Sunday, October 12, 2003

Century of duty to town honored

Firefighters still ready in Paxton Department saw many changes in 100 years

Christina E. Sanchez

PAXTON Ma. Before fire hoses, there were human chains and bucket brigades. Firefighting is an age-old art that has been transformed and revolutionized over nearly four centuries.

This afternoon the Paxton Fire Department will hold an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. at the station in honor of its 100th anniversary of service to the community. Visitors of all ages will have the opportunity to shoot water from fire hoses, ride on a fire engine and explore the station.

On Thursday, five firefighters gathered at the Paxton Fire Station to sift through photographs depicting a rich history of people, equipment and incidents during the department's century of service.

As part of the anniversary, firefighters will honor the dedication and labor of those who came before them.

"It's almost like a family for many of us. A lot of us had our fathers or grandfathers fighting for the department," said Paul S. Robinson, president of the Paxton Firefighters Association Inc. and a former firefighter. "And maybe, for some of the new guys, their kids will end up doing it, too."

In the United States, firefighting began in Colonial America, long before the Paxton Fire Department was created, when the first settlements were established in the 1600s. As communities grew, so did the number of wooden buildings, as well as the number of fires.

In New Amsterdam, known today as New York, the firefighting techniques began with the "Rattle Watch," according to Firehouse Magazine. This watch included eight volunteers who walked around at night with wooden rattles and used them to alert the community when there was a fire. To battle blazes, the community formed a bucket brigade, passing leather buckets down a human chain to the heart of the fire.

According to, a national Web site on firefighting, private fire departments were formed during the 1800s and there was often more than one in a community. When a fire erupted, the department whose crew arrived at the scene and put water on the flames first was paid by the city. Others received nothing. This scenario was dubbed "First Water."

The Paxton Fire Department's history began in 1903, when a group of townsmen gathered to form the Rough and Ready Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. The motto of the 26 men was: "We go where duty calls."

The Rough and Ready firefighters officially reported for duty on March 20, 1903 with leather fire buckets and an extension ladder donated by the Rutland Fire Department. In 1904, the company purchased four soda-acid fire extinguishers. Each five-gallon extinguisher cost $23.

On Dec. 6, 1907, the company purchased a horse and buggy wagon and a 15-gallon extinguisher. It acquired the rig for $40 plus two of the old extinguishers.

In 1922, plans were made to build a fire station, but they were placed on hold because of a disagreement among company members. The station was finally built in 1963 and it is still in use at 576 Pleasant St. Before 1963, trucks were kept in the Paxton Garage on Pleasant Street.

The Rough and Ready Fire Company changed its name to the Paxton Fire Department in 1928, when it became a town operation. The town became responsible for financing the department and appointing its members.

Lt. Kevin J. Quinn said he is fascinated by the different types of apparatus and the techniques that were once used by the department for fire fighting. "There is a history that each fire department has. When we saw the old pictures, we thought that we really didn't know that much about this station's history," Lt. Quinn said.

Some things have not changed, though, he added.

"But even with all the technology we have, we still need water. We still need people willing to step up and do the job. And there seem to be fewer and fewer people willing to do that."

The black-and-white photographs from the department's past portray the evolution of firefighting and the immense modifications that have occurred. Paxton Fire Chief Jay J. Conte said firefighting techniques and apparatus are drastically different from when he first began 29 years ago.

"When we started, we didn't wear air packs," he said. "We had them, but they weren't required. In 1980, it became a requirement to wear one."

Another big change in firefighting has been the evolution of the fire engine. The station has seen about a dozen different trucks since the first motorized truck was purchased in the 1920s.

In celebration of the centennial, Chief Conte was wearing an anniversary T-shirt, created to portray the advancement of firetrucks. The T-shirt depicts the original horse and buggy wagon alongside a picture of the station's 2003 aerial ladder truck. It also includes the phrase, "We go where duty calls."

Although this motto is from the original Rough and Ready firefighters, it still rings true for the 35 on-call members of the current Fire Department. The slogan is also on the department's seal.

"People who provide this service give up birthdays, holidays, functions. If a call comes, you've got to go. It's a family commitment," said Capt. Michael J. Benoit, who has been with the department since 1980.

Not only has the equipment changed, but so have the expectations and demands of fire departments, he said.

"The evolution in the 100 years of the fire department has really been about the step-up of training and the responsibilities of the firefighter."

Becoming a firefighter is far from an easy task, especially for those who serve on top of their regular day job. Capt. Benoit said becoming certified as a firefighter in Massachusetts requires about 130 hours of training. Many firefighters are also emergency medical technicians, which entails another 120-hour course.

"The training has changed a lot," he said. "When I first started, they would say, "Here's a pair of boots, here's a helmet, now go fight a fire.' The training was pretty much on the job."

The Paxton firefighters will hold a church service in November to pay tribute to all those who have served before them. The public event will be held at the First Congregational Church in Paxton, but the date has not yet been set.

The Fire Department chose the church for the service because it serves as a symbol for the community and the history of Paxton.

"We feel that 100 years ago, it was the meeting place in the community. There we will recognize the past members of the Paxton Fire Department," Capt. Benoit said.

The church, at 1 Church St., was erected in 1776 and served as a meetinghouse for many years. When the Fire Department was first established, the church's bell was used to sound the alarm and summon the volunteer firefighters.