IF YOU NEVER HEARD the fire bell when it hung in the belfry of the old Lawrence City Hall at 8th and Vermont Streets, you have missed a thrill that you could never forget.
Sixty odd years ago, fires and the spirited fire department horses excited most of the town. When a fire broke out, the bell rang out long and clear, then there would be a short pause, and then a peal for whatever ward the fire was in, then more long ringing. This would then be repeated in case you didn't get the ward number the first time. One ring was for the first ward, two for the second, and so on. No matter what you were doing, meal time or other, when that exciting, magic sound pealed forth, you dropped everything and ran to the corner to watch the horses bolt out and gallop down the street to the fire.
If the fire was in our ward, all the boys and girls in the neighborhood would run to where it was. Sometimes, when the fire was at night, a business man would be awakened by the bell and would listen for the ward number. If it wasn't in his ward, he would go back to sleep. In daytime, if it was in another ward, we would dash to the telephone and ask "Central" where it was. She always obliged by telling you.
The Lawrence Fire Department was first organized around 1875. From about 1878, firemen were housed at the same location they are now, Station No. 1, at 8th and Vermont. The old brick building had been constructed in 1869 to be used as a market. When the firemen moved in, they took the location that had been a meat market.
Early fire fighting equipment consisted of a steam boiler wagon, a reel hose wagon and a hook and ladder cart. There were two horses for the two wagons--the steam boiler and hose wagon went together. In early times when a fire started, it was at first
necessary to run to the fire station and toll the fire bell. This called out the volunteer firemen and also brought either R. Delahunty or Ad Manter with their transfer wagons, who on reaching the building, unhitched their horses and hitched them to the fire carts. "Pony" Davis used his team sometimes to go get the steam engine.
There were no water mains or fire plugs to attach the hose, but the city provided large cisterns at each intersection on Massachusetts Street and one in the middle of each block from the river to 11th Street, making the one farthest south where the A&P Market now stands. Other cisterns, as ex-Fire Chief Paul Ingels recalls, were located at the Union Pacific depot; 11th and Kentucky in the center of the street; and 7th and Louisiana. These cisterns were kept full at all times and the water was hauled in tanks from the river by Milt Hays and Frank Cosley until 1880. Then the Iron Foundry pumped the water from the river as far as Sam Walker's livery stable (believed to have been on the east side of the 600 block on New Hampshire Street), where big tanks were kept full of water for the cisterns. These cisterns were kept available even after we had a "water works".
In our childhood, fire-fighting and the equipment had been improved upon somewhat. There were four beautiful, spirited horses kept at the fire station then. According to ex-Fire Chief Paul Ingels, Rock and Rowdy were on the hose wagon, and Johnnie and George on the ladder wagon. Fire Chief Reinisch drove Frank harnessed to his buggy, which was kept at his tin shop during the day. The name of each horse was above his stall. The horses were kept partly harnessed. There was what was called the "drop harness" system and when the horses were led out to the wagons, the harness would drop into place.
The fire bell and the fire department had about equal fascination. When you walked to town and reached Central Park, you stayed on the north side of the street. First you crossed the street from the park and stopped at Charlie Schultz' blacksmith shop. It was on the northeast corner of 8th and Kentucky. You lingered there to watch Mr. Schultz shoe horses. As he shod the fire department horses too, you sometimes saw Rock or Rowdy getting new shoes. They were our favorites.
After Lawrence had brick paving, in the summer, the fire horses wore rubber shoes so that the impact of shoe on pavement cushioned the horses feet and took the jar off of them. In the winter, the regular steel shoes were put on by Mr. Schultz, so the horses' feet could take hold on icy paving. Sometimes in winter, the sparks flew if they were brought up sharply or in turning a corner fast. Mr. Schultz and his father made the bodies of the hose wagons. He was also a volunteer fireman.
Next door to Mr. Schultz, was the fire station, and you were always hopeful and yet apprehensive that the spring-operated
door would burst open as you were going by, and the horses bolt out. So you scampered across, not wasting any time loitering there. If in summer, the doors were open, you lingered long, looking in and hoping to be invited in to pet the horses. Quite often you were successful. I don't recall an opportunity to climb up on a wagon like youngsters in later years have enjoyed. Anyway, our main interest was in the horses. It was not until 1915 that the Fire Department became entirely motorized.
The fire chief, William Reinisch, fascinated and awed us. He was a volunteer from 1894 until 1920. He owned and operated a tin shop and would drive his galloping horse and buggy to the fire. He believed in the old German idea of discipline and you were always aware that he was running the show. When he would get up on a ladder with a hose, he would reach the top and then in a booming voice, shout: "Turn it on boys." One time when a fire seemed to be gaining headway, some spectator below offered some advice on where to direct the stream of water, and the responses from Mr.Reinisch was: "Who the hell is running this fire anyway?"
In 1929 the morning after the destruction by fire of Fraternal Aid Hall almost across the street from the fire station, Chief Reinisch was standing outdoors supervising the men who were laying the hose on the street to dry it out. A good friend, reportedly Will Johns, came along and they were both viewing the remains of the building with regret, when Johns said teasingly: "And right across the street from the fire station too."
The powerful expostulations of Reinisch could be heard for some distance.
In 1920, city officials hired Mr. Reinisch to devote his full time in the service and he served the city well until he retired in 1932, when Paul Ingels replaced him.
The fire bell didn't ring just for fires. It served many other exciting and important purposes. It was a means of communication to the Lawrence citizens. In 1903 when North Lawrence residents were threatened by the Kaw River flood, the bell rang out one midnight to summon the men in south Lawrence to come to the river front and man launches and row boats to help evacuate the people in North Lawrence who were trapped by the rising water.
One time, the fire bell was rung to call out volunteer searchers for a little five-year-old boy who had wandered too far from home. When World War I was declared, the bell tolled, and when the armistice was signed, it rang out joyously and the people of Lawrence flocked to Massachusetts Street to celebrate. The bell brought out many when the old Wind-Mill on Warren Street burned, and for the destructive fire at the old Bowersock Theatre across from the Lawrence National Bank, that had been Liberty Hall, one of Lawrence's earliest buildings.
As Lawrence spread out, a louder and more penetrating noise seemed needed, and the "Wild Cat" whistle was installed at the water works. When there was a fire, it was blown to inform the fire fighters that there was plenty of water pressure and also to arouse the town.
There were lighter moments for the firemen, too. They had their social times. About 1910, they started having New Year's dinner the station and the wives cooked the meal. At first, they invited only a handful of "special" guests -- merchants on the "street" who were special friends, and always a minister. The dinners grew in popularity until finally representatives of city offices and prominent firms were invited. There were two dinners, one at noon for the "outsiders", and one at night for the firemen and their wives.
In the days of prohibition, somehow the plum pudding always had "plum" to pour over it, and there was a little left aver for "cheer" for the diners. Mrs. Reinisch always made a huge fruit cake. In later years, Wagstaff's always furnished the whipping cream and Simon Hurwitz of the Lawrence Sanitary furnished the ice cream. The turkeys were raised by Graebers and then the Jackman family.
For many years, the firemen repaired children's broken toys in their spare time at the station, to be given away at Christmas time Then there was a Firemen's Ball, at Fraternal Aid Hall (Standard Life building now). This was for a benefit fund. A fire which gutted the hall, ended that.
No doubt, children today get as excited hearing a siren and seeing the huge trucks come racing down the street, but they would have to jump on their motor bikes or in cars to be able to follow to see where the fire was.
The old bell? It remains muted and silent up on top of the tower at the 8th and Vermont Street station.
Printed in Lawrence Journal-World -- June 27, 1966.