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The happiest hooters in the world

You don’t have to be over 80 to tell children a quaint story from old Burlington. Even not-so-old Burlington residents have a good ol’ story in their arsenal. When school was cancelled, nobody received robocalls or text messages from the superintendent’s office, and obviously nobody checked a website. Everyone found out by:

  • Watching a scrolling list of cancellations across the bottom of the TV screen. That’s pretty quaint.
  • Listening to a morning radio host recite a tedious list every few minutes. That’s quainter.
  • Listening for a deep, thrumming horn signal from the town common. That’s the quaintest — and it wasn’t that long ago.
The happy horns spend their retirement together in the town museum.

They were first mounted behind the fire station in 1939, atop a tower that Burlington salvaged from a Littleton farm, and honked through the late 1980s. How loud were they? Loud enough to reach every neighborhood in town, (although several Lantern Lane residents swear it was a dead zone), so imagine the volume when you’re standing right in front of the fire station. Former Police Chief Ted Ferguson sometimes left the ground involuntarily when hooligan firefighters strategically blew the horns as he was coming into the station from his car. Ferguson’s middle finger signaled that he’d received the message.

Burlington fire station in 1959
Burlington’s fire station in 1959. Photo credit: Toni Faria

Two big air tanks, each 10 feet long and about six feet tall, supplied pressurized air, which pushed against copper discs and made them vibrate, creating the basso profundo “hoooot.” Horns at 6:45 a.m. meant a day off for everyone. Horns at 7 meant high schoolers had school, but everyone else had the day off. Raw deal.

School cancellation signals
School cancellation signals

The horns blew every day at noon also. Why? Because why not?

Georgi Emery Reynolds of Hilltop Drive recalls listening for the horns on snowy mornings. “My mother would open the back door at that special time. I’d stand beside her with my fingers crossed. Amazingly, she would be happy if she heard the horns. We would have a great day.” Her neighbor, Ann Oliveira, says her family couldn’t quite rely on the horns. “My dad was so hard of hearing, he would wait for WBZ. Might have had something to do with Tommy telling him a couple times that the horns sounded when they didn’t.”

The horns signaled emergencies too. Back when Burlington had mostly on-call firefighters spread throughout the town instead of full-timers at the station, the horns told them where to go during an emergency. The town had every street and most cross-streets numbered. If you heard, say, four toots, four more toots, then one toot, it meant an emergency at 441. Call firefighters would check their charts and then respond directly to the location, or to the fire station if it was on the way.  Curious residents could check the legend in town telephone directory to learn where the emergency was.

As the years went by, it seems residents became less confident in the horn signals. Burlington parents increasingly called the Fire Department to ask if school was cancelled. Perhaps they’d heard the horn but, you know, just wanted to make sure school was cancelled. Or maybe they hadn’t heard the horn but, you know, just wanted to make sure school wasn’t cancelled. Or maybe they wanted an answer before 6:45 a.m.

The classic Fire Department answer: “If your house is on fire, do you call the school superintendent?”


11 thoughts on “The happiest hooters in the world Leave a comment

  1. They should put them back up! Many towns still have theirs and use them to mark Noon and for outdoor warning. Some towns have restored their non-working horns to working order for nostalgic reasons. I don’t see why Burlington can’t!

  2. I remember the horns! Moved to Burlington in 1955. I can still hear them in my head!

  3. I remember the noon horn….can’t remember the ‘snow day’ horn system at all. When Noon horn sounded and if I was at my friends home, their Mom would always remark, ‘That’s Mr. Osborne blowing his nose’. It always was funny no matter how many times I heard it. (my Dad was a Burlington Firefighter). Callers dialing station and the answer they got – I love it!!
    Obviously I can’t say for certain, but it sure sounds like words straight outta my Dad’s mouth. Nostalgic article – wonderful site!

  4. Doris– that WAS your dad, one time he also gave callers the home phone number for Jerome Lynch , supt of schools, and told them to call him and ask. Needless to say a few days later all parents received a memo ” please do not call the fire station about no school”. Bill Callahan, former FF

  5. I remembered them going off for emergencies. I didn’t know then you could look up where they were. I also remember on more than one occasion the “no school” horns.

  6. Well, isnt that a hoot! I swear those words sounded like my Dad’s….it is not surprising, Bill, that you have confirmed that they were in fact his. Oh boy; poor Mr. Lynch!!!.

  7. When my kids were little and we were playing at Simonds Park, we would hear the noon time horns. I would tell them that that was their grandfather(Fred Osborne) saying ‘hello’ to them!!

  8. I remember those horns like they were being used yesterday. They were great. No matter where you were in Burlington, you could hear them. What a great memory those horns were. Even when you were up town, playing on the Burlington Common when the horns went off at 12 noon. It always made me jump when I first heard it, but it was still great.

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