Left to right: Portsmouth Kearsarge hose reel with 1883 baseball team, the 1938 Seagrave Fire Engine, and photo of Portsmouth Fire Department battling a fire at a building adjacent to the Piscataqua Savings Bank.
In 2023, Portsmouth NH celebrates its 400th anniversary and the proud history of the Portsmouth Fire Departmentt, from volunteers in the 1700s to the professional firefights of today's Department.
In honor of the City's anniversary. the Portsmouth Fire Department, the Federal Fire Society and the Mechanic Fire Society are hosting three open house events to showcase that history through artifacts, early fire engines, photographs and informal talks at the Central Fire Station on Court Street. The open houses occur on:
- Sunday, May 7, 12-4 pm
- Saturday, June 3, 1-5 pm
- Saturday, July 29, 11 am - 3 pm
The Department and Societies have combed their respective collections as well as the collections of other community organizations, including Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth Athenaeum and Portsmouth Historical Society, to assemble an exhibit with articles reflecting the rich history of firefighting in Portsmouth for more than two centuries.
Included in the exhibit at each open house will be:
- The fully-restored 1870 Kearsarge Steam Fire Engine No. 3 which served the City of Portsmouth during the late 1800s and early 1900s
- 1872 Eureka No. 1 hand pump Fire Engine, formerly owned and used by the Franklin Pierce Veteran Firemen's Association at fire musters between 1909 and 1962 (courtesy of the Creek Athletic Club)
- Weather permitting, the restored 1938 Seagrave Fire Engine that served the City of Portsmouth during the mid-twentieth century (from a private collection)
- A display of firefighting equipment, clothing, and memorabilia from the Department’s collection, including an early Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph machine used to send and receive fire alarm messages
- A display of memorabilia and collectibles from the collections of the Federal and Mechanic Fire Societies and their members, including a series of menus from the annual meetings of the fire societies spanning more than 120 years
- A display of current and historic leather fire buckets from both fire societies and other Portsmouth historical organizations
- An exhibit of more than two dozen enlarged historic photographs relating to the history of firefighting in Portsmouth from the collection of the Portsmouth Athenaeum
In addition, each open house will include one or more talks, demonstrations or opportunities for Q&A.
Sunday, May 7, 2023, 12-4 pm (ProPortsmouth Children's Day)
1 pm 1870 Kearsarge Steam Fire Engine No. 3: Its History, Return to Portsmouth and Restoration, a talk by Christopher J. LeClaire, former Fire Chief of Portsmouth Fire Department
1:45 pm Fire Safety and Prevention, a talk by a member of the Portsmouth Fire Department Fire Prevention Staff
2:30 pm The History and Role of Fire Societies in Portsmouth, a talk by Alan M. Robinson, current member of Mechanic Fire Society.
3:15 pm 1938 Seagrave Combination Fire Engine No. 3: Its History in Portsmouth and Restoration – A Family Affair, a talk by Joe Horvath, current owner.
Ongoing: The Forgotten Art of Making Traditional Leather Fire Buckets, a demonstration by Andrew Arsenault and Peter Lamb, current member of Federal Fire Society
Saturday, June 3, 2023, 1-5 pm (Portsmouth NH 400 Grand Parade Day)
2 pm 1870 Kearsarge Steam Fire Engine No. 3: Its History, Return to Portsmouth and Restoration, a talk by Christopher J. LeClaire, former Fire Chief of Portsmouth Fire Department
3 pm 1938 Seagrave Combination Fire Engine No. 3: Its History in Portsmouth and Restoration - A Family Affair, a talk by Joe Horvath, current owner.
4 pm The History and Role of Fire Societies in Portsmouth, a talk by Alan M. Robinson, current member of Mechanic Fire Society
Ongoing; The Forgotten Art of Making Traditional Leather Fire Buckets, a demonstration by Andrew Arsenault and Peter Lamb, current member of Federal Fire Society
Saturday, July 29, 2023, 11 am - 3 pm (Sail Portsmouth "Tall Ships Weekend")
12 pm 1870 Kearsarge Steam Fire Engine No. 3: Its History, Return to Portsmouth and Restoration, a talk by Christopher J. LeClaire, former Fire Chief of Portsmouth Fire Department
1 pm Fire Safety and Prevention, a talk by a member of the Portsmouth Fire Department Fire Prevention Staff
2 pm The History and Role of Fire Societies in Portsmouth, a talk by Alan M. Robinson, current member of Mechanic Fire Society
Left: 1870 Portsmouth Fire Dept. Kearsarge pumper. Center: Mechanic Fire Society leather fire bucket once owned by Leonard Cotton (Strawbery Banke Museum, image David J. Murray/ClearEyePhoto.com). Right: Kearsarge after the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
Historical Background on Fire Societies in Portsmouth
Fires have plagued humanity from time immemorial. In turn, societies have been ever creative in developing technologies and organizing themselves to prevent and contain fires and the losses they occasion. In New England of the 18th century, these efforts took the form of fire societies. An early form of a mutual aid association, a fire society was a group of friends and neighbors in a community who banded together with the dedicated purpose of rallying to the aid of a fellow member who needed help in time of fire. If a member’s home caught fire, the other members would rush to the scene to help contain the blaze.
The first fire society in America was established in Boston in 1717. There were six fraternal fire societies in Portsmouth, according to historian Joyce Volk in her article "Going to Blazes." The United Fire Society was established in 1761 and the Friendly Fire Society followed a year later, with the Federal Fire Society launched in 1789. Then came the Humane Fire Society (1796), the Mechanic Fire Society (1811) and Alert Fire Society (1814). With the advent of professional firefighters, improved equipment, and a municipal fire department in the mid-1800’s, fire societies became obsolete and all but two of them eventually disbanded. The Federal and Mechanic societies became social clubs and continue to exist to this day.
There is sometimes confusion about the purpose of the leather buckets. Portsmouth fought fires with leather buckets filled with water and passed hand-to-hand from ponds and wells to the fire or to a hand-operated pumper.
Contrary to popular belief, the primary purpose of Portsmouth’s fire societies was not the extinguishment of fires. Rather, each early fire society was created to protect the personal property and valuables of its own members from theft as well as destruction, and each knew where the others' valuables were kept so that they could help rescue them if a home was burning and carry them out in the large fabric bags, that they were also required to have at the ready, to a secure location where they could be guarded by other society members from looters. For instance, the bylaws of the Friendly Fire Society state that it was established:
For the reciprocal advantage of its members in the preservation of their interests, when visited by the distressing calamity, FIRE, that on such melancholy occasions their property might be secured, as well from Abandoned Thieves, as from the devouring flame.
Membership in a fire society was strictly limited in number (25 was typical) and by invitation only. Members were required to keep two fire buckets, painted with the society’s logo and the member’s name, two large cloth bags, likewise marked, and a bed-key capable of disassembling a four-poster bed. These items were to be kept in a conspicuous space in a member’s home and were subject to unannounced inspections. In addition to responding to all fires in other members’ homes, each member was required to attend quarterly meetings.
The failure of any member to strictly comply with any of these requirements typically resulted in a fine. As historian J. Dennis Robinson reported, "Federal Fire Society members were required to bring two buckets and respond quickly to the ringing of an alarm bell. Afterwards, buckets were collected and returned to their owners. Anyone whose name was not on the bucket list faced a stiff fine. Members were fined 20 cents for missing a quarterly meeting or 50 cents for not having their fire-fighting supplies in order. They were fined for revealing the group’s secret password or for failing to maintain fire safety at home and at work. Besides two painted buckets, society members were required to show up at fires with two sturdy bags able to hold four bushels-worth of items. Using a secret password, society members entered the threatened home and scooped up the valuables including books, clothes, and linens, and brought them to the street where they were guarded by other group members, and ultimately returned."
As noted by John D. Cushing, a researcher from Old Sturbridge Village studying Portsmouth’s fire societies in 1958, "The societies of Portsmouth were usually composed of the more prominent citizens. They always included some of the higher-ranking officers from the Navy Yard, and frequently counted the foreign diplomats [e.g., Monsieur Le Marois Consul de France à Portsmouth] among their numbers. Judges, attorneys, merchants, physicians, ministers, and “gentlemen” made up the rolls."
The Federal Fire Society’s (FFS) collection, including two fire buckets like the one pictured above that were made for downtown merchant, John Sheafe around 1822, is housed at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Society records, intact and complete since 1789, are kept in a large “treasure chest-like trunk.” Besides the Sheafe buckets, the FFS collection also includes an ancient punch bowl, a silver “loving cup,” the original society banner, and a Civil War-era flag, measuring roughly 14 by 20 feet painted with the phrase “Patriotism not Party.”
The Mechanic Fire Society (MFS) also maintains its records at the Portsmouth Athenaeum including minutes, photographs, songbooks, menus and invitations to quarterly meetings. In March 2018, MFS published its second version of the Biographical Roster of Members, a hard cover book of biographies for every member to date since its founding in 1811. This hard cover book also includes the history and traditions of the Society and firefighting in Portsmouth. Original MFS buckets for member Leonard Cotton date back to 1831 and are hanging in the Clark House at Strawbery Banke Museum.
Both the Federal Fire Society and the Mechanic Fire Society continue to meet to this day although their “firefighting” roles have long since disappeared. Their membership is still limited (30 for Mechanic and 35 for Federal) and by invitation only. As social clubs, their “duties” are now largely limited to attending dinners (semi-annually for Federal and quarterly for Mechanic) for the convivial exchange of ideas and the sharing of stories as well as carrying on the lore and traditions of early firefighting in Portsmouth. Most Federal and Mechanic members have a handmade reproduction leather bucket artistically painted in the same fashion as the originals.
The Portsmouth Fire Department Open Houses are made possible by the collaboration of the department and fire societies with the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the Portsmouth Historical Society and Strawbery Banke Museum and the generous in-kind support of JSA Design of Portsmouth.