Reminisce: Answering the bell: Tracing the history of the Lima Fire Department

LIMA — Beginning in early 1916 horsepower began replacing horses at the Lima Fire Department. “If the present plans of Safety Director (Albert) Gale are carried the motorized apparatus from the Central, West and South stations will be installed within the next two weeks,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported Jan. 10, 1916. “No more supplies for the horses will be purchased unless absolutely necessary,” the newspaper added.

In his 1921 history of Allen County, William Rusler noted that at one time there were “twenty-one head of fine horses” in the department. “People always stopped to watch the horses when they were running to a fire; they were splendid animals with human attributes; the removal of the horses was the removal of the poetry from the Lima Fire Department …”

Before the pulling power of horses added poetry to the fire department in 1878, the often haphazard, nearly always unpoetic effort of volunteer manpower was needed to keep fires at bay in a town constructed mostly of wood.

“There was a time when Lima fire protection depended upon water stored in public cisterns, the bucket brigade and volunteer firefighters,” Rusler noted.

“When a blaze was discovered in ancient Lima,” he wrote, “all shouted fire, and all manned themselves with buckets and dishpans — anything that would hold water. Lines were formed and buckets of water were passed while some pitched the furniture out of upper windows, and carefully carried the feather beds down the narrow stairways; mirrors landed in the street while cushions and pillows were gently carried to places of safety.”

In 1842, the village of Lima, with a population of about 600, elected its first mayor and, according to retired Lima firefighter George K. Kelly writing in a 1976 county history, “gave an order to blacksmith William Andres to install a clapper in the courthouse bell at a cost of $1.87.” The bell, among its several purposes, was used to alert the volunteer bucket brigades when a fire broke out.

Seven years later the village purchased three lengths of ladders — 14, 18 and 25 feet — along with a dozen fire hooks and appointed a committee to inspect the town’s home for fire dangers, The Lima News wrote in a Dec. 31, 1952, story, adding, “There was no worry about manpower in those days. The entire town would turn out to help fight a fire.”

As Lima continued to grow those modest investments and the efforts of enthusiastic volunteers were no longer enough. In 1865, with Lima’s population around 4,000, a steam-powered pumper dubbed the “Pacific” was purchased from Dayton.

“Operation of the ‘Pacific’ must have been a hit-miss affair, without an organized company responsible for it,” The Lima News wrote in 1952. “It apparently was pulled to a fire by the men or someone’s team of horses, whichever method was expedient.”

Lima’s Weekly Gazette gave the volunteers a passing grade for their efforts at a November 1867 fire at the Lima Planing Mill and Sash Factory near the Dayton & Michigan (later the B&O) railroad bridge.

“The members of the Pacific Fire Company worked faithfully, and well, and with the assistance of some few citizens were able to keep the fire in check so that a considerable quantity of lumber lying near the burning building was saved,” the newspaper wrote.

On another occasion, however, Lima’s single steam engine was not up to the task. “It is reported that a large fire occurred Jan. 16, 1871, and with one small engine the fire could not be checked and was spreading fearfully, rapidly turning into a conflagration,” Kelly wrote. “A call for help was sent to Wapakoneta, who responded with a steam fire engine to help fight the fire.” The engine arrived in Lima on the D&M railroad.

Following the 1871 fire, the “Pacific” was sold, and two steam engines were sent to Lima in anticipation of the city buying one.

“One of the engines was the ‘Amoskeag’ and the other a ‘Silsby,’” Kelly wrote in the 1976 history. “A water-throwing contest was held to decide which engine to buy, but it ended in a tie. The city fathers favored the ‘Amoskeag’ and the people of Lima favored the ‘Silsby.’”

In the end, the city purchased the Amoskeag, and a company was formed to operate it known as the “Champion Steam Fire Engine and Hose Co. Number Two,” according to Kelly. The Silsby, meanwhile, was purchased with money raised by the citizens of Lima and, after much debate over a name, a company was formed to operate it known as the “Citizens Gift Steam Fire Engine and Hose Company Number Three.”

Because steam engines couldn’t produce steam without coal and couldn’t carry enough coal to sustain a fire to do the job, the Boys Coal Cart Company was organized around 1873. “A big, red two-wheeled cart was procured, with long ropes to pull it by, and it stood loaded with coal ready to go out when the engines responded to an alarm. The boys composing the company were about 15 years old, had a permanent organization, held regular meetings and were practically a part of the fire department…,” The Lima News wrote. “Permission had been given by school authorities allowing them to leave the school room when a fire alarm was sounded.”

In the 1921 history, Rusler noted, “When the streets were muddy, unless they could attach to a passing wagon, the volunteer fire department and the coal supply train always used the sidewalks, thereby gaining valuable time in reaching the conflagration.”

Much-needed horse power was added to the department beginning in June 1878 when the city, according to the Allen County Democrat, agreed to “buy a pair of horses suitable for the use of the Fire Department, to be used by the Street Commissioner when not on duty at fires.”

Between 1880 and 1890, Lima’s population more than doubled, from about 7,500 to nearly 16,000, and a volunteer fire department was no longer good enough.

“There has been an organized department in Lima since 1890 and since 1893 there have been paid firemen always on duty,” Rusler wrote in 1921. “In the interim between the volunteer and the paid department, there were the Minute Men, who were always paid for each fire — paid for actual service.”

“When the volunteer service was merged into the paid department, no effort was spared in the way of up-to-date equipment — the best available in men, machinery and horses…,” Rusler added. Water mains had long ago replaced the cisterns and Lima’s Central Fire Station, which had stood in the 100 block of West High Street, was replaced around 1907 by a new building in the 200 block of East High Street.

In 1916, fire trucks built by Lima’s Gramm-Bernstein Company, replaced the horses. However, the horses in many cases had a difficult time adjusting as Lima’s Republican-Gazette recounted in a December 1920 story.

“Some of the fire horses are still used by the city in the public service department, and when an alarm is heard it is with difficulty they are restrained from answering the call although drawing street cleaning apparatus. A team of dapple grays — Dick and Dock — was sold to a farmer, and when the dinner bell rang the horses escaped with the plow and went to the fire which happened to be in the kitchen range.”