides of the Androscoggin, and as early as 1849 had raised funds to buy horse-drawn “chemical engines” on two wheels, as well as ladders and hose and other apparatus. But the year after Portland’s inferno, the City of Auburn took over the Lewiston Falls Fire Company, making it firmly a municipal service. In Gray, a mercantile and milling crossroads featuring actual block buildings at its center, volunteers coalesced into a firefighting club, or company, in 1880, with donated red buckets stored strategically across the town.

In New Gloucester, by contrast, it wasn’t till 1901 that there is any evidence that the town began to pay formal attention to the matter of fighting fires, and that evidence is small:  three expenditures noted in the Annual Town Report under the heading Contingent. There, along with the usual payments for care of the town clock, trips to the cemetery by the town hearse, and $2.50 to a B. A. Libby for “skinning two sheep killed by dogs” are payments of between $1.50 and $4.25 apiece to Alfred Searles, Jeremiah May, William Tripp, Fred Tripp, and W. A. Reed “for firefighting.”

Chimney fires, railroad-sparked grass fires, barn fires, lightning strikes – all of these had long been part of life in every New England town. Why payment now, and why just for these few men? Because it was state law. Sources differ as to the year – 1891 or 1903 – but somewhere at the change of the centuries, the State of Maine legislated that anyone fighting a forest fire must be paid a minimum of 15 cents an hour. This was part of the State’s new program to protect forest resources, especially those in the northern part of the state, where they worked with lumber companies and large land owners to set up fire patrols and response plans. For the next four decades, payments for “firefighting”, “fighting forest fires”, or “watching fires” were itemized expenses in New Gloucester town reports.

The need for an organized approach to fire protection and fire response was made abundantly clear in the next few years. In fire-fighting circles, 1900 to 1910 became known as “The Decade of Conflagrations.” In 1902, the Patterson NJ Conflagration destroyed the entire downtown of the city, all municipal buildings, 5 churches, 5 banks, the public library, 2 newspaper offices, several large office buildings, and more than 500 dwellings, with final destruction totaling more than 25 city blocks. The next year, here in Maine, more than 200,000 acres of woodland burned –  and the Town of New Gloucester okayed purchase of two ladders to be used stored in the Town House in case of fire.

Nationwide, huge fires continued to assault cities with death and devastation. In1904 the Baltimore Conflagration destroyed 2,500 buildings over 75 city blocks.  In 1906, the great earthquake fires in San Francisco killed almost 700 people, injured 3,500, and destroyed 2,800 buildings over 514 city blocks. That same year, New Gloucester purchased nine of the hand-held fire extinguishers known as “chemicals,” and authorized $500 for the purchase of a vault to hold the town’s important papers. In 1908, another 98,000 acres burned in the woods of Maine, and, according to several historical accounts, the “woods were closed” till snow fell.

The 1911 New Gloucester Annual Town Report listed more payments for watching fires: to six men at the Wilson Lot, where Mat Sawyer doubled his pay to $4 by watching “day and night”; and to two men for a fire at the Greeley House. House fires were not included in the State statute regarding forest fire fighting pay, so it is unclear how the selectmen decided who got paid and who didn’t. However, taxpayers apparently felt no urgency about more fire protection. A warrant article “to see if the town will vote to provide suitable apparatus for extinguishing a fire, and how much” was postponed; and the $500 voted the year previous for a fireproof vault was turned back into the Contingency fund, while the town solved the problem of protecting important papers by renting a Portland Safety Deposit Box for the next several decades.

So firefighting in New Gloucester continued to be an ad hoc response. In 1913 fourteen different men were paid for fighting four different fires, listed as Gloucester Hill, Gray Road, the Gavill Land, and the land of J.P. Jordan. Additionally, George Waterman was paid $3.50 for hauling water to the Gray Road fire. In 1914 the town paid $198.15 to repair fire damage to the Town House. Meanwhile the Town of Gray, which had started funding their Fire Company $100 per year, paid twenty-seven men a total of $170.90 for fighting forest fires; and the Auburn Fire Department, led by a Fire Chief now paid $5 per week, purchased its first motorized fire vehicle, a Seagrave 80 hp “autotruck” with two 35-gallon chemical tanks, hose, four hand extinguishers, and two ladders. (According to one Auburn historian, the advent of motorized equipment ended the practice of loading fire gear and horses onto flatbeds and transporting them and firefighters to respond to fires at the further reaches of the city by railroad.)

In 1915, when the Gray Fire Company officially became the Gray Fire Department, New Gloucester was still not ready to address fire danger as a town matter. One of the articles on the Town Warrant asked if the townspeople would “determine the advisability of erecting a fire proof building to preserve town papers and records of great value, and serve as a museum…” Apparently, voters sent the building project to a committee to research, as the next year, 1916, New Gloucester voted to keep the research into constructing a fire-proof building “in the hands of the same committee.” But when in 1917 the town meeting received a report from that committee, voters opted to indefinitely postpone the project.

In 1921, dramatic efforts by the Gray and Auburn Fire Departments and departments from several other towns failed to prevent the total destruction of seven buildings in Gray Village. Even so, the issue of firefighting failed to spark voter action in New Gloucester through 1925, when, despite the fact the town had recently paid eight individuals and the City of Auburn for help fighting a fire on Gloucester Hill, consideration of “purchase of any kind of firefighting apparatus” was indefinitely postponed.

For a few years, in fact, New Gloucester apparently depended on the Town of Gray and the City of Auburn, now with three motorized fire trucks, to come to their rescue for bad fires, and paid for the help: $210 to the City of Auburn for fighting unnamed fires in 1927, and $115 again in 1928 for helping with the fire at Winters Mills.

Both Pownal and New Gloucester came online with telephone service in 1905, and it became an immediate lifeline. As described in Pownal Down Through the Ages, townspeople quickly adopted a system of fire alert. One long ring on the family phone meant fire, and everyone picked up to have the operator tell them where. The response was still by horse, and still a matter of bucket and shovels, but the quick alert was a big leap forward.

Though the phones began ringing through town, however, New Gloucester remained a “horse and buggy town”, with 345 horses and 72 carriages noted on the town’s tax valuation pages in 1905. In the whole state that year, according to the History of Maine Roads, there were a total of 715 cars, 22 car dealers, and 77 motorcyles.  But it was in 1905 that the State of Maine named Paul D. Sargent as its first Road Commissioner to oversee what numbered at that time a total of 22,530 miles of road in the state, 65 of which were macadam, 22 granite block, and the rest gravel or “just plain dirt.”  Sargent was an energetic proponent for a modern system of roads. He wanted more roads – better roads – connecting Maine towns, with consistent standards of construction and maintenance. Two years later, in 1907, the State Highway Department was created, and very soon thereafter offered a program of splitting the cost of road creation for certain roads 50/50 with the towns. Town Reports reflect New Gloucester’s active participation in the program.

The coming dramatic transformation of daily transportation from horse-powered to gas-powered was still beyond most people’s imagination, however. The town warrant for 1906 included an article for building stables behind the high school “for the accommodation of students who come with teams.” The count of autos in New Gloucester inched from none to two in 1907, to five in 1908, down to four in 1909 (wherein must lie a story!), to seven in 1912, and eighteen in 1913.

Poll taxes for 1920 show 301 eligible New Gloucester voters (at this point, still only men.) Valuation records that year show a town that boasted 194 homesteads, many of them with considerable acreage; 49 farms; two mills, two blacksmith shops, a cooper shop, a grain shed, a potato shed, a boarding house, a stable, four stores and taverns, an orchard, seven cottages on lots, three large timber stands, two “wharff lots” (sic) and several woodlots. There were also three churches, the Shaker Village, the Opportunity Farm for orphaned boys, the Town Farm, a Town House (or Hall), an imposing Masonic Hall, several railroad stations, the Maine State Home for the Insane, and a U.S. Post Office. It wasn’t a city, but it was a significant town with many buildings and enterprises that contributed to the community.

Roads were being developed and maintained in a deliberate manner, and to a higher standard. Telephone service, begun in the last years of the previous century, was finally connecting the countryside. Electric lights burned in the town’s eight neighborhood schools and high school. And by 1928, besides all manner of two-legged and four-legged farm stock, the town taxed 78 radios, two portable mills, two gas engines, 45 musical instruments – and a whopping 246 automobiles.  The horse count dropped to 268. In just two more years, autos outnumbered horses in town, and carriages barely figured in the count.

Article 49 on the 1928 town warrant once more proposed purchase of fire apparatus. It was moved to the beginning of discussion at town meeting, after elections and lunch. And this time, seventeen years after the first attempt to get the town to buy firefighting apparatus failed, the voters finally approved. They voted “not more than $3,500, to be paid over three years, and not more than $1,000 to be raised by taxes” for purchase of a fire truck. They also approved $499 to build a Fire Building to house it.

In the next year’s Annual Town Report, the Selectmen reported: “We investigated and purchased a Boyer 4 Tank Chemical Fire Apparatus. A meeting was called and a fire company was formed as voted at the Special Town Meeting. A fire house was built as voted by the town… Mr. B E. Leach was hired to drive and care for the apparatus til annual town meeting.” At that town meeting, the voters answered Article #27 “To see what action town will take for care and management of fire apparatus, or any other action on same, and money for same” by approving $250 for care of the fire truck by the newly organized Fire Company.

There were still some wrinkles to iron out, it appears. In 1930 Fire Department expenses included payment to Tufts Garage for “fixing truck after accident,” and $10 was paid from Town Contingent Funds to Frederick McCann for “damage done to his auto by firetruck.” In 1931, another “fire truck accident” resulted in town payments of $500 each to B. E. Leach and O. R. Ray.

But in 1930 the town voted the new Fire Department a $500 budget, and an article “to see what funds the town wishes to raise for use of care and use of fire equipment” became standard on annual town warrants. After the first $500, the routine figure became $250 per year, with $120 annually paid to R.J. Combellback for care of the firetruck, and firewatching and firefighting pay still coming out of town Contingent funds.

One can only assume that response time to chimney fires and the like improved with a new Fire Department core and a fire truck to help, but town records don’t mention much till 1935. That year a huge fire at Centennial Hall brought firefighters and trucks from Cumberland, Gray and Auburn, and put 17 New Gloucester men on the payroll for firefighting. Maybe this was the event that moved the town in 1936 to appoint Harry P. True its first, unpaid, Fire Chief. Under Chief True that year the town acquired a second fire truck, with hose and fire pumps, as well as a “Buick car” bought from Arden Rand for $35. The 1936 Town Warrant also shows the town taking money from a State Aid account to apply a “bituminous surface” on all the roads built with state funds in the previous five years.

In 1937 Chief True paid $140 as premium on a “blanket insurance on firemen,” and insurance on town property became the subject of a stern warning from the Selectmen. Under General Remarks in the 1938 Town Warrant, the board wrote:

“We would suggest that the town make some arrangement in regard to insurance on the schoolhouses. The fire at Centennial Hall cost the town $1,200; if that amount had been expended in insurance premiums over a period of years, it could have been taken care of much easier. Town property should be taken care of in case of fire just as any private business concern would protect its property.”

This was the same year that the Report of the Fire Chief became part of the Annual Report. In his first report, Chief True noted that “the head of the engine on the pump had cracked during the fire at Centennial Hall, due to being unable to pick up water, which has put it out of commission.” He recommended that the town buy “a light, air cooled Forestry pump, similar to those used by the State.” He also acknowledged a Mr. Stanley Faibisy and the Gulf Refining Co for donation of “a five hundred gallon tank, to be filled ready to be placed on a truck for forest fires or buildings.” And he reported that “members of the department have spent 116 hours in service during the year.” The position of Fire Chief continued to be unpaid until 1951, when the town awarded the Chief an annual stipend of $50.

Coming Next – Part Two: Responding To The Calls