May 27: Organizing the Fight Against a Deadly Enemy


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 ineffective. 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, where it was thrown on the flames. In a later improvement, these same bucket brigades passed water to fill the reservoir of a water pump used to spray water on the burning structure.

Reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg recreate an 18th century fire-fighting scene, passing buckets to fill the reservoir of a manually operated pump for a fire-hose.

As residents of one of the oldest English settlements in Connecticut, the people 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 at the center of town. In 1803, following decades of prosperity and population growth, the town felt a need to increase its fire-fighting capacity. Wethersfield petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for permission to establish its own formal fire company, which the state legislature approved on May 27.

Wethersfield proudly claims the oldest (1803) Volunteer Fire Department in New England.

The new volunteer fire department originally consisted of 16 men and two “force pumps” — small wheeled water pumps which could be moved to the scene of a fire by men or horses. And though its numbers have increased, and its fire-fighting equipment has vastly improved over the years, the Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department is still going strong today. Its three separate companies answer 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 New England.

Further Reading

Connecticut’s Oldest Fire Department,”

Fire and Firefighting in Colonial America,” Colonial Williamsburg