Baby Boomer Memories: Sparky, the Pittsfield Fire Department mascot, a fixture in the 50s
I most often saw Sparky on the tiller truck, the one with a driver at the helm steering the trailer around narrow city streets. Drivers had many test runs learning to navigate corners. Sparky barked loudly at folks as the truck passed by them.
A fixture at Central Station, Sparky was a pal to many firefighters, but also as some older firemen have related, the pooch could be mean and tough. I often wondered about why so many fire department pictures or ads seem to show firehouse dogs as Dalmatians. In fact, many have the name Sparky.
Dalmatians, white and covered with large black spots, are often associated with fire departments, and this relationship goes back to the days when the departments had horse-drawn vehicles.
Dalmatians had a history in Europe in the 17th century of being trained as coach dogs that would run ahead of or beside horse-drawn carriages. They would clear the path of intruders and offered protection to the horses at night between runs. The breed was known for its stamina and endurance rather than speed. Dalmatians could run for long treks without stopping for a break.
In the U.S., Dalmatians were used by fire departments to escort the horse-drawn fire apparatus to the fire scene. Once at the fire, the dogs protected the horses from other dogs and animals.
With the canine's black spots, the horses could easily distinguish them from other intruders. The animals were compatible, and the breed had a calming effect on the horses in the hubbub of the fires.
Also in the early days, small fire departments competed at fire scenes to outperform each other. Thus, another role of the firehouse dog was to protect the engines and equipment from theft and/or vandalism. For the most part, Dalmatians were popular with firefighters for their size, stamina, friendly nature, protectiveness, ease in training and self-sufficiency. Interestingly, the use of Dalmatians by firehouses in Europe never caught on like it did in the U.S. and Canada.
In the 1800s, it has been said that nearly every firehouse in this country had a Dalmatian, and most were named Sparky. By the early 1900s, horse-drawn vehicles began to be replaced by motorized trucks, and thus the canine role for a protector lessened.
Pittsfield began to motorize its fleet of fire apparatus in 1915, and within 20 years horses had become history and fire dogs were not needed.
I don't know if the Pittsfield Fire Department had a Dalmatian back in the days of horses, but I know it did have a non-Dalmatian, named Happy, as a mascot as far back as 1904. It was loaned to organizations like the opera for promotions.
This canine may have been the last mascot until Sparky the Dalmatian came aboard nearly 50 years later. After Sparky passed away in the 1950s, the Fire Department apparently ended mascots. It was actually in 1951 that the National Fire Protection Association began using a cartoonish Dalmatian for its campaign for fire prevention.
Long gone are the real firefighting, horse-calming pups, but at least they remain in the forefront of fire safety right up there with Smokey Bear (who began his fame seven years earlier).
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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