May 27: Oldest Operating Volunteer Fire Department in New England

 

A leather fire bucket from the early 19th century.

From the earliest days of Connecticut history, fire posed one of the greatest mortal dangers to Connecticut residents — especially to the English settlers whose homes, barns, fences, and other structures were made of timber and often clustered closely together.  In the 17th and early 18th centuries, before the advent of portable water pumps, fire-fighting methods were primitive and largely ineffectual; residents would keep large leather fire buckets in their homes and form “bucket brigades” whenever the town was alerted to a local fire.  Men, women, and children would form a continuous line from the town well or other water source and pass a steady line of water-filled buckets to the site of the fire or, in later years, to water pumps which had to be manually supplied with water.

Reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg recreate an 18th century fire-fighting scene featuring a “bucket brigade” and portable fire engine.

As one of the oldest English settlements in Connecticut, the residents of Wethersfield have a documented history of fighting fires dating back hundreds of years. In the late 17th century, the town purchased a number of ladders and extra fire buckets to keep in storage at the Congregational Church located at the center of town.  In 1803, following decades of prosperity and population growth, the town of Wethersfield petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for a charter in order to establish its own formal fire company, which the state legislature approved on May 27.

The volunteer fire department originally consisted of sixteen men and two “force pumps” — small wheeled water pumps which could be moved to the scene of a fire by men or horses. The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department is still going strong today, with three separate companies answering hundreds of emergency calls every year.  With more than 215 years of uninterrupted, active service, it has the proud distinction of being the oldest continuous volunteer fire department in all of New England.

Further Reading

Connecticut’s Oldest Fire Department,” connecticuthistory.org

Fire and Firefighting in Colonial America,” Colonial Williamsburg