Feb 15, 1930

Nice day. Got colder in PM and eve and snowed some. Twenty below about 8AM but warmed up a lot during the day. Rex Ward’s house burned about 10AM and Mon and the boys went up there. They saved the things that were downstairs but lost what was upstairs and down cellar. The folks got back here about 11 and then we went up home for dinner and spent the PM. Snowed quite a little in the night.

from The Diaries of Lottie Price, 1914-1986

Until today, I had never considered that Rose might worry about fire. So I started looking for information on fire trucks and firefighting in the 1920s.

Let’s just say that Rose’s best hope is to not have a fire. (Well, that would be true of all of us, wouldn’t it? 🙂 )

I can see the scene…

Fire breaks out. Somehow, neighbors hear. I say “somehow” because not everybody has a telephone. Rose doesn’t; many rural farmers don’t. So, barring a phone, someone runs/drives/rides to the nearest farm and hopefully they have a phone? At any rate, the neighbors find out and someone alerts the authorities (either by riding into town or calling the operator if they had a phone).

In rural areas, it could take some time before the volunteer fire department arrived, the volunteers having to be first notified, then given time to arrive at the station, and finally to head out to the location of the emergency; remember, top speed for a fire truck of that era wasn’t more than 45mph, slower on dirt roads [6]. So neighbors would start sloshing buckets of water at the fire while they waited for the pumper truck to arrive.

A hand-cranked siren [7] announces the arrival of the fire department after which the pumper has to find a water source—creek, open well, pond, river—in order to pump water onto the fire. No fire hydrants in rural areas, remember? In fact, farmers who didn’t live near a creek or pond or some source of water were asked to dig a retention ditch in case of emergency.

The actual mechanics of the fire truck are a little less clear (I’ve dug, but there’s precious little that explains how they work. So, if you know, please enlighten me in the comment section!) All I can tell you for certain is that it involves dropping a hose into the water source, a steam boiler, and a positive displacement pump [6] [8]. Then, voilà! Water is shot from the hose, dousing the flames of the fire.

Perhaps, like at Rex Ward’s home, they are able to contain the damage to just the upper floors. So, bedrooms. Clothing… linens… beds… all lost. If not, though, the losses are larger.

But not to worry. Just a few days after this initial diary entry was another, documenting the town getting together to help Rex Ward and his family replace their lost items.

Because that’s what neighbors do!

Common causes of fire:

  1. Matches and/or lit cigarettes (like today!)
  2. Kerosene lamps [1]
    • low-grade kerosene spills were highly combustible
    • trimming wicks too low to save money could cause kerosene to ignite
    • if lamps were dropped or knocked over, fire could spread
  3. Unclean chimneys [2] [3]
  4. Wood burning stoves: while sparks were contained better than with fireplace fires, the stove itself got very hot [1] so anything brushed against it for any amount of time could ignite
  5. Heating troughs in winter to keep water from freezing [4]
  6. Uncontrolled field fires in autumn [4]
  7. Lightning (especially striking radio antennas) [2]

Sources and Notes

[1] Never Done: A History of American Housework; Susan Strasser

[2] Springfield Fire Department 1920-1940

[3] Chelmsford Fire Department 1920-1929

[4] A Good Day’s Work; Dwight W. Hoover

[5] Everything you ever wanted to know about positive displacement pumps

[6] Trucks of this era had hard rubber tires instead of air filled tires like today, making rides down dirt or gravel roads even bumpier. Firemen riding on the back literally had to hang on for dear life. Watch these Jay Leno videos for more info: 1921 American LaFrance Firetruck; 1914 Christie Fire Engine

[7] Description of 1923 Ford Model T Firetruck

[8] 1922 Stutz Fire Engine restored

2 thoughts on “Fire!

  1. Zan Marie says:

    I’m terrified of fire even today! I can’t imagine all the possibilities of the ignition are so many. I’ve seen some pumper truck pics that show a hand pump like the one hand pumped rail cars. I’m not sure what year it was from, though. Good luck on your research!


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