By Stuart Strothman and Laurel Ellis, August 2005
Putney has long been rightfully proud of its fire department, which in 2004 responded to a record 343 calls, and gave 4300 additional volunteer hours over to maintenance, education, and training. As we look forward to our new firehouse on the solid ground of the old salt shed property across from the Co-op, it seems like a good time to look back and consider some of the ways our fire department has served our community, and how things have changed over the years.
Our first hose companies were privately funded, which was the usual situation in the 1800s. In 1898, citizens of Putney voted to appropriate $500 in support of the fire district, to protect town property. In 1899 W.A. Cole, having contributed $350 to the town’s effort, installed a steam pump in his paper mill to provide power for the Putney Fire Department. In 1903 taxpayers voted to provide 700 feet of hose. Needless to say, this equipment only served the village district. In 1920 we purchased a chemical apparatus for firefighting called a soda water extinguisher, and we had some problems with this ‘cutting-edge’ equipment over the following decade.
In the late 1920s the fire insurance rates went up, and protection became a serious problem. In 1930, the town and village joined to purchase a new fire truck and other approved equipment; in 1934, voters allocated $500 toward the purchase of a fire station. The town was prepared to move to a town-wide district.
The Town Report listed Chief Smith with J. J. Knight, First Assistant Chief and Ernest Parker Second Assistant Chief. Other firefighters of the decade named were David B. Hannum, Sr., Leonard Howard and Elmer Gassett. Major fires noted in town records were the Kathan and Fuller fires (1929), H. F. Jones, and a forest fire at Stockwells (1931), George Aplin and D. D. Cory (1932), the Loomis place and George Gassett (1933), Aiken (1935), the barn at Putney School (1936), the Vassar Paper Mill (1937), the chemistry room at Putney School (1937), E. Holton and Holway (1938), and a forest fire on West Hill (1939). Twenty chimney fires per year was the norm – the prevention of which the department recommended an occasional burning of powdered sulfur In. March 1949 an intense fire that took 45 men over two hours to bring under control, gutted the Bucket Factory. The fire left 10 men out of work until the factory was reopened. In 1958 and 1959, the initial construction of the current fire station took place, partially supported by a concrete abutment connected to the Sacketts Brook dam.
The Town Hall was the setting for many social functions through most of the 20th century, including over fifty years of Fireman’s Balls sponsored by the Putney Hose Co. and the Putney Daughters. An elegant “dance card” from the Firemen’s Ball on February 24, 1916, in the collection of the Putney Historical Society, lists twenty-four dances beginning with the Grand March and Circle; others include Lady Walpole’s Reel and Morning Star.
Originally, we had a paid fire department. In 1903, voters decided to pay firemen 25¢ per hour while attending a fire. In 1936, citizens voted to pay firemen $3.00 each and deduct 25 cents for each meeting not attended. In 1944, firemen were paid specifically “when the siren blows or in case of chimney fires” at the rate of $1.00 for the first hour, and $.75 for “all time spent thereafter.” And to think, this is all considerably more than volunteers of the Putney Fire Department currently make!
Information for this article was drawn from the 1953 and 2003 Putney history texts, a record of Town Meeting minutes and Selectboard reports, and from documents on file at the Putney Historical Society. Quotes are taken from the 1944 Town Meeting minutes.