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Fires plagued Pepperell's mills in the 1800's. For example, in 1872, a paper mill built in 1866 burned. It was rebuilt — and burned again in 1884. And Samuel Davis had a mill that manufactured cotton batting; it also burned down twice and was rebuilt twice.
In 1859 the first fire company was formed by a group of citizens who drew up bylaws and elected officers. This department fought its first fire at the Luther Tarbell, Jr. building which housed a store run by Mr. Tarbell and a hotel run by Henry Adams. This building was located on Heald street opposite the Second Parish Meeting House (where the Community Church now stands). The church was soon engulfed in flames as well.
Town meeting also voted that year to build an engine house on the corner of Main and Foster Streets for a cost not to exceed $400. The building was completed in 1860. This building burned and was rebuilt three times, the last time after the great fire of 1903.
In 1873 some of the firemen left the fire company and bought their own apparatus - Union No. 2. In 1878 the town bought Union No. 2. In 1880, the town bought another used Button and Blake hand tub, which they named Pepperell 1.
In 1885 a hook and ladder truck was privately purchased; it was sold to the town in 1889. The town also replaced the original Engine No. 1.
By this time there were over 100 firemen appointed to the department, led by Chief Engineer Warren M. Blood, who had been a Boston firefighter and helped fight the great Boston fire in 1872.
1889 also saw a major fire on the north side of Main St., which burned a department store, D.E. Weston's tinsmith shop, Leighton's Shoe Shop, and several other buildings. In 1893 a fire alarm system was installed.
In 1891, a third class Amoskeag engine (steamer) from the Manchester Locomotive Works was purchased. In 1902, this steamer was involved in a terrible accident. This account is from The Pepperell Advertiser:
The people of Pepperell and vicinity were greatly shocked, Saturday evening, Feb. 8, by an accident so unusual and so appalling as to strike awe to even the bravest. Steamer 1 and the two large sorrel horses, together with the driver, had plunged into the canal of the Nashua River Paper Company, while answering an alarm for fire. The terrible accident was witnessed by about a score of people.
The steamer with its blazing fire and smoke pouring from the smoke stack. The two handsome large horses, full of life and vim, dashing along with a sense of duty. The driver, engineer and fireman with every nerve bent on their tasks. Thus did the apparatus pass swiftly along Main street, and down Mill hill, to the bridge. On the hill the heavy engine slewed on the icy ground. Suddenly there was a crash, a thud and a splash. The entire apparatus had gone over the embankment of the canal, smashing the light fence which proved no barrier, and landed in several feet of water, 13 feet below the road bed.
Those who were near instinctively ran to the edge of the canal, and were awe stricken. The deep dark hole was as still as death, save the the ripple of the water and faint spashes. Every light had been extinguished and the apparatus disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened and closed after it."
The engineer, Charles H. Harris and Fireman Arthur L. Ripley jumped from the engine before it went over. The driver, Arthur Gebhart, was fished out of the river downstream; he was uninjured. Tragically, one horse died immediately, the other had to be shot after a valient effort to free it from its harness failed. The engine was recovered from the canal the next day, and repaired.
The people of Pepperell were very attached to the horses, especially the firefighters, who had the horses buried on Lowell Street. Mrs. Louise Berg wrote a letter to Lyman Robbins in 1970 in which she described the “beautiful pair of fire horses…everybody felt deeply sorry for the horses being drowned”.
The fire they were going to was in the rear of Dr. W. J. McNiff's office, which was over the Railroad Square drug store. The very small fire was extinguished by a bucket brigade, leaving only minor damage to the building and the loss of a few of Dr. McNiff's surgical instruments.
Dancing was evidently a serious business, as the program lists a Floor Director and Assistant Floor Director, as well as six "aids". There were 24 dances on the program, including waltzes, quadrilles, polkas, and something called “Portland Fancy”.
1903 saw perhaps the worst catastrophe in Pepperell history, when a huge fire gutted much of Pepperell center. More than twenty buildings were lost, including the fire house and what was said to be the largest shoe factory in the world. From a local paper:
The flames were first noticed at about 12:50 a.m. darting for the windows of the upper floors of a five-story [other accounts say three story] shoe factory which was located back of the… fire station in Foster street. A heavy hot-air explosion quickly followed, and the building was soon a huse sheet of fire. A brisk wind unfortunately was blowing; and the fire was taken across Main street. It spread to Saunder's Corner department store as Steamer and Engine No. 1 laid lines of hose. Over to Cottage street swept the flames, then to Mill street, where houses were burned to the ground. Buidings in Canal street soon caught, then Kemp's large three-story block in Foster street, and the engine house itself. Assistance came from as far away as Nashua, and the sparks carried to houses a mile away.
A week later the ruins were still smoking in a wasted area of more than five acres. Twenty-three buildings, many not covered completely by insurance, were gutted out or burned to the ground in the centre of the town.
Various accounts list some of the buildings and businesses lost:
- Haystone Meat Market
- the Gerrish home
- a door-making mill
- a Chinese laundry
- Frank Goff's Shoe Store
- the home of J. Fiske
- A.J. Saunders grocery and provisions
- D.E. Weston's tinsmith shop
- Gosses Shoe Store
- Skippons Fruit Store
- a jewelry store
- a barber shop
- a barn
The fire department itself lost all of the equipment that remained in the fire house, which was gutted. The tower and parts of the walls survived the fire and the station was rebuilt.
In 1910, town water and hydrants were installed, alleviating the water problem in areas of Pepperell center that were not close to a river or canal.
By 1918, about 680 families — 3,000 people — lived in Pepperell. Over 300 telephones had been installed, and a third of the residents had modern plumbing and heating. The Nashua Paper Company employed 156, and the Pepperell Card and Paper Company another 140. Other businesses included the Acme Paper Company, two machine shops, a tombstone shop and a laundry.
The fire department continued to modernize, and in 1950, bought a “quadruple”, a combination ladder truck, booster truck, hose wagon and pumper. The doors of the Foster Street fire station had to be widened to accommodate this behemoth. This joined a 600 GPM pumper and a home made forestry truck, which carried, according to a newspaper from the time, "a two-cycle pump, 500 feet of garden hose 18 knapsack pumps and a dozen shovels." At this time the fire department was responding to over 100 calls per year.
A Pepperell fire in 1963 made headlines. On October 12, a forest fire started burning off Lawrence Street, and due to extremely dry conditions, proved extremely difficult to stop. It took over a week to extinguish, and ended up burning over 150 acres of woodland. Pepperell received help from 20 local fire departments, as well as soldiers and equipment from Fort Devens. Even some high school seniors were recruited. Pepperell only had 30 volunteer firefighters at that time, most of whom worked out of town and took time off their jobs to fight the fire. Volunteers kept the firefighters fed.
In 1977, the old Hotel Prescott, built across from the train station in the late 1890's, burned down.
The Foster Street Fire Station was no longer large enough for all of the apparatus, the floor was not strong enough to hold the quadruple, and Pepperell needed to have equipment closer to the growing population in north and west Pepperell. So in 1978, Station Two was built on Park Street. Then, in 1987, Pepperell acquired a building on Jersey Street which became Station Three. An addition was built in 1995.
Ambulance service in Pepperell was originally provided by a separate EMS organization. In 2002, this organization merged with the fire department, becoming the fourth company.The Warren Veterans Firemen's Association
In 1896, a group of men bought a hand tub to use at musters, which were major events at that time. The Warren, as they named it, had been built by Button and Blake in 1860 for the Roxbury Fire Department. Between 1896 and 1920, they won $5400 in prizes.
Interest in the hand tub waxed and waned in the ensuring years. In 1969, the Warren was completely refurbished by the WVFA, and again used in competitions all over New England.
Remember Pepperell 1, the hand tub the town purchased in 1880? It was sold in 1940, and then turned up in a private collection. Fire Department Captain and WVFA member Ron Winch heard about it and began efforts to bring it back to Pepperell. But it wasn't until the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) inherited the collection that it became available. Captain Winch worked with the Fire Department and the Warren Veterans Firemen's Association (WVNA) to come up with the $3,500 for the pump and the hose reel, and in 1989 it came back to Pepperell.
Although the WVFA has never been part of the Pepperell Fire Department, their membership and history link them together as part of Pepperell's firefighting history.