Day of the Fabulous Fire Horse

Prancing Steeds Triggered Excitement in Many an N.C. Town

Charlotte Observer, June 12, 1966

By Thad Stem Jr.

...What was it like? Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen. It was a flash of lightning and the sound of fiery hooves that would make the Lone Ranger and Silver resemble Darling Nelly Gray on a merry-go-round. It was two full-chested studs, straight from the hallowed foal at Camelot, immortalizing grubby paving stones with magic anvils called shoes, and making Batman Robin resemble two spavined grasshoppers. For, i was the fire wagon thundering down Elm Street, drawn by two such heaven-born princes as Traeller and Little Sorrel, and from the way the townspeople were all galvanized into one big volatile goose-pimple, that old fire alarm bell might just as well have been tolling the last great judgment day in naked human drama...

The early reels were pulled by hand, and the fire horse had been in use for about 60 years when, along about 1915, motorized fire equipment came to Eastern Carolina. Indeed, the fabulous fire horse was the first work horse to be vanquished by the motor. Drays, ice wagons, grocery carts, express wagons and freight wagons lingered on a while.

While there was also keen attachment to the policeman's horse, the cavalryman's mount and the cab horse, the fire horse was part and parcel of every town's fence-rattling excitement. When the fire bell rang, everyone crowded the street, windows, porches and lawns to see a race that had thrills never dreamed of by Ben Hur. The fire wagon was an unchained comment, and the [several words unreadable] Jehu in brilliant red suspenders.

The volunteer fireman, charging from work to catch the high-balling wagon, was as dexterous as any human-fly. (The volunteer who happened to be getting a shave raced out from the barber shop, throwing the apron as a gauntlet, and when he skittered precariously to the rear platform, or running-board, he left a trail of lather to match the foam exuded by the pounding horses.) And surely those hooves plunging along the cobblestones, striking sparks all the way, filled the day with wild Wagnerian music.

No particular breed of horse was ever recommended. A fire horse had to be strong and fast, excessively dependable but never phlegmatic. Most Eastern Carolina towns had two horses for a wagon. Earlier one horse pulled a hose-cart when water was pumped from cisterns and wells, with the advent of the hydrant, the larger wagon came into use, and the second horse was added.

The towns in Eastern Carolina owned their fire horses, but some big cities hired the horses from job-masters. (In [missing several words] horses for 500 pieces of equipment, rented for $350 year, each. The job-master furnished straw and fodder.) The average Eastern Carolina town had one wagon, two horses, and a reel that could be attached. But some of the bigger places, such as Raleigh and New Bern, had three pieces of equipment per station: a hose wagon, a hook and ladder, and a huge steam engine, the pumper of the pre-gasoline era. The steam engine's boiler always had hot water. A pip ran through the floor of the fire station to a stove in the basement. A firebox under the boiler was always loaded with kindling. A match was put to it when the alarm sounded.

The horses were housed in the station. When the alarm bell rang, there was a cord attached to the telephone box. The fireman pulled the cord as he took the message from the telephone central. This released the chain-gate to the stalls and the horses backed under the harness which was suspended in air above the wagon tongue. The harness dropped, with a yanked, automatically, and the horses were ready to charge except for the snapping of the buckles. (In many smaller places, the paid driver opened the chain to the stall. The horse collar, split, with the hames on it, dropped over the neck, rather than the normal upside down horse collar. The bridle stayed on, save for the bit, which was put to it in a second. The traces were fastened to the double-trees, and the lines were through the harness rings.)

Fast Operation

The entire operation, with or without the telephone cord, took 10 seconds, or less. In cities, where the firemen slept upstairs, and where the 'phone-cord was used, the horses were ready to go, save for snapping the buckles, by the time the fireman slid down the pole. Many experts say, the old wagon was hitched and ready to roll by the time it now takes to step on the starter of a truck. And, of course, there was never any mechanical trouble with horses.

Once outside the doors of the fire station, the horses not only pulled the wagon with breakneck speed but actually ran the operation, too. In addition to strength, speed and stamina, the fire horse had to use the finesse of the coach horse. For, few streets were uniformly level, and many corners were short and mean. One of those heavy steam engines could push an ordinary, unwary horse down any incline. So, the fire horse was a four-legged topographical engineer. He knew all the nuances of the contours. He mastered all the tricks that enabled him to swing dangerous corners and not lose speed, and he knew how to arrest the force of a heavy engine on a downgrade.

Some of the big city horses had some prior training from job-masters, but almost all the local ones were trained on the job. It was a common practice to keep the horses alert with a test alarm each morning and each afternoon. At the first dingle, the horse was alert but self-discipline obviated nervous anxiety. He was ready. He was fired up, and n known force could contain him in his stall once the bell sounded. But unlike other horses, he didn't throw any emotional shoes.

If a building was burning, the horses' work was done until after the fire. Their job was to get the equipment there, with all haste. If a fire occurred during winter, the horses were led to the nearest stable. During fair weather, they were led around a corner, away from the fire. Virtually all of the fire horses were "rough-shod." Cleats were put on the fronts of their shoes, the year around, to insure safe footing, and during the winter spikes were put on the back [ missing several words ].

Aware of Importance

Although the record doesn't reveal that any permanent fire horses, any real pros, ever emulated the prima donna on the job, most of them were abundantly aware of their importance, of the singular and specialized nature of their employment. Almost instinctively they seemed to know that they were different from wagon horses, cab horses, street car horses and ice horses.

For even the most sophisticated man stopped to watch, to admire, and to applaud the prancing fire horses. He was proud his taxes helped to pay for their maintenance. And when a small boy, on exceptionally rare occasions, was permitted to feed a fire horse a lump of sugar, the kid knew he had received the supreme accolade. The horse knew it too.

Actually, the rapport between the individual citizen and his local government probably attained its apogee in the era of the fire horse. The horse was the antithesis of political abstraction. He was never a campaign promise. No, he was flesh, blood and [ several missing words ] all could see. If a stranger heard townspeople talking about a fire horse, talking so eloquently about Old Joe, or Pete, or Old Bess, he would surely think these conversations attached to some cherished personal friend.

There was one contention from which there was never any demurrer: The local horses were, invariably, and beyond any refutation, the smartest, fastest and bravest animals in history. There was never a day when a local fire horses couldn't have been elected sheriff, if he had a place to tote a pistol.

And retired fire horses, unlike old soldiers, never faded away. Many cities kept the horses as pets, as honorary citizens, on pensions of hay, oats, shelled corn and molasses feed. The small town horse was accorded the veneration of the "cotehize" bell, even when his former employer couldn't afford any retirement benefits.

For instance, I was once enchantingly acquainted with Big Sam, one of the two ex-fire horses in my home town, Oxford. The fire truck came, if barely, before I was born, but Big Sam was given a cushy berth, a veritable sinecure, by the late Robert G. Lassiter, a paving contractor, when Big Sam was cruelly preempted by American LaFrance. (There were two local horses. Big Sam was named for the fire chief, the late Sam E. Wheeler, a gallant sheriff who lost his job because he succeeded in protecting a murderer from a lynch mob. The other horse was Mamie, named for the late Mamie Cannady Britt, wife of Capt Wade Hampton Britt, the former of the fire company, a newspaperman and a Spanish-American soldier.

Big Sam stood around Mr. Lassiter's lot and the towns horses gathered around it [ missing words ] Big Sam were Zeb [ missing several words ] Lee Meadows, the great Tar Heel picther. (Mamie was already dead, of a broken heart, doubtlessly.) When Big Sam's turn came it was the biggest local wake since Appomattox. While no one actually took any friend chicken or boiled custard, when they paid their respects, there were almost as many flowers as there were on May 10, Confederate Memorial Day. The unanimous feeling was that the community had lost a distinguished citizen, that every individual had lost a beloved personal friend.

[ Photo of fire horses and equipment ]

A 1910 photo of New Bern Fire Department's steamers and hose wagons

[ Photo of horse head ]

Fred, New Bern Fire Department's last fire hose, pulled the Atlantic company's hose wagons for about 17 years. This fast horse- said to have known the location of the most frequently used fire boxes-- fell dead answering a false alarm in 1925. Mounted horse's head may be seen at Firemen's Museum.

[ Photo of fire horses and wagons ]

Hired horses were used for parade at New Bern in 1938

All photos courtesy of New Bern Firemen's Museum

This essay by Oxford poet, author, and newspaper columnist Thad Stem Jr. (1916-1980) appeared in the Charlotte Observer, June 12, 1966. Reprinted without permission. Copyright likely held by Charlotte Observer and/or descendants of Stem.


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