When Firefighting Was Volunteer Work
The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, August 18, 1981
Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 113)
Firefighting in Burlington, when it was still a part of Woburn, and for almost 150 years thereafter, was purely a volunteer effort, as it had been in all the American colonies in their early years.
When fire was sighted, the cry of “Fire!” was raised and every available man and boy was summoned with their fire buckets, at least two of which hung in the hallway of every home in town.
If the men weren’t home the women would throw out their buckets to any neighbor or passerby, knowing they would be returned later since each leather bucket had its owner’s name painted on it. The Marion Tavern had two such buckets hung just inside the front door for years.
At the scene of a fire in colonial days a double bucket line was usually organized from the nearest water supply, men in one line passing the full buckets, boys in the other returning the empties. It wasn’t very effective. Fire, unless caught in the early stages, usually burned the building to the ground. How close to a hot fire can one get with a bucket of water? And pity the poor man who had to throw it. After the first pumper was invented for big town use, bucket lines were still in use to keep the tanks full of water, and that lasted until someone invented flexible hose.
Prior to 1900 no one in town seems to have been responsible for any action in case of fire. As early as 1851 someone in town had tried to get the meeting to authorize the selectmen to buy a fire engine, but that article was dismissed. In the meantime, barns and houses continued to be destroyed by fire. Town records make note of two bad fires as early as 1830 which destroyed buildings belonging to Jonathan Simonds, no doubt his huge barn, and Isaiah Reed, but whether in this case the house, the barn, or both burned, is not known.
The Rogan barn, which stood where the post office is now, burned when full of hay, sending sparks soaring high into the night sky. Why they didn’t set on fire the Gen. Walker house to one side, or the Marion Tavern on the other, or the Rogan house across the street, was a miracle for which many were duly thankful. Prior to that, the Poor Farm, now Seminatore’s on Bedford Street, burned to the ground in 1879, forcing the inmates into the street and the town fathers to build the present house.
Then in 1897 the famous Sewall House was completely destroyed, and five years later in 1902, Burlington’s first Town Hall suffered the same fate. Still no action by the town, possibly on the theory that it couldn’t happen to me.
The only man in town who seemed to realize the tremendous financial loss those fires caused and could see the possibility of an uncontrollable fire raging in the town’s extensive woodlands and shuddered at the thought of what could happen to a farmer and his family if trapped by fire, was Walter W. Skelton.
He was born in 1864, the eldest of four boys born to Bradford and Almira Shedd Skelton in the house on Francis Wyman Road still standing and now occupied by the Gunnar Hemmingson family. He grew up on that 110-acre farm, went to the West School for his education, inherited the farm when his father died, and carried on his market garden business. Walter married Carrie Knowles in 1910 and fathered one son, David. He served his town as selectman, assessor, school committeeman, cemetery commissioner and fire chief, and at every opportunity stressed the crying need for a fire department.
Across the street from the Skelton House stood a two-story building and a henhouse. The street floor of the former became Burlington’s first fire station for it housed the town’s first fire truck, or wagon, a Model T Ford with a turtle back bought at auction from H.P. Hood by the town’s first volunteers. They cut off the back, built a body with sides a foot or two high and into that loaded their brooms, shovels, axes and extinguishers, along with the necessary baking soda and sulfuric acid. All of which was supervised by Walter Skelton.
Walter Skelton was a persistent fellow. A 1904 report notes that he was paid a small sum for “watching fire” and another small sum was approved for repair of extinguishers and for soda and acid. In 1909 he had an article “to procure a wagon” to be used in fighting forest fires. The town meeting reluctantly approved “a suitable wagon and 25 milk cans.” A year later, when Edison was erecting poles to service the town with electricity, Walter managed to get them to have one gain on each pole reserved for a future fire alarm system. In 1912 he convinced the School Committee to install a fire alarm gong in the corridor of the Union School.
In case of a severe fire, the church bell was often rung to alert the populace. Help was called from Woburn and other surrounding towns on occasion. In 1926, 10 of 16 building fires burned the structures to the ground, and in 1927, half the buildings which caught fire were total losses. Only then did the town take some action, but it was the local Grange which was the catalyst and prime mover.
The Grange ran the local Fair at that time and it donated $1,000 of their funds toward a new fire truck shaming the town into appropriating $2,000 more. It was a Graham Dodge bought in Ball Square, Somerville, and it was Burlington’s first complete fire truck with the chemical tank behind the cab. It moved into Walter’s garage on Francis Wyman Road. Since Walter himself never drove, when the truck went out it was driven by Chet Knowles or Harry Staples or one of the Pattison boys.
Fire communication was by means of the telephone exchange then in Charlie Dearborn’s store on Cambridge Street at the corner of Center Street. He had a special little ring for fire. The whole family could and did run the exchange, young Charlie, Franklin, Mrs. Dearborn, even Ethel. And they knew who all the call men were.
About 1930 the volunteers paid the City of Quincy $300 for an old open cab White whose pump was ready for the junk heap. That pump was torn apart, one of the Drevitsons, a machinist, turned down the piston by 1 1/2 thousands of an inch, repacked the thing, and Charlie Bunton and other members of the volunteer group took the old machine down to Vine Brook, and there in the presence of an insurance underwriter, passed a qualifying test which enabled the town to get its first ever reduction in insurance rates.
In 1931 a Model A Ford was bought, and Dave Skelton, by that time a good carpenter, built the body which held a portable pump and booster tank. Sidney Brown and Albert Libby donated the chassis, and the rebuilt Libby truck was housed in the Winnmere section and lasted until 1938. In 1932 Charlie Bunton and Louis Skelton were sent to the Lowell Training School to be certified as trained firefighters. There they learned about hydraulics from a Capt. Campbell and first aid from a Lt. Beauregard.
They were the first of Walter’s “school-boy department” to be so certified. In 1935 a Civil Service exam was given to all firemen at the Union School. Dave Skelton took the Chief’s exam, Charlie Bunton took the Dep. Chief’s exam, and most of the call men took the regular exam. They then were known as permanent intermittent but were still only on call.
In 1937, in a dispute over where oil and gasoline for the department should be purchased, Chief Walter Skelton resigned in disgust. Older Burlingtonians were no longer in the selectmen’s office, and the majority at that time, Dave Ward and Bill Sheerin, moved the equipment (all of it had been turned over to the town by the volunteers) from Skelton’s barn to the converted horse sheds back of the town hall, which would now be to the rear of the Police Station, and then hired the first two permanent men who became janitors as well, for $16.00 a week.
But it was still a volunteer department. 1937 was the year that they parked their four workable pieces of equipment before the town hall and had their picture taken: Ray LeFebvre, Chet Knowles, Charlie Bunton, Ted Parkhurst, Dave Lundin, Ralph Knowles, Dave Skelton, Sid Brown, Louis Skelton, Horace Skelton, George Martike, Will McIntire, Bob Whitehouse, Al Young, Dick Cronin, Marshall Skelton, Ed Maiocchi and George Beers. Other call men who were members either before or directly after the war were Walter Fredericks, Everett Prouty, Lester Anderson, Wilford Strickland, Ed and Rick Howard, Bob Carpenter, both father and son, Gus Berthiaume, Ed Fogelberg, Clif Skelton, Don Sleeper, Herbie Crawford, Ed Keating, Fred Osborne, Ken Brown and Hank Bunton.
Burlington, by the way, was the first town in Middlesex County to operate a two-way radio. At the beginning of World War II, the federal government required that all men in the department at that time be fingerprinted and photographed for the records of the F.B.I. At that time, also, both Alice Carpenter, who lived on Dearborn Road opposite the fire station and thus convenient to it, and Jane Skelton, Dave’s wife, who lived nearby on Sears Street, became licensed radio operators.
Thus the present department has been built to its present strength by a whole series of dedicated men and a few women. Let’s not weaken what they have built.