A window into the past

After the great fire in 1866 that wiped out much of the Portland Peninsula, the people of the greater Portland area were rightly concerned about preventing future disasters. It was a regular topic of discussion in southern Portland (then known as Cape Elizabeth) and the public water and fire safety debate got really hot in the early 1890s.

The desire for fire safety was not only a factor in the later division of the city (the southern part split off into a new town), but also prompted residents of the northern villages of Cape Elizabeth to set up their own voluntary hose companies.

In the historic photo shown here, Clint Twitchell is sitting in his van, letting his horse have a drink at the horse fountain on Preble Street. The building on the far left is the original Willard Hose Company fire station. Photo by the South Portland Historical Society

After the northern residents of the city had already won the battle for public water, hydrants were installed from 1892. When the hydrants arrived, residents of the northern villages / neighborhoods began discussing setting up their own hose companies.

Ferry Village residents began circulating petitions in the summer of 1892, followed by Willard residents in September. Ferry Village was the first to officially set up its hose company – it was originally founded as the No. 1 Volunteer Hose Company on September 21, 1892.

They would later change the name to No. 1 South Portland Hose and Ladder Co.

In September 1892 a group of men, led by the grocer Willis F. Strout, met in Willard to discuss starting their own company. On October 1, 1892, they founded the second hose company in Cape Elizabeth and named it Willard Hose Company No. 2.

The founding members of the company were Albus R. Angell, Charles A. Cobb, George F. Cobb, Charles E. Hatch, Edward S. Hatch, Sumner P. Loveitt, Joseph Martin, Albert Smith, William H. Smith, Charles W. Strout , Willis F. Strout, William H. White, Edward R. Wiley, Charles F. Willard, Charles W. Willard, and Sherman Willard.

They chose Willis Strout as their first captain and he served as their captain until 1920.

Of course, at a time when there was no town fire department, one of the reasons for starting a hose company was for the community to get together and buy fire protection equipment, which at the time was things like hoses, nozzles, hydrant keys, buckets, ladders, protective gear, and some sort of cart or cart to carry equipment.

The men of the Willard Hose Company immediately planned to build a building for the equipment. Enoch Pillsbury, who owned the property on Preble Street and Thompson Street, offered to borrow part of the property on his property along Preble Street. The company immediately began building the hose house on November 7, 1892 and completed the building in a short time. On February 4, 1893, the company acquired its first 500-foot fire hose, which they assembled on a hand-drawn roll.

For comparison, this photo was taken from roughly the same location this week. The original hose company would have been on the left. Though later built, the Bathras Market Building is located at 412 Preble St. (not shown on the right in this photo) roughly across from the original hose house. Photo by the South Portland Historical Society

The Willard Hose Company responded to their first call on May 7, 1893. The damage was minimal but gave the company the opportunity to learn some skills. On October 4, 1893, the calling company spent $ 60 and bought a nearly £ 300 bell that they installed on the hose house to raise the alarm for the community in the event of a fire.

The first really big fire the Willard Hose Company responded to was the March 1894 fire in Knightville – it started in the stable of the Matthews Grain Store, killed two horses, and burned the building down before spreading to the Oasis Hall next door on E Street.

The oasis hall had been used by many secret societies and when the fire broke out there were members of the Red Men in the building. According to reports, they were lucky enough to get out of the hall before that building was also consumed and destroyed. The massive fire threatened neighboring homes and businesses, as well as the E Street School next door, but the response from the various fire fighting companies was enough to take control of the fire and put it out before it did any major damage.

As the company acquired more hose, they replaced the hand-drawn reel with a hose cart, a horse-drawn cart. While they could use every available horse, Clint Twitchell’s horse was often used as he lived directly across from the hose house. In a story passed down over the years, Clint Twitchell’s horse allegedly died on the way to a fire in Ferry Village, and members of the company simply carried on by grabbing the cart and dragging it to the fire themselves.

The members of the newly founded Willard Hose Company built their hose house in a short time in 1892. Photo by the South Portland Historical Society

Eventually, motorized vehicles began to replace horse-drawn carts. The Willard Hose Company’s first such vehicle was an incomparable seven-passenger car that was converted into a hose wagon.

We’ll continue next week with more information on the Willard Hose Company and its first captain, Willis F. Strout.

Note to readers: South Portland still has two volunteer calling companies, one in the Willard neighborhood and one in Thornton Heights, and both of them need people. The city is offering some compensation so these are now considered paid / standby positions. The city of South Portland also provides the necessary equipment and training. If this sounds interesting, contact Capt. Phil Viola for more information at 749-5703 or email at [email protected]

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is the executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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