Recalling the Days of Bucket Brigades and a Bright Green Tanker in Windham

June 20, 2014

by Barbara O’Brien

The bucket brigades of a century ago are long gone.  Today, the Town of Windham, with its approximately 16,000 residents, has a professional full-time fire department, but such was not the case until 1973, when the department acquired its first 24-hour coverage.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1964 that volunteer firefighters even had official uniforms and in 1969 that ambulance service was established.

In fact, for a great many years of its nearly 275-year-old history, Windham had no organized fire department at all.  When a fire erupted, residents had to depend on their neighbors, often employing a bucket brigade.  The only “alarm” system was the ringing of the bell at the Presbyterian Church, not an ideal arrangement.  In those days, most fires were caused by lightning, over-turned lanterns or clogged chimneys.  Brush and forest fires were often caused by sparks produced by trains traveling through the then densely wooded town.

In the late 1800s, the voters in Windham appropriated $25 per year to purchase fire-fighting equipment; an amount matched by state funds.  This money was generally spent on new shovels and pails.  A little later, “Indian Pumps” were purchased; a metal tank that could be filled with water and carried on a man’s back.  This system was all that was available in Windham until the mid-1930s.  While some small fires were contained using this method, many more structures were lost.  By this time, some residents had telephones in their homes, but the three different exchanges in Windham and the numerous “party lines” that existed still caused problems with efficient communication.

About this time, discussions centering around the establishment of a fire department in Windham took on a more serious tone, until, finally, a group of men hired to work on the town’s roads approached selectmen.  In 1935, a warrant article to that effect was put forth, but failed to gather sufficient support from townspeople.  The same was true in 1936, although voters did agree to raise the amount of money for fire-fighting equipment to $125.  Finally, in March of 1937, voters approved a warrant article setting aside $200 for the formation of a company to be called the “Windham Fire Department” and to make plans to acquire the town’s first fire truck.  Nothing was done, however, until 1941 when a committee was established to study the concept.  A year later, a three-man committee was finally established and given permission to use the money set aside five years earlier.  In addition, another $1,300 was approved for purchasing fire-suppression equipment.

An extensive search was then undertaken to find a suitable vehicle to be used as the town’s very first fire truck.  Eventually, a vehicle was located inside the post office garage in Lowell, Mass.  The faded gray ex-laundry truck was, subsequently, bought for $250.  After a rather tenuous trip back to Windham, the truck was gradually transformed into its new identity.  Side braces were welded on to hold ladders, reels were added for hoses, and a fresh coat of bright red paint was applied.  The engine was then housed in the town shed, but only after evicting the town tractor, which was used for plowing and grading roads.

At the end of World War II, as town officials and residents realized that they had a dedicated group of volunteers to man the fledgling fire department; plans were made to build the first fire station, a building that still exists and is currently in use as a storage facility.  The original firehouse, built in 1946, is located adjacent to the old town hall on North Lowell Road.  The fieldstones used to construct the building were gathered by volunteers from the surrounding area.  A short time later, on Jul 3, 1946, the Windham Fire Association was chartered.  The association’s first fundraiser was a carnival, which continued for a few years, followed by a number of Beano games that, unfortunately, were not financially successful.  Fundraising then continued with Saturday night dances, as well as an annual turkey raffle, just before Thanksgiving.  One year, the prize was several live turkeys, all of which dropped dead before being claimed by the winners.

In 1947, a warrant was put forth to voters to establish the position of fire chief, a three-year elected term.  James Brown was elected the following year as the town’s first fire chief; a position he held until his death in 1963.  Also in 1947, the first ‘real” fire engine was purchased; a new 800-gallon tank-booster pump truck that cost $3,800, money raised predominately by the Windham Woman’s Club through its “Better Community Contest.”

In 1948, an air whistle was installed on the roof of the fire house; a system that was activated by the first firefighter to arrive.  There were 30 call firefighters at the time, each of whom had to be reached using a phone-tree system.  According to “Rural Oasis:  A History of Windham, New Hampshire,” which was compiled in 1975 by the Town History Committee, “Quite often all 30 men appeared at a fire.  Another amazing fact is that none of these men was paid for his services, having agreed when they organized that they would attend all house fires for no pay, as they felt that any time it could be their own homes and they would want all the help they could get.”

In 1955, it was learned that firefighters couldn’t be insured unless they were on salary.  So, for the first time since the department was established, it was decided that the men would be paid $1.50 per hour while fighting house fires.  Forest and brush fires were paid from out-of-state coffers.

It wasn’t until 1956 that the original fire house was enlarged and a second truck, a Chevrolet triple combination pumper fire engine, was added to the fleet.  With Windham continuing to grow in population, the building was enlarged again in 1973 and a third truck was purchased, a bright green tanker dubbed “The Green Hornet.”

It took another 27 years until the Windham Fire Department, now a full-time round-the-clock entity, moved its headquarters to a brand new building off Fellows Road.  The now 14-year-old building was dedicated in the summer of 2000.

Although the department has grown and become much more efficient over its 72-year history, its goals have remained unchanged, as charged in its mission statement: “It is the mission of the Windham Fire Department to protect lives, property, and to promote the well being of the people of Windham.”

In order to recognize the accomplishments of the people who were instrumental in establishing the Windham Fire Department, members of the Windham Historical Society held a get-together at the Searles School and Chapel on May 21.  The room that was previously used as a classroom for Windham students was filled to capacity with past and present firefighters and members of the auxiliary.  Those in attendance ranged from their twenties to their nineties and every age in-between.

Former firefighter Frank Farmer, who organized the event, remarked on the first time any mention of a local fire department appeared in the annual Windham Town Report.  “There was one line about a fireman earning $10 to fight a forest fire,” Farmer said, comparing it to the 2013 Town Report, which he described as “a five-page diatribe” by Chief Tom McPherson.  There’s no doubt that the Windham Fire Department has become increasingly busy with each passing year, especially with the onslaught of traffic along Route 93, as well as the continuing growth of the once rural community.  The number of incidents now handled by Windham Fire is approximately 1,500 per year; a long way from the bucket brigades of a century gone by.

McPherson, who has worked for the Windham Fire Department since 1979, has been chief since 2006.  “I have a lot of memories,” McPherson said, recalling some of the experiences he and his fellow firefighters have survived.  “I am very proud to be a part of this department.”

Former firefighter Frank Johnson commented:  “The fire department has made tremendous strides over the years.  There’s the way it used to be; the way you want it to be and the way it is today.  So many changes.”

Ladies Auxiliary member Shirley Beaulieu paid a special tribute to Hazel Brown, wife of the department’s first chief, Jim Brown.  Mrs. Brown was responsible for making the phone calls to firefighters during the 1940s and ‘50s.  “It was not an easy task,” Beaulieu recalled, “but Hazel was very diligent in getting the job done.”  Beaulieu described Hazel Brown as being “a quiet and unassuming woman.”  “Hazel provided this town with faithful and selfless service” for many years, Beaulieu added.  Shirley Beaulieu’s husband, Ray, a former firefighter, recalled having to share uniforms with the other guys.  “They usually didn’t fit anyone very well,” he said.  Beaulieu also recalled the annual firemen’s musters, which pitted area fire departments against one another in various skills.

Resident Bev Wilson remembered sitting by Cobbett’s Pond, many years ago, watching a house fire on the other side of the pond and listening to ammunition exploding inside the house because the fire got so hot.  “Luckily, no one got hit by a stray bullet,” she said.  Nancy Berry also looked back in time, recalling her and her son’s attempts to put out a brush fire in the woods near her home, by running back and forth with glasses of water, until the fire department arrived on scene.

Former volunteer fireman Ron Coish recalled a time when he had to drive one of the old fire trucks into the lake to get enough suction to pump water onto a fire.  After the fire was out, they had to use the new fire truck to pull the old fire truck out of the lake.  Windham is very lucky, Coish said, “The town has always been blessed with a good group of firemen.”  And, of course, in recent years, female firefighters, as well.