Early Fire Companies of Hampton

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The founding of Hampton, New Hampshire’s fire department rightfully belongs to the early twentieth century, with the formation of a beach fire precinct in 1907, a village fire precinct in 1909, and, in 1912, a volunteer company comprised of a chief, captain, lieutenants, clerk, and twenty “members.” These century-old associations, however, were not the town’s first attempts at organized fire protection. That happened over four decades earlier, in 1822, when voters authorized a committee of thirteen persons “to take into consideration the expediency of purchasing a fire engine for the use of the town and organizing a company.” The committee was to report on the costs of an engine and a “suitable building” in which to house it.

The thirteen men were appointed, but what became of their committee and its findings has not been recorded. Some sort of action regarding fire protection must have gone forward, since voters were asked at the 1823 town meeting to choose men to fill the newly-created post of “fireward.” This position, the forerunner of the fire chief, was modeled after that of Portsmouth, whose fire department dates to 1744, and Exeter, which had public and private forms of fire protection since 1774. But Hampton voters, who were getting along just fine with the community bucket brigade, chose to “pass by” that part of the warrant article.

Also in 1823, a group of men organized a fire company in Hampton Falls. According to Warren Brown, who wrote the history of the town, the company—which never fought any fires—was formed solely for the purpose of exempting its members from military duty (up to eighteen men per engine could claim an exemption). This was not unusual at the time, Brown said, as “similar companies were formed in other towns for the same purpose.”

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1830’s-style hand-drawn fire wagon.

The exemption was still in force in 1833, when a group of fifty-one Hampton men purchased a fire engine from the American Hydraulic Company of Windsor, Vermont. The early 1830s was a relatively peaceful period in which the “Era of Good Feelings” still lingered across the country, and it seems unlikely that these men formed their company for any purpose other than firefighting; rather, they were doing what the town had declined to do a decade earlier, and they asked for permission to erect a building on town land to house their new engine. The 1841 map of Hampton shows the Engine House that the voters allowed the “Owners of the Fire Engine” to build “on the School lot in the Centre District.”

May 2017 Image 04 According to historian Joseph Dow, fires were rare in Hampton, and “after a few years, in which little service was required,” the fire company and its engine were abandoned. Afterwards the town kept “several sets of fire-hooks in different localities,” but those, too, were eventually abandoned. Writing the town’s history in the late 1880s, Dow observed that at the time there was no public means of extinguishing fires.

In 1891 the town installed a fireproof safe to protect its public records, some of which were over 250 years old, but voters still refused to concede the necessity of organized fire protection. The success of the bucket brigade in extinguishing and preventing the spread of fires, and watchmen paid to make sure they didn’t break out again, hindered the passage of proposed measures, including the purchase of a chemical wagon in 1900 and the installation of a water system and fire hydrants in 1905.

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 Lemuel C. Ring, Chief of Hampton Beach Fire Department

It was a different story at the more densely populated and rapidly growing Hampton Beach, where concerned residents were growing tired of waiting for the town to act. With the State’s permission, they formed their own fire precinct in 1907, under Chief Lemuel C. Ring. Not to be outdone, the town formed its own precinct in 1909 (the two precincts remained separate entities until 2002, when the town assumed responsibility for fire protection at the beach). The town also approved the purchase of a horse-drawn chemical wagon, built by blacksmith Nelson J. Norton, painted by house painter George Johnson, with ladders supplied by farmer J. Austin Johnson and firefighting chemicals by the American Lafrance Engine Company. Three years later, Hampton’s first fire department was organized under Chief Elmer C. King, a forty-year-old piano and cabinet maker originally from Massachusetts, who had married Ella, the daughter of Horace and Elizabeth Hobbs of Hampton.

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c 1910 Hampton’s first chemical wagon at the Town Hall.

Carefully balancing the town’s Yankee frugality with a need to grow his department, in his first report, submitted on February 1, 1913, King asked for the funds to build a second wagon, one that his men had volunteered to build themselves, and a house in which to store his anticipated fleet expansion. According to the 1914 town report, he didn’t get his new wagon, but the town did appropriate twelve hundred dollars for the proposed fire house. From then on, expenditures for the Fire Department became a regular line item in the town’s yearly budget.

1830’s firefighting humor

The lawyers of Penobscot, Maine have petitioned for a fire engine, to be called the “Spouter,” which they propose to man and work themselves.

Originally published in the Hampton Union on May 26, 2017. Images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book, with co-author Karen Raynes, is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

THINGS TO DO THIS SUMMER: GO TO BEACH, GET A TAN, READ AT LEAST ONE OF CHERYL’S BOOKS! Available at amazon.com, and in Hampton at Marelli’s Market and the Tuck Museum.

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The Lady Quill Drivers

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In the week preceding the June 14, 1899 inaugural issue of the Hamptons Union newspaper, John Templeton’s Exeter News-Letter gave notice that Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts, “an experienced newspaperman, though young in years,” would soon be publishing a newspaper from his offices above D.O. Leavitt’s grocery store in Hampton.

Templeton could afford to welcome a new competitor. Established in 1831, the venerable News-Letter had seen lesser rivals come and go over the years, no doubt giving its publisher confidence that Adams could never mount a serious challenge to his newspaper’s circulation.

Evidently Templeton’s instincts were correct, as for years afterward the News-Letter had sufficient readership in Hampton and Hampton Beach to continue publishing their news items every week. As with most “town” news at the time, the paper employed local “quill drivers”—or “stringers” in modern lingo—to feed the Exeter presses.

In an era when bylines were not yet prevalent, it was hard to know who was writing what. Men used pseudonyms to demonstrate their cleverness, and women who wanted to be taken seriously used their initials or a pseudonym. But it was a new century, and the reasons for using a pen name were inching their way to the dustbin. In a playful thumb of the nose at convention, in February 1910 the News-Letter held a banquet at the Squamscott Hotel in Exeter to unmask the identities of its “brace of scribes.” Writers from at least nineteen Rockingham County towns, both male and female, were outed at the event. Those from Hampton were Sarah Hobbs Lane, Laura Norris, and Mary Page Getchell.

Howard and Sarah Hobbs Lane, c.1920 Cadillac convertible.

Howard and Sarah Hobbs Lane. Hampton Historical Society.

Sarah Hobbs Lane (1868 -1945)

Sarah Hobbs Lane was the wife of merchant Howard G. Lane. They were high-school chums who graduated with the first class of the combined Hampton Academy and High School in 1887. Sarah had been a teacher in Hampton before marrying Howard in 1895. They were a philanthropic, civic-minded couple who built the Lane Library in 1910 and gave it to the town in memory of Howard’s father Joshua A. Lane.

In its report of the writers’ banquet, the News-Letter failed to divulge Sarah’s pseudonym, making it difficult to know which news items belonged to her. From other records we know that she wrote on the history and legends of Hampton for her social clubs and wrote and presented an address at the dedication of Memorial Park in 1925. She later passed the pen to her daughter Eloise Lane Smith, who wrote the ‘Drama of Winnacunnet,’ a historical pageant performed at the town’s 300th anniversary in 1938. As the only one of Hampton’s trio of scribblers to attend the Squamscott outing, Sarah was reported to have “enjoyed it much.”

Laura Norris (1831-1922)

In 1874 former Nottingham school teacher Laura Norris and her mother Abigail Cartland Norris, who “in her own right separated from the control of her husband,” bought the 1850 house of blacksmith Thomas Lane (now 838 Lafayette Road). Laura taught for a few years in the local schools before retiring. Her brother Abbott, to whom she later sold the house, was a storekeeper and insurance agent in Hampton, and her niece Elizabeth Norris was a Hampton teacher and member of the school board.

The News-Letter reported that Laura, whose pen name it also failed to reveal, “has had long service [writing for the newspaper],” but was unable to attend the coming-out party due to “lameness and age infirmity.” That same year she was called on to compose a memorial poem for Joshua A. Lane, which was included in the program for the December 14th dedication of the Lane Library. On the occasion of her ninety-first birthday in March 1922, the Hamptons Union reported that “Miss Norris may be feeble in body but her mind is as keen as ever.” She died later that year.

Mary Page Getchell c.1865

Mary Page Getchell c.1865. Hampton Historical Society.

Mary Page Getchell (1832-1913)

Mary Page Getchell was born in Hampton in 1832. After graduating from Hampton Academy she attended Salem Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts, and later taught school in Exeter. Although she came from a family of teachers, her dislike of the job led her, with her sister Susan, to buy an established millinery shop in Exeter in 1859. Discovering that she had a flair for travel and adventure, a year later she opened a second shop in Polo, Illinois. She loved the “great west,” but was forced to return home when her sister got married.

After Susan left the shop, Mary joined forces with several partners, then sold out in 1869 to marry 61-year-old Exeter businessman Joshua Getchell. One of the richest men in town, he was the father of Lucy Getchell, a hands-on philanthropist destined to become one of Exeter’s most beloved citizens. Joshua died in 1878, intestate and insolvent. Mary, who never had children of her own, returned to Hampton to live the rest of her days on her family’s 1639 homestead.

Her first News-Letter contribution appeared in 1882, a report on the plans to move Hampton Academy off the meeting house green to a location “more convenient for the purposes of a school building.” She was the first to suggest that a memorial be placed upon the soon-to-be-vacant spot, “where our forefathers built their first church.” Her proposal became a reality almost a half-century later when the Meeting House Green Memorial Association built Memorial Park in 1925.

Mary also contributed articles to the Portsmouth Times, Portsmouth Chronicle, Boston Journal, The Congregationalist, and American Agriculturalist, signing her articles “G,” “M,” “M.A.G,” or “A NATIVE.” She penned dozens of unpublished essays, short stories, and historical and genealogical narratives.

Another old-timer unable to attend the party at the Squamscott due to “age infirmity,” Mary was noted for having had “long service” and for “writing from different parts of the country.” One of her finest pieces, “The Coming Woman,” written in 1886 for the Mutual Improvement Club, encouraged women to seek their own destinies.

In 1913 Mary was declared insane and put under Lucy Getchell’s guardianship. She died not long after. In 2009, her great-grandniece donated her letters, journals, and diary to the Hampton Historical Society.

We are indebted to the local quill drivers like Sarah, Laura, and Mary. By keeping the people of Hampton informed about their town through the pages of the local newspaper, they left us an invaluable historical record.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, Friday, January 15, 2016.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.