Erastus Russell organized a spontaneous parade of young village men down Great Barrington’s Main Street in February 1854. They had just formed what would become Hope Fire Company. A wheelbarrow and buckets made a pretend fire engine. The town’s leading citizens took notice, and subscribed $1,500 to purchase a piece of fire fighting apparatus, a Button pumper.
To store the pumper, the town took a short-term lease on a building on Castle Street while the Great Barrington Fire District’s Prudential Committee searched for a site for a permanent engine house.
A new Firemen’s Hall was completed on Castle Street in January 1855. The building was outfitted for the comfort of the men. Eight spittoons were purchased for the hall in September; and a committee looked into buying a coal stove in December 1856.
In early days, the pumper was pulled to a fire scene by human effort. Thirty-two men on the 20-foot-long "brakes," or pump handles, could throw a stream of water 200 feet from a hose 300 feet long. Hope Fire Company steadily added to its equipment over the years. A new hose cart was the center of attention when it arrived in July 1884.
By 1898, the growing assembly of fire apparatus was moved to the old Town Hall building on the north side of Bridge Street, as it was overflowing the old engine house. "Every foot of floor space is taken for the carts and trucks, leaving no room for the hose," Chief Engineer John P. Norton said.
In July 1899, the Fire District purchased the Norton property on Castle Street for $4,500 and constructed new station for $9,000. John Viola was the contractor. Page and Hayes of Westfield were the architects. The new building was of red brick, with a hose tower in front. The town was proud.
The work of fire horses needs to be mentioned. When a fire call sounded, in the late 1800s, whoever was nearest with a team of horses hitched up to the steam pumper and hauled it to the fire scene. The Fire District in 1907 finally purchased its own horses. One pair, Kit and Nell, also pulled the water wagon up and down Main Street during dusty summer days.
Longtime fireman Douglas T. Broderick in May 1951 told this story of a fire one Sunday night. A lot of firemen were at the station or were watching a show at the Mahaiwe Theater next door. "A call came in for a fire on Pleasant Street. The late Patrick J. (Pat) Foley was the driver of the pumper. He dashed out with the horse-drawn equipment, and at the back end about every member of the company had grabbed a toe or finger hold to ride to the fire. In fact, there were so many on the back end that it caused the front wheels to leave the ground. It was quite a sight, for the people to see the pumper, going up Main Street, its front wheels off the ground and jam-packed with firefighters at the back end. When they got to the Pleasant Street intersection Foley couldn’t make the turn, and he was bellowing at the top of his lungs for them to get off. He was going so fast we didn’t dare to jump for fear of getting hurt. Pat, cussing and fuming, had to go up near Betros’ store before he could slow the horses enough for us to get off. Then he turned around and made the fire."
The department acquired its first mechanized fire truck in 1922, an American LaFrance with 750-gallon tank. With each new piece of equipment, firefighters proudly assembled for a photograph in front of the fire station.
The Castle Street station has been a public gathering place of no small impact. In 1956, to give an example, the Lions Club conducted vision screening at the station. In 1958, Boy Scouts helped assemble annual Yule Cheer baskets and the Board of Health held immunization clinics there. And so on.
To the new owners, I submit: This venerable building has meant a lot to a lot of townspeople over the years. Please treat it with respect and bring it back to life. It is a heritage building in Great Barrington’s downtown. It helps shape the attractive pattern of buildings that makes Main Street a community and tourist destination. Its preservation will be a boon to downtown’s continued good business heath.
If, in coming restoration efforts, the new owners should come across a dog bone hidden in some dark corner, consider this: It probably belonged to Jiggs, the Dalmatian fire mascot. The dog in 1949 spent most of his daylight hours patrolling the station.
One December day, he made it outside unsupervised and proved himself a good tracker. He wandered up Pig Lane. He nabbed a duck -- it was domestic, not wild -- and brought it to John "Pop" Vigezzi at the New Haven railroad track supervisor’s office. The duck was relieved to be in Pop’s hands, after an unwilling ride in Jiggs’s jaws.
The duck was eventually returned to its owner and Jiggs went back to the firehouse, to listen for the next fire call.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.