One of the earliest volunteer fire companies, and the first fire insurance company, were both set up in the 1750s by Ben Franklin and his friend Dr. Thomas Graeme. Fire companies served a social significance as well as the practical significance. You can see the social aspect of firefighting playing out in the illustration in the center of the image. Three hoses are trained on the burning building, and you can trace those hoses to three different fire departments. They each wear different colored capes: red, black and pale blue, to tell each other apart. Here, the three bands are acting in cooperation, but that wasn’t always the case.
The second illustration will seem familiar if you’ve seen the movie Gangs of New York. The man with the red shirt, stovepipe hat and Paul Bunyan stature sitting on the barrel is Mose. Mose was more of a myth than a man, but he comes out of the Bowery gangs of New York’s east side that are depicted in the popular film. He was also a character in one of the most popular plays of the New York stage. Most of the tough Bowery b’hoys were volunteer firemen, and their companies were their gangs. They would brawl each other for the honor of putting out a fire, often letting a house burn in the process. The barrel in the illustration is interesting. The first person to each fire was assigned the task of guarding the fireplugs. These are plugs in wooden water pipes that firemen would remove to connect their hoses to the main. The gangs in New York would send out a man with an empty barrel to put over the main to guard the plug from rival companies. These goons were called “plug uglies” and that’s very similar to what Mose is doing here.
What does all this as background have to do with Scott County? The earliest Scott County and Minnesota fire departments were just as social organizations as their eastern predecessors, only much less violent. Important citizens were active members of volunteer fire fighting, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere.
What did towns do without a fire company: let a house burn or put it out yourself. Fighting fires was everybody’s business and everybody’s job. As towns expanded and became more dense, the dangers of fire became more serious, and clamor for a fire company grew.
Fighting fires in the 19th century was tricky for several reasons: for one, building materials were easily combustible. While 1870s Scott County was by no means a new settlement, there were enough log houses to make a general conflagration in a city a major disaster. Second, sources of heating were dangerous: gas lights, fires, stoves, candles, all contained the possibility of getting out of control and starting a blaze. Finally, the earliest industries that helped cities grow often contained dangerous possibilities for fires. Lumber industry, flour milling, textiles, etc. In fact, one of Shakopee’s flour mills burned in 1885—a very dangerous fire because of the explosive properties of wheat dust.
In 1872 Shakopee had it’s first big fire at the St. Paul and Sioux City railroad machine shop on east First Avenue. It caused quite a bit of damage to a vital part of the city’s growth and sustenance – the railroad. In 1879, the National Hotel burned, wiping out an entire city block that contained a grocery, several saloons, and a meat market.
1883 is our starting date—that’s when years of agitation for a fire department finally paid off and a fire department was organized with elected members and three companies: Hook & Ladder, Engine (pumper) and Hose Companies. Belle Plaine organzied their company in January of 1883 with great success, however the department would dwindle and disband over the next two years. However, their early success may have inspired Shakopee to organize their company in the fall of 1883.
The Shakopee Fire Department (SFD) has all its original ledger books that record the dates of their earliest meetings, who was present, who was not present and had to pay the absentee fine, and a list of fire calls . This ledger is of the Hook & Ladder Co.—so not the entire department—and in 1884 their budget was $31.80, a tidy sum for that day, though they received a city appropriation for $2,900 for initial equipment purchases.
The department was always a tight social organization. But there was a lot of pomp and entertainment to their events. They held annual Thanksgiving and Christmas balls which were the talk of the town and also helped the department raise money. The Shakopee Argus reported on their first one in 1883: “The first annual ball of the city Fire Department was held last evening and was largely attended and thoroughly enjoyed. The firemen were all dressed in their uniforms and presented a fine appearance in their drill…a thoroughly enjoyable time is the unanimous verdict.”
In America, we don’t talk about class very much. But some of the earliest visitors to our nation when it was young were amazed at the spirit of community and civic duty that cut across class lines. The son of a French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, was one of the most astute observers of early American life, and remarked on how, in towns across the county, people felt the duty and desire to pitch in and steer the direction of their community and nation. This translates down to the Shakopee fire dept., as well. On its rolls, you see that its members were farmers, butchers, lawyers, shop owners, craftsmen and speculators; blue collar and white collar, sometimes both at once. Most of them were immigrants. But they were connected to the growing town and to each other, perhaps by civic duty, by self-interest, or both.
Just as the early town was dependent upon the civic engagement of all its citizens to survive, so were nearby towns dependent upon each other. Fire calls in Shakopee history have often been assisted by companies from other towns. Before Shakopee had its own department, St. Paul was one of the only organized fire departments in fledgling Minnesota. They had men and equipment, like a pumper engine, though it took the department several hours to get here by rail. Jordan and Chaska were also instrumental in fighting Shakopee’s fires, and it works vice versa.
A page from the first ledger of the department shows part of the fire record for 1884. It indicates that barns and railroad shops were the unfortunate recipients of fire for the first half of the year. The Omaha Railroad company shops caught fire twice, and neither fire was ruled accidental but “incendiary.” It also lists J. B. Conter’s hotel barn as catching fire accidentally for a loss of $2. Conter’s hotel was Shakopee’s Pelham hotel, later the Merchant Hotel. The details of early Shakopee society that the ledgers reveal and the services rendered and records kept by the fire dept. are extraordinary.
The first decade of 1900 brought new improvements for Shakopee’s firemen. The city installed new water mains and fire hydrants for a larger and more reliable water supply. Hydrants provided their own pressure, so the use of heavy pumpers was reduced.
In 1916, the SDF aquired its first motorized fire apparatus, a Kissel Chemical Fire Engine. That same year, fire broke out at Ries Bottling works (of which we have the letter). The fire took off because the warehouse that caught fire stored paper, boxes and wooden cases that fed the blaze. Apparently the Kissel did not perform well at that fire. Another large fire took place in 1923 at the Minnesota Stove Co.
A pivotal year for the SFD was 1954/5, the year that they got their new building and moved out of the city building on 2nd and Lewis.
Fires included the McMurray building at 1st and Lewis in 1957, the Shakopee Warehouse in 1962, and the St. Paul House in 1965 which firemen kept at for 16 hours. Simons Lumber Yard burned in 1968, and was at 2nd and Lewis, visible at left of the picture with the fire bell.
1959 had the worst fire that Shakopee has yet seen, not so much for loss of property or extent of the blaze, but for the only loss of life to occur within the department’s history. A fire started at Schesso’s garage, a Chevrolet dealership. The fire was tricky because the fire fed on the gas and oil in and around the cars. The blaze lasted 6 hours, in the course of which, Max Wermerskirchen, a 28 year old fireman, fell through the roof of the building while trying to break out a skylight to ventilate the building. The SDF dedicated a plaque to Max’s memory as the one firefighter to die in the line of duty in Shakopee.
We recommend Caroline Paul’s book Fighting Fire for the women’s side of the occupation. Her book is grizzly in parts, but a very interesting read.
Original article written by Patrick Rodgers, former curator at SCHS.