History of the Pepperell Fire Department
This information is taken from materials at the library and the Fire Department. If you have any additions or corrections, please send them to the Fire Department webmaster.
In 1831, the first fire apparatus was purchased when "money was raised by private subscription to buy two hand tubs," according to a newspaper article at the time. Engine No. 1 was named the "Water Witch" and was kept in the East Village. The other hand tub was housed in the center, and was destroyed by fire when Dr. Cutter's Insane Retreat on Park Street burned in May of 1853.
Fires plagued Pepperell's mills in the 1800's. For example, in 1872, a paper mill built in 1866 burned. It was rebuilt — and burned again in 1884. And Samuel Davis had a mill that manufactured cotton batting; it also burned down twice and was rebuilt twice.Main Street bridge, 1886
In 1859 the first fire company was formed by a group of citizens who drew up bylaws and elected officers. This department fought its first fire at the Luther Tarbell, Jr. building which housed a store run by Mr. Tarbell and a hotel run by Henry Adams. This building was located on Heald street opposite the Second Parish Meeting House (where the Community Church now stands). The church was soon engulfed in flames as well.
Town meeting also voted that year to build an engine house on the corner of Main and Foster Streets for a cost not to exceed $400. The building was completed in 1860. This building burned and was rebuilt three times, the last time after the great fire of 1903.
In 1873 some of the firemen left the fire company and bought their own apparatus - Union No. 2. In 1878 the town bought Union No. 2. In 1880, the town bought another used Button and Blake hand tub, which they named Pepperell 1.Pepperell No 1, date unknown
In 1885 a hook and ladder truck was privately purchased; it was sold to the town in 1889. The town also replaced the original Engine No. 1.Ladder Truck, date unknown
By this time there were over 100 firemen appointed to the department, led by Chief Engineer Warren M. Blood, who had been a Boston firefighter and helped fight the great Boston fire in 1872.
1889 also saw a major fire on the north side of Main St., which burned a department store, D.E. Weston's tinsmith shop, Leighton's Shoe Shop, and several other buildings. In 1893 a fire alarm system was installed.
In 1891, a third class Amoskeag engine (steamer) from the Manchester Locomotive Works was purchased. In 1902, this steamer was involved in a terrible accident. This account is from The Pepperell Advertiser:
The people of Pepperell and vicinity were greatly shocked, Saturday evening, Feb. 8, by an accident so unusual and so appalling as to strike awe to even the bravest. Steamer 1 and the two large sorrel horses, together with the driver, had plunged into the canal of the Nashua River Paper Company, while answering an alarm for fire. The terrible accident was witnessed by about a score of people.
The engineer, Charles H. Harris and Fireman Arthur L. Ripley jumped from the engine before it went over. The driver, Arthur Gebhart, was fished out of the river downstream; he was uninjured. Tragically, one horse died immediately, the other had to be shot after a valient effort to free it from its harness failed. The engine was recovered from the canal the next day, and repaired.
The people of Pepperell were very attached to the horses, especially the firefighters, who had the horses buried on Lowell Street. Mrs. Louise Berg wrote a letter to Lyman Robbins in 1970 in which she described the “beautiful pair of fire horses…everybody felt deeply sorry for the horses being drowned”.
The fire they were going to was in the rear of Dr. W. J. McNiff's office, which was over the Railroad Square drug store. The very small fire was extinguished by a bucket brigade, leaving only minor damage to the building and the loss of a few of Dr. McNiff's surgical instruments.
A happier event was the first Union Engine Company Concert & Ball, held in 1899 at “Tarbell's New Opera House” in East Pepperell. It featured music by the Harry E. Brigham Orchestra, whose concert included both Bach's Jubilee Overture and a xylophone solo. There was a catered supper of oysters, turkey and ham, as well as “Small Fancy Cakes” and “All kinds of Ice Cream”.Front of the program for the Firemen's Ball
Dancing was evidently a serious business, as the program lists a Floor Director and Assistant Floor Director, as well as six "aids". There were 24 dances on the program, including waltzes, quadrilles, polkas, and something called “Portland Fancy”.
1903 saw perhaps the worst catastrophe in Pepperell history, when a huge fire gutted much of Pepperell center. More than twenty buildings were lost, including the fire house and what was said to be the largest shoe factory in the world. From a local paper:
The flames were first noticed at about 12:50 a.m. darting for the windows of the upper floors of a five-story [other accounts say three story] shoe factory which was located back of the… fire station in Foster street. A heavy hot-air explosion quickly followed, and the building was soon a huse sheet of fire. A brisk wind unfortunately was blowing; and the fire was taken across Main street. It spread to Saunder's Corner department store as Steamer and Engine No. 1 laid lines of hose. Over to Cottage street swept the flames, then to Mill street, where houses were burned to the ground. Buidings in Canal street soon caught, then Kemp's large three-story block in Foster street, and the engine house itself. Assistance came from as far away as Nashua, and the sparks carried to houses a mile away.
Various accounts list some of the buildings and businesses lost:
The fire department itself lost all of the equipment that remained in the fire house, which was gutted. The tower and parts of the walls survived the fire and the station was rebuilt.