Hagerstown's Antietam Fire Co. marks bicentennial

September 13, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

HAGERSTOWN -- Looking at the impressive volunteer fire company buildings in Hagerstown today, one would have a hard time believing that 200 years ago, a fire department tended to consist of a group of men with leather buckets full of water.

But that was the case.

On top of that, the buckets were provided to the firefighters by property owners and the water often was drawn from a series of underground cisterns around Hagerstown.

There were no buildings, no shiny fire engines and in the early 1800s, there were few horses available to rush firefighters and their meager equipment to fires.

"The city started with all volunteer fire companies and almost all continue to this day," said Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker. "Antietam is one of the strongest and most active of those."


The history of Hagerstown firefighting began just after "Elizabeth Town" was incorporated in 1791. The first organized company -- the United Fire Company -- was formed that same year as a result of the loss of the home and barn of a prominent citizen.

Hagerstown firefighter and historian Justin Mayhue said United was believed to have been chartered in 1803 but by 1814, was no longer in existence.

Organized in 1808, Antietam Fire Co. was incorporated in May 1835. At that time, Hagerstown had five fire companies.

Antietam's first building was built on a lot next to the Washington County Courthouse. The lot cost $125 and a building was erected there at a cost of $150.

In the early days, some funds came from the City of Hagerstown for hose, lamps, ladders and fire buckets.

Although putting out fires is serious business, firefighters in those early days took time out to have some fun.

Minutes from 1842 reported that "hose battles" between Antietam and other fire companies were common diversions in Hagerstown's Public Square.

The exploits of reel teams and water throwers also were recorded in the company's minutes over those early years.

In the late 1800s, there also was a big increase in appearances at fairs and at parades in the area.

Research into Antietam's history determined that the original 1895 facade of the current building is known to have inspired the design of the War Correspondents Arch at Gathland in southern Washington County.

What many people might not realize is that today volunteer firefighters own all but two of the Hagerstown Fire Department buildings -- Pioneer Hook and Ladder on Franklin Street and the new Junior Fire Company building on Eastern Boulevard. The city owns the buildings out of which those companies operate.

In 2004, a new pumper with an enclosed cab was purchased for Antietam, with the volunteers contributing $130,000 toward the cost. The purchase was necessary because firefighters were no longer allowed to ride on a firetruck's tailboard or in jump seats.

Then last year, Antietam commissioned a utility vehicle, known as Special Unit 32, which was placed in service in November 2007. The unit was purchased through fundraising efforts by the volunteers.

A new bunk room was built in 2007 to accommodate the active volunteers during overnight stays. Currently there are 16 to 17 active Antietam volunteers.

A recruitment table will be available Sunday during the observance of the fire company's 200th year for anyone interested in joining.

Harold Semler is chairman of the 200th anniversary events. Committee members include Robert Daveler, Bill Dunham, Kathryn Souza, Jamie Barkdoll, Ron Horn and Debbie Daveler.

The anniversary activities will conclude Sept. 19 with a bicentennial banquet and dance.

"During our 200 years, many changes have occurred. They began using bucket brigades and moved to hand pumpers with leather hoses, then from horse-drawn steam engines to motorized apparatus. They also progressed from All Service Mask to Chemox Breathing apparatus and then to Self Contained Breathing apparatus.

"Additional changes brought with it Thermal Imaging Cameras, female firefighters and the Incident Command System.

"Our 200 years have seen many improvements but the heart of the company has never changed and that is because of our volunteers."

1793 -- A town ordinance was passed fining homeowners seven shillings and six pence if they had chimney fires, which were customarily fought by bucket brigades.

1803 -- Hagerstown was divided into two districts using two hand pumper engines. Regular meetings were held and failure to attend resulted in a 25 cent fine. Money from those fines was later used to purchase fire hoses.

1808 -- Antietam Fire Co. was formed from the old Lafayette Company as Hagerstown was beginning to organize fire companies to protect more than 2,000 residents living in the new town.

1822 -- Another devastating fire prompted the forming of the First Hagerstown Hose Co. on South Potomac Street.

1824 -- An ordinance was passed requiring the formation of additional fire companies. Every homeowner was to have two black leather fire buckets emblazoned with their name and fire ward.

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