History of the Palmer Fire Department 1885 - 1985

prepared by Alan Fauteux
From the beginning of time fires have ravaged the world, but technology was such that not much could be done about itself. Until recent times, as near as 150 years ago, things remained the same. As the Industrial Revolution became more sophisticated, so did firefighting. The world came to understand the ravage of fire. With this understanding and the capabilities to build an apparatus able to pump water, came the beginning of organized fire departments. Palmer was able to share in these changes.

Although Palmer, and many towns like it, was thirty to fifty years behind the large cities in fire fighting abilities. It was finally forced into doing something about it. In a little more than 100 years fire fighting in the Depot village of Palmer advanced from an unorganized brigade to $100,000 pieces of apparatus able to pump thousands of gallons of water per minute; truly a well organized and trained fire-fighting force.

On April 23, 1885 fire destroyed much of South Main Street and threatened to destroy much more of the village. It was not until a telegraph was sent to the Springfield Fire Department for aid, that the fire was brought under control. The Steamer #2 from Springfield proved to the towns people that an organized means of fire fighting was needed in Depot Village. A few weeks after the fire the towns people met to discuss forming a fire department. A committee of three was formed to look into the purchase and location of an engine. On May 15, 1885 the voters of the town decided to appropriate $8000 to buy a Steamer and Engine House to be placed in Depot Village. This steamer was to be used by the whole town.

The town Selectmen later decided to refuse providing fire protection to the whole town because only Depot Village requested it. However it was decided that the town would provide any amount of money necessary to form a fire district in Depot Village in exchange for the services necessary to fight fires in the other villages of the town. On August 31, 1885 voters of Depot Village voted unanimously to accept the towns offer and to form a Fire District and a Fire Department within the District. Voters of the Fire District were registered and on Sept. 19. 1885. the Palmer Fire District Number One was formed and officers were elected.

A site for the Engine House was purchased from the 5.5. Taft & Co. on Park Street for a fee of $400.00. Plans were drawn up by E.P. Ball for $70.00 and the Engine House was constructed by George W. Lynun for $3534 00. While the Engine house was being built, the Steamer was delivered via Boston and Albany railroad from the Chapp and Jones Co. of New York. With numerous devices needed for the operation of the Steamer plus the cost of the Steamer $4275.00. the total cost to the town was $9,277.10. On October 24, 1885. previously registered voters of the fire district accepted the Engine Mouse and the new Steamer. At this time the Board of Engineers were given permission to purchase a hook and ladder.

October 30, 1885 brought the formation of the Palmer Engine Co. No. 1, consisting of a foreman, two assistant foreman, clerk, treasurer and twelve other members. A committee of five of these men was chosen to draw up a constitution and bylaws for the company. The committee chosen returned in favor of adopting the constitution and bylaws used by the Oregon Engine Company No. 3 of Ware, with a few changes made to suit the Palmer Department. This was accepted and the Oath of Enginemen was given to all members.

The first practice with the new steamer on Nov. 7. 1885 went very well. With help and direction from the Assistant Chie of Springfield. First steam from cold water was 2 minutes 47 sec. First water through 100 feet of hose was 6 minutes 5 sec., and 100 pounds of steam in 11 Minutes 30 sec. Despite a friendly joking from members of a neighboring Fire Dept. (Ware) the chief termed first practice a success.

The first alarm boxes were installed in October 1887. There were three boxes, Box 48 Knox and Foster Streets, Box 57 Main and Walnut Streets, and Box 63 South Main Street. Keys were distributed in several houses surrounding each box. In case of a fire, a keeper of one of the keys would activate the box and the key could not be removed until the chief arrived with a special key to de-activate the box. The electric alarm activated a large hammer that struck the town bell at the Universalist Church up the street from the Engine house. The alarm also struck bells at the engine House and the chief’s house. Seven years later this system was changed because the firemen were confusing the fire alarm with the town clock bell. A new bell installed in the Engine House. With a considerably sharper tone this bell was no longer confused with the town clock. Also to eliminate the problem of locating alarm keys during a fire, the keys were placed in glass front key boxes above each box. In 1913, an electric paper punch system was added to alleviate the confusion of which box was wrung.

The turn of the century brought about many changes. On April 10, 1900, the voters approved a night fire patrol. During the hours of 12 a.m. to 5 a.m., this patrol continued until 1924 when full time police were hired. The night fire patrol proved to be effective in later years when an arsonist was arrested. John F. Lyman was arrested after T.J. Crimmins, fire patrol officer, witnessed Lyman attempting to burn the Eager block on Main Street. Lyman who was engineer of the Steamer Co. was accused of setting 75 fires during 1 1/2 years but only convicted of three and sentenced to five years in prison on September 20, 1909.

In 1920, with the steamer getting very old and unable to operate at full capacity. the thought of purchasing a new piece of fire apparatus arose. During the annual fire district meeting held in April, many frowned upon spending fifteen thousand dollars. The chief explained to the voters that the steamer was in fact no good and “if there was to be a fire tonight I don’t know how we would put it out.” The article was tabled for two weeks. The chief’s premonition, ironically became quite correct only a few hours after the meeting. That evening, the Palmer Foundry on Foundry Street burned to the ground causing nearly $100,000 damage. Two weeks later the article for a new fire truck was approved and $15,000 was appropriated.

June 5, 1920 brought the Palmer Fire Department to an era of motorized fire apparatus. The new truck was an American Le-France combination 750 GPM rotary gear pumper, chemical tank, and hose wagon. It carried a forty gallon chemical tank and had one thousand feet of hose. It’s road top speed was 70 mph. This was to be the first of many sophisticated fire trucks.

On August 20, 1920, the Palmer Fire District voters approved the purchase of the Palmer Water Company. The total cost to the district including assumed bonds of $30,000 was $107,000. Each year for the next 18 years the voters approved laying nearly two thousand feet of water pipe, thus extending the district and broadening the tax base. The fire and water departments were then combined to form what is now the Palmer Fire and Water District No. 1.

1938 showed a major change for the Fire Department. The sixth chief was elected, a new engine house built, and new fire apparatus purchased. The structure of the department changed also. A study committee chosen in January returned in September with a proposal by the Federal Government Public Works Adminis-tration. The Fire District had only eight weeks to act on the proposal, however the proposal was approved that night. The Palmer Fire District was the first in the nation chosen by the P.W.A. for this project which was to spur economic growth in the country. Because the present fire equipment was nearing its life expectancy, it was decided to reduce the size of the stations sleeping quarters and to purchase two new trucks. This made Palmer the first and only town in the nation to receive a P.W.A. grant in which the cost of apparatus, equipment and new fire alarm system exceeded the cost of constructing the station. The project coat was $82,000 dollars, of which 45 percent was paid by the Federal Government. Under recommendations of the New England Insurance Exchange, the Marcy lot, vacated by fire years earlier, on Walnut Street was chosen because of its proximity to the downtown district. June 15, 1939 was the official occupancy of the new engine house.

With the new engine house, alarm system, and trucks in process of completion, a reorganization of the department was in order. The chief asked older, inactive members to resign and fired many other inactive members. He then hired new members to be trained by the State Department of Education, himself, and his officers. This reorganization would bring the department up to a higher rating in keeping with the new station and apparatus.

The January 1943 District meeting brought about the approval of eliminating the chief engineers position from an annual election. The position was from then on to be a permanent Civil Service position to be terminated only upon death, retirement, or resignation.

The next 42 years would show few major changes other than personnel changes, one more new chief and more modern equipment. However from 1885 to present time the Palmer Fire Department has changed with the times. Pay scales and technology for example; in 1885, the chief engineer earned $150 a year and his assistant $50 a year. Today the chief earns over $10,000 a year and his assistants nearly $6,000. The captain, lieutenant, and men earned $20 in 1885, today they earn $3,000, $2,000, and $1,000 respectively.

Fire fighting technology has changed over the years and the Palmer Fire Department is no exception. In 1885, with the beginning of the Palmer Fire Department a horse drawn hook and ladder were used. Today this department has two pumpers, a diesel powered 1980 Maxim, 1500 gallon per minute pumper, and a gas powered 1970 International, 1000 gallon per minute pumper, also a 1965 diesel powered 85 foot aerial ladder with a 750 gallon per minute pump and many ground ladders. This department also operates two specialized pieces of equipment; a rescue truck with all tools necessary for any type rescue and a tour wheel drive forest fire truck specialized for this purpose only.

Manpower has also changed over the years. In 1885 the Palmer Fire Department started with seventeen men and three officers, today the department has thirty men and six officers.

Although many years have passed and many changes have occurred over the past 100 years the reputation and integrity remains. The Palmer Fire Department is well respected and equipped and responds quickly to an alarm. The members are proud of their reputation as a service to their community and will continue to serve their public throughout the years.