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The pull to fight a fire

The one thing that frightened residents of a new town the most in the late 1800s was fire.

Wooden buildings protected by small bucket brigades of neighbors dipping water from their wells offered little protection from what almost everyone knew as “The Fire Fiend.”

Firefighting was expensive, and a town like Medford, founded in 1884 and incorporated the following year, just didn’t have enough cash.

In October 1888, the town began constructing a water ditch that would bring water from Bear Creek into downtown. It took nearly eight months to dig, but by May 1889, with water finally flowing, and a water storage tank set up in today’s Alba Park, the ditch not only provided better basic fire protection, it also brought drinking water to those who couldn’t afford to dig a well.

In the spring of 1890, with new water pipes installed, about 20 of Medford’s young men organized a “hose company.” It was a private firefighting organization not funded by city government. One of its first tasks was to raise enough money to buy a hose cart and 500 feet of hose. The hose cart was pulled by a “hose team” of male firefighters, first from a corrugated iron shed near the town jail at Front and East Sixth streets, and then from a vacant store room on Central Avenue.

A fire in the A.A. Davis Flour Mill, just after midnight in 1892, was a complete embarrassment for Medford firefighters. “The lesson was a costly one.” There been no water in the city ditch for two days, and hours of bucket brigade work nearly drained every well in the area without success. Ultimately, the hero was Jacksonville’s fire department, which sent its well water suction device and “speedily subdued what was left of the fire fiend’s handiwork.”

By 1895, it wasn’t unusual for someone who heard the fire bell while passing by the hose cart house to hitch their wagon to the cart and get it to the scene of the fire even before firefighters. When an arsonist set fire to Medford’s school house that year, Gordon Schermerhorn rushed to the cart house and began ringing the fire bell. Enough fire boys were soon on hand to attach the hose cart to his buggy and race off to the fire.

As summer approached in 1900, the fire boys were exhausted and decided to hold a fundraising dance to pay for a new hose cart. “The cart they are now using weighs 1,700 pounds, and it’s too blooming, blasted heavy to haul.” The new cart arrived a year and a half later.

Finally, in 1907, with the city now in charge of the fire department, an improved chemical fire wagon had arrived, a new brick firehouse was built, and, in 1908, the city located a suitable team of horses, Skinny and Rastus, to pull the new wagon and live in the new firehouse.

Skinny and Rastus gave great service until August 1910, when they were judged “too light for the heavy work” and transferred to pulling the water wagon that kept the street dust down.

It was time for Tom and Jerry, two frisky 4-year-olds with “remarkable intuition.” After just a few days’ practice, they were in position and ready for harness as soon as the fire bell rang. But, the writing was definitely on the stall wall.

Medford bought its first motorized fire engine in 1914, and although Tom and Jerry “ran like derby winners” and seemed to relish being part of the fire action, they were obsolete. In 1917, they were finally sent to pasture.

A tank of gas replaced a couple buckets of oats.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.