More than 60 years after the city of Madison was founded in 1809, there were three well-established fire departments in the community, but by 1873 the time had come for a fourth.
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1873, a meeting was held to create the Walnut Street Fire Company No. 4, which is 150 years old today.
“Fire companies are formed out of necessity. That’s the whole reason,” said Frank Taff, who owns Fire Hall Museum in the original Walnut Street Firehouse at 808 Walnut Street in downtown Madison. “Out here on North Walnut there were a couple of bad fires and the people in that area decided they wanted to form a company.”
At the time, Taff noted there were several industries in that area including a glue factory and saddle tree factory as well as slaughter houses and tanneries.
There were also several fires including one that took place in early 1873 that significantly pushed forward efforts to create Walnut Street Fire Company.
Butz’s Brewery had been built in the 1860s by John Butz up the hill on the far end Walnut Street. Upon his death the factory was taken over by his widow, Elizabeth, according to the book “Hoosier Beer: Tapping into Indiana Brewing History.” But in January of 1873 the brewery burned to the ground.
A five-part series of articles on the history of Madison’s fire departments detailed the origins of Walnut Street Fire Company in the Jan. 9, 1968 edition of The Madison Courier.
Howard Denton described why the brewery fire so impacted establishment of the No. 4 Fire Department. He wrote that on the way to the fire, the Fair Play Fire Company’s “equipment landed on a stump: in the briar patch” and by the time the situation was cleared the brewery had burned.
That was enough for the residents of North Walnut — losing the supplier of beer was enough to prompt action — and two months later the No. 4 Fire Company was formed.
On Saturday, a special celebration for the 150th anniversary will be held at the No. 4 firehouse, 424 Walnut St., from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be free food and drinks to anyone who attends as well as tours of the original No. 4 firehouse.
Madison enjoys a rich history of fire protection with generations of firefighters each proud of their firefighting heritage. Fair Play Fire Department No. 1, organized Sept. 15, 1841, is the oldest volunteer fire company in Indiana. Washington Fire Company No. 2 was established in Jan. 22 1846 and Western Fire Company No. 3 was established May 23, 1850.
“We are the babies of the downtown units. We are the youngest,” Taff noted.
One year after the No. 4 Fire Company was formed in 1873, a lot was purchased in 1874 at 808 Walnut Street and construction began on a firehouse that is 22 feet wide on a 22 foot wide lot.
The original firehouse was built with a large cupola because they knew they wanted a bell on top of the structure. But the bell that Walnut Street Fire Department ended up getting “would have been considered a musical bell. It was never intended for fire service,” said Taff, but it ended up being used for that.
The bell was a 1,000-pound ornate bronze bell, cast in 1858 by the Buckeye Bell Foundry in Cincinnati and intended for the Hinds family plantation in Plum Ridge in Jefferson County, Mississippi. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War the bell never left Cincinnati. Howell Hinds, wounded in the 1863 Gettysburg campaign, was killed in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1868 while reportedly trying to separate two of his friends engaging in a pistol duel.
Because the bell was never delivered to its intended destination, it was available when Walnut Street Fire Department went looking for a bell in 1874. It was used to sound alarms through 1948 and hung at the original firehouse until 1961. The bell, still owned by the fire company, now hangs on a special cradle at the current station.
With the scope of firefighting changing, the fire company moved to its current location in 1962. Firefighting equipment was taking up more space due to “the size of the apparatus, and the fire trucks were getting bigger and longer,” said Taff. In 2006, an addition was built onto the current firehouse to accommodate the 2007 American LaFrance tower ladder truck that’s currently operated by the No. 4 Fire Company.
The fire company uses a Shamrock as its symbol with two wooden shoes. The Shamrock is due to the fact the fire department was founded on St. Patrick’s Day, and not anything to do with being Irish. In fact, Denton wrote in the Jan. 9 1968 Madison Courier article that early members of the No. 4 Fire Department were predominately German.
Taff noted the wooden shoes have to do with the slaughter houses and tanneries where many of the Walnut Street firefighters worked. They wore the wooden shoes for protective purposes because they worked in “blood and guts and moisture. If they wore their leather shoes while they were working, it would soak up all that blood, guts and become rancid. So, they wore wooden shoes while they were working. When the call of fire came out, and they would respond from their work areas, they would be clunking down the brick street in those wooden shoes, making a lot of noise. So, the towns people referred to the members of Walnut Street as the lads with the wooden shoes.”
In the years since the No. 4 Fire Company moved to its current location, the original firehouse has changed ownership several times. In the 1970s, it served as Republican Headquarters after it was purchased by Charlie Hensler, who was party chairman for many years. Later, one of the owners transformed the fire company’s upstairs meeting room into a two-bedroom residence.
Taff and his wife, Charlotte, purchased the firehouse in 2012, which was provoked by the previous purchase of a hand-drawn Seagrave hook and ladder truck that former Madison Mayor Markt Lance Lytle had used in his election campaigns. After Lytle, who also served as a state representative, decided to get out of politics, he wanted to sell it. “Four of us went together and bought it,” said Taff, who became the caretaker of the truck which ended up living under the carport at his house.
Taff had returned from a fire collectors show in Pennsylvania when he noticed the old Walnut Street firehouse was once again for sale, and he thought it would be a good place for the truck and other firefighting items. “On Monday I called the Realtor and he showed us the building; Tuesday we made an offer and by Wednesday we had been accepted,” he said. With that, Taff had a place to display the firefighting items he’s collected, along with a place to chronologically tell the story of Madison firefighting history that also includes the two hilltop fire companies — North Madison Fire Company No. 5, established in 1952, and Clifty Fire Company No. 6, established in 1969.
Taff said Madison firefighting has a long tradition and the firefighters to protecting the community. In the early part of the 20th century, all four of the downtown fire companies had Ahrens Fox trucks, which Taff said at the time were “the Rolls-Royces of fire engines. They were extremely well built, well engineered. The designs were state-of-the-art, and they were expensive, and the downtown fire companies here in Madison each had an Ahrens Fox. I can’t imagine the cash outlays that the fire companies made to have Ahrens Foxes.”
Before that in the 1860s, when steamers were developed for firefighting, he said there were seven in use by downtown Madison fire companies at “tremendous cost and at outlay. I am always right on the verge of saying, when you look at the history” with the Ahrens Fox trucks, the steam-powered engines, the city’s hydrant system and cisterns in the streets, “all of this was state-of-the-art, and put Madison right at the top of leading in technology, and that I think contributes to why there are still a lot of historic buildings.”
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