Origin Of The Greenville Fire Co.

Origin Of The Greenville Fire Company

 

     The origin of the Greenville Fire Company can be traced to a devastating fire which occurred on the night of June 20, 1870, when lightning struck Whipple & Co. Wheelwright shop in the heart of the village. Volunteers rushed to the scene and formed bucket brigades, but the flames had gotten a good head start and before long the building was consumed by flames, which then spread to an adjacent building and it too was lost. During the firefighting operation, one man was seriously hurt when he fell from a ladder.

     The incident made it clear that something better in the way of fire protection was needed, and it was decided to purchase a used fire engine from the Pawtucket Fire Department. The engine was a vintage, horse-drawn, hand-pump dubbed the Water Witch, which became the nucleus of the Rescue Fire Engine Company. In later years a hose cart, and a hook & ladder wagon would be added. (For more detailed information see The Water Witch And Its Mysterious Disappearance.)   

     The Rescue Fire Engine Company eventually came to be known as the Greenville Fire Company, which later became part of the Smithfield Fire Department.

     Click on images to enlarge.

Woonsocket Patriot, June 24, 1870

Woonsocket Patriot. July 29, 1870, p.2

Woonsocket Patriot, August 26, 1870

Smithfield’s first fire engine, the Water Witch. Chief Andrew Whipple in photo.

Rules & Regulations of Greenville’s First Fire. Co.

Woonsocket Evening Call
February 3, 1916

 

     Greenville’s original fire station was located in the basement of the National Exchange Bank in Greenville Center.  In 1939, the Fire Company moved into a new station about 200 feet away from the bank.  In the 1950s an addition was added to the east side of the building.  Today this building serves as Fire Headquarters for the Smithfield Fire Department.

An artist rendition of the Greenville Fire Station

     To see more historic photos of the Greenville Fire Company, look under the Historic Photos section of this website.  

 

 

Georgiaville Fire Co. By-Laws – 1932

Georgiaville Fire Company By-Laws – November, 1932. 

     The Georgiaville Fire Company was also known as the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Company, District No. 2.

     Click on images to enlarge.

The Great Greenville Conflagration of 1924

By Jim Ignasher

 Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2011

Author’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series of articles.  J.I.  

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Between 1876 and 1924, Greenville’s best defense against fire was this antique hand-pumper affectionately named the “Water Witch”.  It took quite a few men, and a lot of stamina to operate it. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt.)

Between 1876 and 1924, Greenville’s best defense against fire was this antique hand-pumper affectionately named the “Water Witch”. It took quite a few men, and a lot of stamina to operate it. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt.)

It was an intense blaze that broke out on a cold winter’s night in the very heart of Greenville, at an hour when most citizens were snug in their beds. When it was over, two prominent landmarks had been destroyed, six businesses and the post office were gone, and three families were left homeless. Had it not been for the brave efforts of volunteer firefighters, it could have been much worse.

Try to picture the village of Greenville as it looked in the early years of the 20th Century.  There was the town common, somewhat larger than it is today, crowned by the picturesque Baptist Church, and lined with 19th Century buildings that have since been replaced by parking lots, or newer structures.  A barn once stood where the Greenville fire station is today. The famed Waterman Tavern stood just to the right of it, still looking much as it did the day it was built with its frontal portion still intact. Route 44, known then as the Powder Mill Turnpike, was still an unpaved, two-lane road that was periodically sprayed with oil to keep the dust down.  

The old Smithfield Exchange Bank still stands on Route 44 at the intersection of Smith Avenue.  In 1924, the village fire apparatus, consisting primarily of an ancient hand-pumper, was stored in the basement of this building.

Across the street on the corner of Smith Avenue stood the general store of W. A. Battey & Son, formerly occupied by Oscar Tobey. This building also housed the Greenville Post Office, the village lock-up, an upstairs meeting hall, and three apartments.  (Wood Items & More now occupies this site.) 

Next to Battey’s store stood a large wooden building containing five businesses, one being an automobile repair shop belonging to A. Howard Hopkins. Like most of the structures in Greenville at the time, the building was an old one with dry timbers and oiled floors; perfect fuel to feed the beast. It is there that the fire started. 

Shortly before 4 a.m. on January 23, 1924, William Kelley happened to look from the window of his apartment above the old Smithfield Exchange Bank, and saw flames shooting through a window of Hopkins’ Garage.  He quickly made his way to the basement under the bank and activated the fire siren.  Its lonesome wail droned throughout the village calling volunteers from their warm beds into the frosty night air.  As the men left their homes still groggy from sleep, they could smell the smoky haze that was beginning to hang over the village, and knew their slumber had not been disturbed for nothing.  

Kelley and others pulled the antique fire engine from under the bank and maneuvered it across the street. Greenville had no fire hydrants then, and the most obvious source of water, Hopkins Pond directly behind the burning auto garage, was frozen over.  As men swung axes to break through the ice, others dragged a suction hose to the shore.  While the firemen worked furiously to gain access to water, the flames spread to the Wheelwright shop next door, and then to Thornton’s Ice Cream shop, likely traveling unchecked through the building’s common loft.  By the time water was brought to bear the fire was out of control, and the primitive fire apparatus lacked the capability to halt its progress.   

92-year-old Ralph Battey of Greenville recently recalled his memories of the blaze as he watched from his bedroom window.  “My grandfather (Walter A. Battey) called the Providence fire department for help, but they wouldn’t come unless he promised to give them one-hundred dollars!” 

His grandfather agreed to pay, for what choice did he have?  It was clear the fire was going to spread unless more help arrived.  One engine from Johnston came on the scene and took up a position beside the Greenville men. Shortly afterwards, the heat of the flames broke the overhead power lines causing them to fall across Route 44 near the intersection of Pleasant View Avenue.  According to Mr. Battey, when volunteers from Centerdale arrived they refused to go any further due to the downed power lines.  An engine from Providence arrived a short time later, but stopped when they encountered the Centerdale crew.  Radio communications for fire departments were non-existent in that era, and when the telephone lines went down any more calls for assistance became impossible. 

Newspaper accounts relate that firemen did their best to attack the flames and stem their progress, but fire breathes and consumes like a living being, and despite their best efforts the flames broke past all barriers.  Before long the entire building was ablaze, with flames now consuming C. E. Walcott’s blacksmith shop and Keach’s paint shop.  

The flames then jumped to Battey’s general store, igniting the clapboards, and racing across the wood-shingled roof. Before long it too was beyond saving. Those who had been evacuated from the apartments above the store took refuge in St. Thomas Church across the street, but the wind pushed flames and embers towards the church’s roof and bell tower threatening to destroy that building too.

About a thousand feet away on Austin Avenue stood a woolen mill now occupied by Cortland Place assisted living.  The mill had its own fire hydrants, and steam-pressure fire-fighting system.  Hose was laid from the mill to the fire scene where volunteers took up a defensive position on Smith Avenue between the church and general store spraying down the church roof and that of the parsonage behind it to halt the fire’s progress.  Meanwhile, other firefighters continued to attack the flames in what was now a “surround and drown” operation. The fire burned so hot that the icy pond water turned to steam as it hit the flames, sending out tiny water droplets that hung in the air and formed icicles on the firemen’s leather helmets and mustaches. 

 The aftermath of the Greenville fire of January 23, 1924.(Smithfield Fire Dept. Photo)


The aftermath of the Greenville fire of January 23, 1924.(Smithfield Fire Dept. Photo)

It took two more hours to bring the conflagration under control.  When it was over, both buildings were a total loss, but fortunately nobody had been hurt, and St. Thomas Church, although scorched, remained intact. The cause of the fire was never determined.

Fortunately much of the loss was covered by insurance, and new buildings were constructed on the old sites.  Had the fire taken place just two months earlier, Smithfield would have lost more than just buildings, it would have lost a good portion of its history, for up until November of 1923, all of the town’s records, including land deeds, birth, marriage, and death records, had been stored in the general store.

The devastating fire also proved to the citizens of Greenville that it was time to establish a modern fire department.  The old “Water Witch” fire engine dated to the 1860s, and was obsolete even when it was purchased from the City of Pawtucket in 1876.  The following year, a 1924 Reo fire engine was obtained, giving Greenville its first motorized fire apparatus.

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Next in the trilogy: The Rift That Nearly Divided the Town – Again 

Long Lost Local Lore about Lightning

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – August, 2010

Long Lost Local Lore about LightningIt was May 3, 1878, and Daniel Aldrich was tending to his farm on Log Road when he heard the rumble of thunder in the distance, but thought nothing of it.  It was after all, mid-spring, generally not the time to worry about severe electrical storms. The next time he heard it the sound was closer, and he noticed the sky was now visibly darker.  The storm was getting closer, and even before the first drops began to fall, Daniel noted that the air now “smelled” like rain.  Just to be on the safe side, he went into the barn to feed the livestock until the storm passed.

He was hardly inside when the skies opened up and the rain began pelting the roof, but what came next was an experience he would always remember.  There was a blinding flash of light followed by a tremendous clap of thunder that seemed to erupt almost directly overhead, the sound of which seemed to shake the solid oak timbers of the barn.  That was startling enough, but what happened next was even more remarkable.  Almost immediately, several orbs of glowing light came bounding through the door and began dancing about the barn!  Before Daniel could even comprehend and react to what was happening, the orbs abruptly vanished leaving behind the distinctive smell of sulfur, often referred to in the 19th Century as “brimstone”, a sure omen of evil.

The whole ordeal was over in a few seconds, but Daniel and his livestock were left understandably shaken.  Emerging from the barn he could see that the only real casualty of the incident was an ancient Ash tree fifty feet away that had been split into three parts, its bark completely blown away by the bolt of lightning.  Even more intriguing were the three darkened pathways leading away from the tree; one directly to the door of the barn, where the lightning had evidently traveled underground.  

The incident was so unusual that it was reported in the Woonsocket Patriot where the event was described as one of “considerable excitement”. 

What Daniel had apparently witnessed was an extremely rare phenomenon known today as “ball lightning”.  It’s so unusual that some scientists dispute its existence, but it’s likely that if Daniel were around today he would argue the point.

A lightning storm can be fascinating to watch.  We see a flash of light, followed by a tremendous boom, and count off the seconds between the two to roughly determine how far off the storm is.  The spectacular light shows provided courtesy of Mother Nature can be beautiful, yet destructive and deadly, so we observe with reverent care.  Few spectators ever consider how lighting has played a role in the course of history.  

It is believed that early man got his first fire from lightning strikes.  Ancient civilizations thought of thunder and lightning as a sign that the gods were angry, and planned their politics and wars accordingly. 

Benjamin Franklin attempted to scientifically understand the properties of lightning, and the image of him flying a kite in the middle of an electrical storm comes to mind, although experts and historians are divided as to whether that actually happened.  What Franklin did invent was the lightning rod, no doubt responsible for saving many buildings (Some even in Smithfield.) that might otherwise have been destroyed.   

Lightning has even played a role in shaping local history, for it could be said that lightning was responsible for Smithfield obtaining its first fire engine which ultimately led to the formation of the Greenville Fire Company. On the night of June 20, 1870, as a thunderstorm passed over Greenville, lightning struck Whipple & Co. Wheelwright Shop located in the heart of the village on Putnam Pike where a florist shop stands today.  As shouts of “fire” sounded, a bucket brigade was hastily formed, but the flames had gotten a good start and before long a neighboring building was also in flames.  By morning, all that was left were piles of smoldering ruins.

The incident proved the need for better fire protection so a horse drawn hand-pumper, dubbed “The Water Witch”, was purchased shortly afterwards.  The apparatus arrived in Greenville in time for the July 4th celebration that year, and saw continuous service into the early 20th Century no doubt saving lives, livelihoods, and property that otherwise would have been lost.  

It could be argued that Smithfield’s landscape in the 1800s made for a greater potential for lighting strikes to buildings and people.  By the second half of the 19th Century, the land had been cleared of many trees, leaving large tracts of open vistas as wood was harvested for everything from lumber, to heating and cooking.  Although there are instances where buildings were set afire by lightning strikes, a search of town death records reveals that lightning strikes on people were just as rare then as they are today.  Unfortunately, when they did occur, it was with tragic results.

On May 27, 1878, just four weeks after Mr. Aldrich’s hair raising affair, four men arrived at Waterman’s Lake for a day of canoeing and fishing.   It was a beautiful day and the fishing was good.  After awhile, the men rowed ashore to an island in the middle of the lake where they cleaned their catch and built a small fire.  As they were preparing their meal a fast moving storm came over and rain started to fall.  The men weren’t overly concerned, and stayed relatively dry under the pines while waiting for the return of the sun.  Suddenly a bolt of lightning hit the very tree they were sitting under, blasting it apart and tossing the men several feet.  A newspaper account described the men as “mangled” by the strike.  Killed instantly were Daniel Norton, of Smithfield, and William Colvin, of Scituate.  The other two men, Jeremiah Angel, and Daniel’s brother Eugene, were severely injured.  

Even large and sturdy buildings such as textile mills were not immune from the destructive forces of lightning.  On March 21, 1940, Smithfield’s fire and police departments were summoned to the Lister Mill in Stillwater after a bolt of lightning had struck the 180 foot tall smoke stack and completely blasted away the upper two-thirds of the solid brick structure.  Tons of debris came crashing down through the roof smashing equipment, damaging machinery, and injuring three workers.  To make matters worse, the bolt had also set fire to the roof, and the whole structure could have been destroyed had it not been for the quick actions of both workers and firemen in dousing the flames.  Damage was estimated at fifty-thousand dollars, a substantial sum even today, and a remarkable sum for 1940.    

It has been said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, yet the very same chimney had also been hit by lightning two years earlier causing eight-thousand dollars in damage.   

Smithfield has seen its share of lightning strikes, and will no doubt see more in the future.  In recent times lightning has been responsible for the disruption of power and phone service.  A small inconvenience when one considers what else can happen.

 

The Mystery of the Water Witch

By Jim Ignasher

Greenville’s first fire engine, the Water Witch, mysteriously vanished without a trace. Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

Greenville’s first fire engine, the Water Witch, mysteriously vanished without a trace. Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

This is the tale of Greenville’s first fire engine known as the Water Witch, and its unexplained disappearance during World War II.  Rumors and speculation surround the mystery.  Some have claimed she was lost to a scrap drive during the war, while others, in a twist of irony, believe she was destroyed in a barn fire.  Still others have ventured she was sold to a private collector.  And some believe she is still around, hidden away in a neighboring town. Whatever the case, those who know her true fate have refused to tell, while others have continued to search.  Perhaps someone reading this can help solve the mystery.    

It all began with a thunderstorm that swept through Greenville on the night of June 20, 1870, during which lightning set fire to Whipple’s Wheelwright Shop in the heart of the village.   Volunteers formed a bucket brigade, but the flames spread quickly, and before long an adjacent building owned by Barnes & Sprague was also ablaze.  A newspaper report of the incident stated that a man named Martin was badly injured when he fell from a ladder while helping to remove items of value before the flames could consume them.  Both buildings were a complete loss, and only one was partially insured.

Besides being a blow to Greenville’s economy, the blaze made it clear that the village needed something better than bucket brigades in the way of fire protection.  Over the next few days, Martin Mann of Greenville began soliciting donations to purchase a fire engine.  At a special meeting held in the Greenville Baptist Church he announced that he had collected pledges of $366.00 thus far, and urged others to contribute.  Mann had also taken it upon himself to locate fire engines that might be for sale, and after some discussion it was decided that a hand-tub engine belonging to the Dexter Hose Company of Pawtucket would be best suited to the needs of the village.

The fire engine was purchased for $475.00, with additional money spent on hose lines.  It arrived in Greenville on July 4th amidst much fanfare which included a parade, a brass band, and refreshments served on the common. The engine was dubbed the Water Witch, although it’s unclear at this time weather the name was given by those of the Dexter Hose Company, or by the citizens of Greenville. 

The Water Witch was a “hand-tub” that required a team of strong men to operate – at least five men on each side who would operate long pump handles to draw water from a pond or cistern, while other firemen directed hose streams at the flames.  She would arrive at a fire being pulled by a team of horses or men with ropes.  Such apparatus were already obsolete by 1870 with the advent of steam powered fire engines, but still a great improvement over bucket brigades.

It could be said that the arrival of the Water Witch was the beginning of Smithfield’s fire department as we know it today, for it was the first fire engine in what is now Smithfield after the town was divided in 1871.

Historical Society of Smithfield photo

Historical Society of Smithfield photo

Greenville’s fledgling fire company was called “The Rescue Fire Engine Company”, and Andrew B. Whipple was elected the first fire chief. Martin Mann, whose efforts were responsible for obtaining the Water Witch, was elected First Assistant Forman, a title known today as Deputy Chief. 

The Water Witch was first housed in a barn owned by Mrs. Abby Evans, but in 1885 it was re-located to the basement of the National Exchange Bank of Greenville.  This sturdy brick building still stands on Putnam Pike at the intersection of Smith Avenue.   

Thanks to the Water Witch and the men of the Rescue Fire Engine Company, some notable landmarks were saved.  Among them were the Resolved Waterman Tavern, and the Greenville Baptist Church, both of which were hit by lightning, as well as several “historic” homes that still remain standing. The Water Witch served Greenville for many years until motorized fire engines made even “steamers” obsolete. 

Firefighters are a traditional lot, proud of their history, and dedicated to preserving it.  It is for this reason that the men of Greenville decided to keep the historic Water Witch for parades and special functions. 

During the 1920s and ‘30s the Greenville Fire Company (as it came to be called.) began to acquire motor driven fire engines and quickly outgrew their fire station under the bank.  By 1939 the organization had moved into a new fire station on Putnam Pike which is still in use today. Oral history of the Greenville Fire Company states that by the late 1930s storage space for the Water Witch became a concern, but the problem seemed to be solved when members of the Chepachet Fire Company asked to use the vintage fire engine in Glocester’s annual Ancients and Horribles Parade.  The engine was loaned on the condition that Chepachet store it for the time being.  Then the United States was drawn into World War II and the young men of both communities left to serve their country.  It wasn’t until after the war that men from Greenville went to retrieve the Water Witch only to be told that it had disappeared, and nobody seemed to know what happened to it.   

Inquiries were made, but to no avail.  Some said the old fire engine had been discarded to a scrap drive during the war, but it seemed unlikely that Chepachet’s firefighters would have allowed the destruction of such a valuable and historic antique.  For the next twenty-plus years the fate of the Water Witch remained a bone of contention between the two towns. 

Greenville Fire Company - Circa 1900. Priscilla Holt photo

Greenville Fire Company – Circa 1900. Priscilla Holt photo

In 1970, as the Greenville Fire Company made preparations to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, a renewed effort was made to recover the long lost Water Witch.  Information was received from a Chepachet resident that she was hidden in a barn at a Glocester cemetery, and men from Greenville went to investigate.

At first the caretaker reportedly refused to allow anyone to look inside, but later, when permission was granted, all that was found was an old horse-drawn hearse. 

The matter was never resolved, and in later years a rumor circulated that the Witch had been stored in the barn of a “collector”, but the barn had reportedly burned down and the old gal was lost at that time. The exact location and date of this fire is unknown.  Another story surfaced that she was sold to a collector in Coventry who later donated her to a museum, but this was never verified.  

The mystery was brought to light again in a 1987 Providence Journal article titled; “Fire Officials In Two Towns Disagree About Who Owned A Lost Antique Fire Truck”.  According to the article, both Chepachet and Greenville were claiming ownership of the missing fire engine!  Members of the Chepachet Fire Department at that time had been told that it was Greenville firemen who had borrowed the engine from their station and never brought it back, however the Chepachet fire captain who spoke with the reporter acknowledged that he didn’t know if the story was true or not.

The article went on to point out that neither town had records to prove ownership which would seem to leave the matter in legal limbo should the Water Witch ever be found. However, research has uncovered information that seems to support Greenville’s claim.  Newspaper articles from the Woonsocket Patriot, report of the lightning strike to Whipple’s Wheelwright Shop in Greenville, the subsequent purchase of a fire engine, and the formation of “The Rescue Fire Engine Company”.   

Additionally, publisher and historian Laurence J. Sasso Jr. researched and later wrote about the history of the Greenville Fire Company in a 100th anniversary supplement published in The Observer on October 1, 1970.  His extensive article, which spanned twelve pages, included information about the Water Witch that was gleaned from original hand-written Greenville Fire Company records.  

Furthermore, there are at least three different vintage photographs known to exist depicting Greenville firemen posing with the Water Witch in front of the old National Exchange Bank of Greenville.  All three images pre-date World War II. 

Ownership aside, the original question still remains; what happened to the Water Witch?   In recent years the rumors have quieted to a whisper as those with first-hand, and even second-hand knowledge fade away. There are those who believe the Water Witch still exists, perhaps hidden away in a secret location known only to a select few, and it is for this reason that they continue the search. 

The last active search for the missing antique fire engine took place in 2006 when a delegation of aging Greenville volunteers once again tried to solve the riddle.  Unfortunately they were unsuccessful, and while some have since passed away, the mystery lives on.

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