in another time > First Wildwoods fire companies were little more than bucket brigades

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Firehouse, location unknown. Firehouse, location unknown.

As 7,000 firefighters gather in the Wildwoods this weekend with their families and friends for the annual New Jersey State Firemen’s Convention, it is appropriate to look back to a different time and place, some 90 miles away, where a famous man in American history is credited with having started the first fire department in the nation.

Benjamin Franklin, of course, is best known as one of the founders of the nation and as a diplomat, statesman, writer and inventor. Of lesser fame but important in American history and to every firefighter here is the fact that Franklin set the stage by starting the nation’s first fire department in Philadelphia in 1736. He called it the Union Fire Company, and as in the years to come with other fire companies, he enlisted the help of prominent leaders in the community to join and expand his efforts.

When he was only a 6-year-old, Franklin watched part of his original home city of Boston go up in flames as more than 100 families lost their homes. Later in life, after he settled in Philadelphia, he wrote about the perils and consequences of fires in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette.

Another huge fire in the City of Brotherly Love in 1736 caused Franklin to start the fire brigade. It had 30 volunteers and they were identified as firemen – the title to change years later to firefighters when women were allowed to join the forces. The first volunteer in America was said to be a man named Isaac Paschall.

Among the first firewomen were Molly Williams, a slave of a New York merchant in 1818; Marina Betts of Pittsburgh, who gained fame during her 10 years as a firefighter when she dumped buckets of water on male bystanders when they refused to help battle fires; and San Francisco’s Lillie Hitchcock, who joined men in pulling horseless drawn engines when she was 15 years old during the 1850s.

The boroughs of Holly Beach and Anglesea weren’t even a dream when Franklin started his fire company. Some of the local land upon which their people were to settle was visited during the summers of the early 19th century by the Lenni Lenape Indians who came there to fish in the ocean and hunt in the wildlife of the forest. It is doubtful if they needed the advice of Franklin on how to put out a fire – although some Indians elsewhere could have used the services of a financial advisor if legend is true that in 1626 they sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch for what amounts to a paltry $24.

Fishermen and developers arrived at what has become known today as Five Mile Beach during the period following the Civil War, and Holly Beach and Anglesea became official incorporated boroughs in 1885. Holly Beach’s first fire company in 1884 was a bucket brigade named the Holly Beach Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company, and its chief was Edward Potts. There followed in 1901 the Holly Beach Fire Company No. 1, still existing today in Wildwood, a community that consolidated with Holly Beach in 1912. That company now owns the oldest hook and ladder in the world, dating back to 1913. It is used now primarily for parade purposes.

In the same time frame, at the northern end of the island, the Anglesea Fire Company was organized in 1897 and chartered in 1902. A latecomer was the Wildwood Crest Fire Company, which was founded in October of 1910 – five months after the borough, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, was incorporated.

Interestingly, the Holly Beach and Anglesea fire companies have retained their original names although the borough of Holly Beach is now known as Wildwood and Anglesea is North Wildwood.

In those early days, the fire companies were the heart and soul of the communities. Their first commitment, of course, was to extinguish fires and prevent them, but rarely was there a fireman who wasn’t involved with some other phase of municipal life. Three of the members of the original Holly Beach Pioneer and Hook and Ladder Company – Franklin VanValin, Frank E. Smith and William E. Forcum – all went on to become mayors of Holly Beach.

The pattern was to continue throughout the years. Former Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano has been a fireman for 38 years and is now a battalion chief for the Holly Beach company. Current North Wildwood Mayor Bill Henfey has been a fireman for the Anglesea company and has served as a policeman. North Wildwood Councilman Robert McCullion has been a longtime member of the Anglesea company and one-time battalion chief. He now adds to his volunteer duties by calling bingo numbers at its firehouse as part of the company’s fundraising efforts. The first fire chief at Anglesea was George Redding, one of North Wildwood’s most colorful mayors who served as the sixth mayor of North Wildwood from 1926-1949 and went on to become a state senator. Former Councilman Walter Larcombe is now battalion chief at Anglesea.

Troiano remembers the attraction the firehouse and its department once had for the young.

“It seemed like everyone wanted to be a fireman,” he said. “When I was a kid there was no better place to go than the firehouse.”

Early on, the lure of fighting fires was so popular in the Wildwoods that the supply of potential firefighters exceeded the demand. Many applicants for membership were denied because there weren’t that many openings in the departments. On the plus side officials claimed this brought better firemen to their departments because they could be more selective in their choices.

Indicative of the past when fire companies and their supporters raised funds through various benefit events, today’s Anglesea company stages one of the biggest in New Jersey by firefighters and certainly the biggest in Cape May County. Every summer since 1999 it has been presenting in North Wildwood, nee Anglesea, a barbecue and blues festival that draws thousands of people to the community.

In the years to follow the departments experienced some ups and downs. To encourage more efficient service, the Holly Beach governing body offered a $3 prize to the first team of horses to reach the firehouse after an alarm was sounded. The team that came in second earned $2. The women of Holly Beach raised enough money, $111.50, to buy a piano for the firemen. It was rented to the public for $5 a night, and when the piano was not in use a lock was placed on it to insure there would be no free piano playing.

On New Year’s Eve of 1900-1901 the plan for the Holly Beach Fire Company was to celebrate the arrival of the new century at a party at which a newly acquired 375-pound bell was to be rung as the hands of the clock reached midnight. But when the time arrived it was discovered that the bell, not unlike the historic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, had a crack in it. Another bell, hopefully not a historical repetition, was ordered.

In 1907 the Wildwood Fire Company, to be organized formally the next year, wanted to erect a “Court of Honor” above the boardwalk as part of the summer convention of the Firemen’s Relief Association of Jersey. Support for the project was asked from the neighboring communities, but an indignant Holly Beach, to ironically become part of Wildwood five years later, rejected the suggestion. Its officials said they would entertain the visiting firemen “in their own way.”

Meanwhile at the Pine Avenue fire station, re-elected President Stanley Kalbach announced he would impose fines on people who swore at meetings. His first fine was assessed against his brother, Warren, but he later rescinded it when it was argued his brother was “speaking the truth,” notwithstanding the inelegance of his language.

And at another fire meeting rules and regulations were established against spitting “tobacco juice” on the floors. Missing the targeted spittoons was no excuse, it was said. Sure, practice makes perfect, but don’t practice at the firehouse.

Although there were other similarities between then and now, history has not explained whether they were spitting images of Ben Franklin’s firehouse.


Some of the information for this article was taken from George Boyer’s book, “Wildwood, Middle of the Island.”

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