Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fire exhibit shows history

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (Oct 20, 2005): As the city of South Portland prepares to close a decades-old neighborhood firehouse, the South Portland Historical Society has put on a special exhibit on the history of the city’s fire department.

“It’s hard to move out of a building you’ve been in for 40 years,” said Capt. Richard Cotton of the Pleasantdale Hose Company. The company was founded in 1893 in Palmer’s garage, and moved into its present digs on Robinson Street in 1921, after a community-wide effort built the firehouse.

At the end of this month, the firehouse will close and the call company will move to a new barn built behind the Cash Corner fire station. The exhibit at the Sawyer School Annex will be open to the public until the end of the month.

“It’s costing too much money to heat the building,” said Cotton, who joined the company in 1963 and took over as captain 15 years ago.

In the early days of the fire company, the fire truck was garaged in various buildings, and had no dedicated horse to pull it.

“Anybody’s horse that went by became the fire horse,” Cotton said.

The historical society’s exhibit was inspired by the discovery last year of a 1914 roster of the Knightville fire company, in an antique store in Freeport by society historian Kathy Onos DiPhilippo.

It may be the last exhibit in the society’s longtime home, the Sawyer School Annex on Braeburn Avenue. Congregation Bet Ha’am, which has been holding services in the school’s main building for some time, is buying the property, including the annex, which is slated to be demolished, according to society curator Mary Anne Wallace.

The society, which gets lots of support from the South Portland Lions Club, is looking for other places to call home and hold exhibits such as “Call Box 4215,” named for the alarm code that would sound in firehouses to tell firemen there was fire at the annex location.

The exhibit showcased historical firefighting equipment, including old water pipes made of wood that had to be replaced when modern pumper trucks were built. Those pumps pulled the water too hard, ripping the wooden pipes out of the ground.

Many items were loaned or donated by South Portland firefighters or their family members, such as a collection of badges and insignia used through the years.

“Firemen have a real sense of their own history,” Wallace said.

Other items included information about the department’s three Dalmatians, one of which, Tapper, lived at Engine 6 in Thornton Heights and was trained to stamp out cigarette butts.

Letters in a binder on display indicated that firemen had trouble getting around the city early in World War II because they lacked the proper permits to be out driving around during government-imposed blackouts, instituted to foil enemy attacks from the ocean.

In one test run described in an official letter from the period, some firemen were blocked by blackout wardens and others were only able to arrive at the intended destination by talking their way through roadblocks. The incident was just a test, but was used as an example of what could happen unless proper paperwork was issued.

One old photo on the wall sparked a more recent memory from Cotton. The photo showed the old Engine 10, a foam truck, whose door had the last hand-painted city seal on a fire truck’s door. Cotton found that door again in May, in the rafters of a chicken coop in Hope, now used to store old fire trucks and other fire memorabilia.