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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A fascinating, year-by-year, winner-by-winner portrait, not only of these iconic summertime contests, but of Hampton Beach itself. The book’s stories and historic photos are guaranteed to bring back happy memories to long-time beachgoers, former contestants, their families, and fans, as well as bring delight to those whose own history with the beach is just beginning. This book belongs on every library and bookstore shelf in New England!

Available through Amazon.com, BN.com, and Baker & Taylor book distributors.

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 Praise for The Queens of Hampton Beach

“A fitting tribute to all those involved in creating, sustaining, and participating in one of the seacoast’s longest running and most cherished traditions. Let’s have a warm round of applause for The Queens – the very jewels that adorn the crown – of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.” – Don McNeill, The Continentals.

 “A must-have for anyone who loves Hampton Beach! Packed with great photos and interesting stories, not just about the evolution of our local beauty queens, but about the development of the beach itself.” – Betty Moore, Tuck Museum Executive Director.

“This book, a true treasure, not only chronicles the rich history of Hampton Beach but of the pageant that has touched so many and set the stage for success in many endeavors of my life. I remain forever grateful.” – Sheila T. Scott, Miss Hampton Beach 1964.

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      Like fried dough, henna tattoos, and the arcade, choosing a queen to represent Hampton Beach has always been an important part of the summer rituals at this popular seaside resort. What started out in 1915 as a way to sell raffle tickets with the Carnival Queen contest, open to all women, had by the late 1940s evolved into the Miss Hampton Beach beauty pageant, for which only young, single women were eligible. In 1959 the pageant moved indoors to the glitzy Casino Ballroom, and for the next three glamour-filled decades groomed New England girls for national pageants like Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss America. Tastes changed and interest waned over the years, and in 1996 the pageant was canceled—only to return to its roots the following year as a free community event, held on a Sunday afternoon, outdoors at the epicenter of the beach, the Seashell Stage. The tradition continues today, with beach queens chosen not only for their beauty and poise, but for their willingness to participate in community activities and to promote Hampton Beach as a family-friendly vacation destination throughout their reigning year.

Tales and Ales at Swett-Ilsley Tavern in Newbury, MA

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MUSICIANS AT SWETT-ILSLEY TAVERN, NEWBURY, MA. MAY 9, 2013May 9, 2013

I trekked south over the Merrimac River to Newbury with my friends Betty Moore, Director of the Tuck Museum in Hampton, and Elly Becotte, author of Answering the Call: Hampton, New Hampshire in the Civil War, for an evening of 17th century entertainment at the c. 1670 Swett-Ilsley Tavern. The tavern, an Historic New England property, is located on Rt. 1A, just over the Newburyport-Newbury line. It holds the honor of being the first property purchased by the preservation organization.

My interest in the tavern is that it was one of the four taverns that Hampton constable Henry Dow stopped at during his trip to deliver Goody Cole to the Boston jail in 1673. It was called Hugh March’s tavern then. Sitting in the same room as she may have done was thrilling. It gave my mind a real life setting to chew on as I continue to write her story. I hope it’ll be one of the locations they’ll use when The Mark of Goody Cole is made into a feature film. No really!

Ipswich Ale Brewery provided the ales and o’Carolan Etcetera played traditional Irish and British folk music. The medieval hurdy-gurdy had us all fascinated, but I have to admit that to my ear it sounded a little like broken marbles rolling around in a rusty tin can.

As to the eats, the roasted chicken, vegetable dish, and apple crisp thingie that came at the end were all very yummy. A few of my bench-mates at the dinner table were a bit squeamish to be eating with their hands, but hey, after one or two tankards of ale, who the hell cares?

Besides the bitter orange-tinged summer ale, the best part of the evening was the tales, offered up by Bethany Groff, the author of A Brief History of Old Newbury (which, if you haven’t already read it, you should. It’s a great little history). She’s also a properties manager for Historic New England. She gets to dress up like a tavern wench and swear…a dream job, for sure!  Bethany drew her tales from the Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, which she says she has a “history crush” on. OMG a true history geek. She has the perfect story-teller’s voice, timing, and wicked sense of humor. And, of course, she was talking about a subject near and dear to my own heart, taverns in colonial New England!

After dinner we retired to the drawing room for more ale and an audience participation segment. I was Elizabeth Cogshill, a married woman, and I was caught flirting with another woman’s husband. I was so ashamed (to have been caught, that is!).

It was an evening of historic fun, set amid an ambiance of low open-beam ceilings, walk-in fireplaces, and creaky wooden floors. All that was missing was a highwayman raid! It was $55 well spent. And if you are a Historic New England member, the price is $35.

The Swett-Ilsley Tavern is hosting several more Tales and Ales this year, so if you can, go and experience the fun.You can purchase tickets online at  historicnewengland.org. 

A word of warning: the tavern is located smack in the middle of a living neighborhood and has no off-street parking. Not even one single space. So arrive early to get one of the primo front-of-house parking spaces.

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