South Berwick's History of Firefighting
Fire Wards and Tub Trucks
"The people were soon on the streets, both old and young, screaming at the top of their voices, 'Fire! Fire!'-- but where, they knew not. The church bells joined the factory bell, imploring both saint and sinner to hasten to the scene of destruction, before our quiet and beautiful little village and its inhabitants were destroyed....
"The factory fire engine Piscataqua, which was in the factory yard, was started to the scene of the fire by about one dozen of Quamphegan's craziest citizens, but the building was in ashes before it got half way; so eager were the parties hauling it to see the fire, they left it by the roadside while they took across the fields to be in time to go home with the crowd, which came from far and near..."
-- Account of a house fire near today's Liberty Street, South Berwick, 1835, by George Washington Frosst.
Few of us today can imagine the threat that fire imposed in the early years of our community. Not only was fire's destruction horrific in the days before modern equipment, water supplies, fire-retardant building materials, insurance protection, and social safety nets; house fires were also tragically common. Open flames were in use for household lighting. Open cooking fires burned on hearths, and combustible materials were everywhere. No family could be sure its home or livelihood would not suddenly be devastated by the work of a single spark.
Town records from the town meeting of April 7 1800 show voters deciding whether the town should "become proprietors to an Engine to save buildings from burning." That year they decided not to. But from early in the 1800s, fire wards were chosen each year at town meeting. They were responsible citizens who could be relied upon to walk the village at night and watch for flames or smoldering embers. Maj. Thomas Leigh and Samuel Parks, merchants, and Judge William A. Hayes were among five men chosen in 1815. In 1837 Theodore H. Jewett was one of eleven fire wards.
If a fire ward cried the alarm, everyone grabbed fire buckets and ran for the streams, wells, hogsheads and cisterns. Large factories usually owned horse-drawn tub wagons, such as the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company 's Piscataqua sent to the 1835 fire near the Counting House. But even these hand-pumped "engines" were not enough to subdue serious blazes, and Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company was heavily damaged by fire in 1834 and 1847. With much of the population living on far-flung farms, support for a village-based fire department was slow in building. An 1835 proposal to provide South Berwick with its first engine company failed at town meeting. It wasn't until the1840s that the town got its own fire house, and in April 1845, amid debate that funds might be better spent on the country grammar schools, taxpayers unenthusiastically voted to pay $750 for an engine.
Arson and the South Berwick Temperence Controversy
South Berwick in 1845 had purchased its first municipal hand-pumped fire truck just in the nick of time, for the town was then entering a terrifying period in which citizens were threatened by fires deliberately set. In the mid-19th century, as South Berwick shifted from an agrarian economy to a factory town, taverns and boarding houses had steadily filled with industrial workers out wandering New England in search of opportunity. The village's gentle community fabric was beset by lawlessness and an "alcohol culture," which included not only acts of vandalism and petty crime, but also violence. A mill worker leaving a saloon was found murdered in a swamp behind Berwick Academy in 1854. Religious leaders cried out for piety and order, but when Maine became the first state to restrict the distribution of liquor, incidents increased in a spate of arson attacks.
The Methodist church, South Berwick's seat of temperance fervor, was burned in 1849, and a prohibitionist's barn two years later. These acts were followed by the torching of the town's historic powder house on the hill on August 7, 1851. On August 15 distraught citizens gathered at town meeting and voted to offer $300, then a huge sum, for information leading to the conviction of any arsonist. Notices were posted throughout the village, but several days later defiant vandals responded with three more fires, set in rapid succession at the Portsmouth Company cotton mill, Berwick Academy , and the Academy Street home of Judge Hayes. The Academy building, then the area's only high school, was a total loss.
Suspects were captured, arson charges were pursued and soon the incidents abated, but from that moment the town of South Berwick mounted a concentrated effort on fire protection. In 1855 the Piscataqua Mutual Fire and Marine Insurance Company of South Berwick was chartered to better protect property owners. Firefighting companies to replace the ward system were organized, and the town voted to compensate firemen by abating their local poll taxes. In 1861 the South Berwick Fire Engine Company No. 1 was formed, with George H. Wakefield as first chief engineer. Each volunteer received $3 for fighting fires throughout that year.
In 1865 the woolen mill's owner and one of Maine's Congressmen, John H. Burleigh, served on the town committee charged with purchasing a new fire engine at a cost of $500, a large sum in those days. It was worth it; industrial fires could be devastating. In Rollinsford the Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company was struck by devastating fires in 1834, 1847 and 1864.
In 1867 a new South Berwick engine house was purchased. But the town's greatest emergency still lay ahead.
The Downtown Fire of 1870
About midnight on July 25, 1870, according to contemporary accounts, fire broke out in the heart of South Berwick's largest business block on Main Street at Central Square. Mostly of wood, the structures stood tightly packed, their gable ends toward the street. Apartments and rooms were on the upper floors. Back of the row of stores stood Central Hall, the second-floor community theater. One of the blazing buildings was the town's new engine house near Scott's Court.
The fire is thought to have started in an anteroom of Central Hall. A community program had ended there that summer night, and everyone gone home. About midnight, in residential rooms a few doors to the north, a man awake with a sick child noticed the flames and sounded the alarm.
The fire truck came, but there were no water mains, no hydrants, no high-pressure hoses. "The only supply of water was from the wells in the vicinity and that was soon gone," wrote an eyewitness. An open stream ran through the village, probably near today's town hall, but the hose was too short to reach. Someone rode to Dover and another engine was sent, but it "gave little help."
The best tools turned out to be buckets and wet carpets and blankets. The Jewett House across Main Street, and wooden buildings like the Parks Store, the Scott House, and the Masonic Hall building that today houses Civil Consultants and then contained the post office, were saved only by being covered with wet blankets.
Civic leaders gathered to replace the lost village hall and stores with a large brick business block. They formed a Newichawannock Hall Association and designed a new facility that later came to house everything from dances to bowling and the first modern movies of the 20th century.
The Portland Street Engine House
After the big Central Square fire, a new engine house was built that stood for the next century at 30 Portland Street. South Berwick continued to improve its fire protection in the late 1800s, with a 50-member Piscataqua Fire Engine Company and a 40-member Fire King Engine Company compensated through abatement of their poll taxes. In the 1880s a third company was added and the fire house redesigned and repaired.
In 1891 the entire town was divided into three forest fire districts, each with a warden, to protect outlying areas as well as the village. The arrival of electrification was bringing advantages, but also new hazards to homes, however. And fires still continued to victimize homeowners. In the early 1890s, for example, a blaze destroyed the large hillside mansion of the late Congressman and woolen mill owner, John Holmes Burleigh, off Academy Street.
But more firefighting resources were becoming available, too. In 1894 the town began connecting fire hydrants to water pipes running through the village. In 1896 it installed a steam fire alarm. Firemen were now paid $5 per year, and Hose Co. No. 1 was formed, complete with its own bylaws spelling out rules of procedure, and specifying gentlemanly conduct.
By-Laws of Hose Co. No. 1, South Berwick, Me.
...The clerk shall call a roll at the commencement and adjournment of each regular meeting. The fine for absence to be 35c each roll call...
II. The rules of conduct at fires:
Any neglect of duty, disobedience of orders, or disrespect to officers shall be sufficient cause for suspension or dismissal.
Any disrespectful remarks about company or members will be due cause for suspension.
The use of profane or indecent language or the indulgence in ungentlemanly conduct on the part of any member while on duty will subject the offender to suspension or dismissal from the company...
III. Rules at fires and for fires:
The sounding of the whistle as arranged by chief will constitute a fire alarm.
The laying of hose or use of chemical shall constitute a fire.
No fireman other than a driver shall take a truck from engine house until an officer of the company or six firemen have gathered to man same...
Any member leaving the scene of a fire without the permission from the officer in charge shall be subjected to an additional 75c fine.
All firemen in going to a fire with their own cars should leave same a good and proper distance from fire and clear of the road in which apparatus may have to travel and prohibit all outsiders from blocking apparatus as much as possible...
Entering the "Modern Age"
By the 1920s, an electrically operated siren was installed on the roof of the Masonic building at the south end of the new Central Square business block, with controls located downstairs at the Central Telephone Station, at fire department headquarters, and at the chief's home. The department itself by this time used the basement of town hall, which had moved into the converted Universalist Church at the site of today's post office parking lot on the corner of Main and Norton Streets.
Early 20th century town reports list individual fires and payments made to men for fighting each one. In 1914, for instance, Albra Boston was paid 70 cents for fighting a "fire near Cooper's," whereas George Earle got $2. Joseph Brissard received $16 for fighting a fire at Rocky Hills, and England's garage was paid $14.30 for providing "automobile carrying men to fire." Fire chiefs were paid $50 to serve for a year. In 1930, under Chief Fred Adams, the fire department bought its first modern motorized fire truck, the Federal.
In 1943 a serious blaze in York Woods cost the town $1704.88 in payments to some 60 men, who received amounts ranging from $5 to $58. Merchants such as Flynn's News and Roberge Bakery provided supplies at that incident, and William Cookson was compensated $58.87 for lunches. Berwick and North Berwick fire departments were paid for their assistance.
In 1947 the town appropriated $10,000 for a new Main Street fire station, to enable the department to leave the church basement that was so damp at times, in the words of Chief Albert Watkins, "the trucks were setting in water half way to the hubs of their wheels." Work on the new station started in December, with the firemen themselves rolling up their sleeves and hammering in the half-finished structure heated by an old barrel set on bricks until an oil fire steam boiler was installed in January. "We are proud," said Chief Watkins of his men, "knowing that our children in the years to come can point to the new fire station and say Dad helped to build that." The new building was dedicated August 1948.
New equipment for the modern South Berwick firefighters included gas masks, rubber coats and hats and boots, portable pumps, flood lights and mobile radio units. In case of fire a citizen could now pick up the telephone and dial "222." The town purchased a 1950 Chevrolet tank truck, a "foam Buffalo extinguisher," a 14 foot boat the department suspended from the ceiling of the fire station, and a 1936 Chevrolet forestry truck-- which the department still maintained in running order in 1956, though Chief Watkins noted wistfully in the town report, "If anyone at any time will come into the fire station, we will gladly show them...why want to replace this 1936 Chevrolet forestry truck."
Chief Watkins' force was now backed by several thousand dollars per year of dependable budget support plus enthusiastic community fundraising and a loyal Ladies Auxiliary. Firefighters put their equipment to the test at dozens of emergencies per year, including fires at the canning factory in 1946, the Palace Theater in 1949, and Masonic Hall in 1950, and stood ready to protect South Berwick in the major state forest fires of 1947. The department now was a member of the Interstate Emergency Unit for Maine and New Hampshire, and mutual aid had been organized with Rollinsford, Dover, Somersworth, Berwick, North Berwick and Eliot.
A fire at town hall on April 1, 1951 was a devastating blow causing an estimated $50,000, according to news accounts. The converted church building housing municipal offices next to the new fire station was a total loss, and town records narrowly escaped destruction. The fire apparently originated near a stage where Teen Haven had held a dance. "Portsmouth sent its aerial ladder in order that a stream of water could be poured down throughout the roof of the blazing structure," a newspaper account reported, adding that North Berwick, Somersworth, Dover, Rollinsford, and Portsmouth, assisted. "At one time there were 12 lines of water pouring into the building."
Chief Watkins, who had also served as president of York County's Fire Chiefs Association, died in 1957 after 27 years in the department and 11 years as the chief who brought South Berwick firefighting into the modern age.
After 50 years of service, the 1948 fire station was demolished in a practice burn in 1996, and the South Berwick Fire Departmen, led by Chief George Gorman, moved to a new station at South Berwick Community Center on Norton Street.
(Summary by Wendy Pirsig from South Berwick town reports and other Old Berwick Historical Society archives. Updated December 2020.)