top of page

the First Fire Engine

I was always intrigued by this picture. My understanding is that someone found a copy stuffed in a wall in one of the old buildings in Sykesville, but I forget who told me that, and don't know if it's true.

As I recall, the Gate House Museum has a gnarled up copy on cardboard that looks like it's been stained and chewed on by someone's puppy and might certainly have survived several years in a wall.

And the Town House has a nicely restored reproduction on the wall near the bathroom, although no one there knows where the picture came from or what it's all about.

So Let Me Tell You

This is Sykesville's first fire engine, parading up to what was then John McDonald's house. And the town was thrilled to have it.

The whole story is right there in the May 13, 1905 Democratic Advocate of Westminster, which, strangely, I read from time to time. The actual event in the photo took place on May 9th, 1905, when at 1 pm, the entire town shut down for the occasion -- schools, businesses, churches, bars, stables, farms, pool halls -- just so everyone from Sykesville, and all over the county, could catch a glimpse of this new technological marvel.

The picture captures a big moment, or few seconds -- depending how long the photographer held his shutter open to catch that fleeting configuration of early 20th century light and time -- and now, through the marvels of Photoshop, the internet, and this website, you get to see it again.

The town hadn't been a town long, in the official sense, incorporating a few months earlier in 1904. The town had its first mayor, Ed Mellor, and its first town council, and Wade H. D. Warfield, and got to work on fixing things. First they lit up Main Street, somehow, and then went about figuring how to protect themselves from fire. There was good cause for worry.

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904

Just a few months earlier, beginning on February 7 of 1904 and burning into the next day, a great fire had incinerated 1,500 buildings in Baltimore, leaving about 147 acres of burned brick and cinder behind. It looked like a scene from World War II, a whole swath of city flattened to nothing but a few walls, rubble, and a haze of smokey dust.

Frank Brown, who lived in Baltimore at the time (I'll write much more about him later), would look out over the ruins and see opportunity, but most saw only disaster.

The First Volunteer Fire Department

By the time the new machine arrived, the town had already formed a volunteer fire department. And of course, Wade H. D. Warfield was its president, because in those days, if something had a president, it was most likely Wade H. D. Warfield. The fire department also had a manager in W. W. Ritter, and a chief, in Mr. Louis P. Schultz, another multi-talented business bigwig. Among his many skills, Schultz was a plumber and accomplished digger of wells.

So the fledgling fire department had a president, a manager, and a chief. What it didn't have was a truck, or any practical means of actually putting out a fire. And in those days there were lots of fires to put out, and most of them weren't. (Put out, that is.)

Apparently, according to the Democratic Advocate's local reporter, the aforementioned W. W. Ritter, Schultz took the lead, and ordered "a combination, chemical engine and hook and ladder truck with pump and hose attachments." It sounds like he even helped put the thing together.

As Ritter wrote, "Mr. Louis P. Schultz was chairman of the purchasing committee and personally superintended the construction of the apparatus which was built by the Whitelock Manufacturing Company of Baltimore.

"Before ordering he made a study of the different apparatus for town use where there was not a water supply and the outfit for Sykesville has been inspected by experts and pronounced the best combination yet produced."

Ritter was the town barber, and hopefully, more adept at managing hair than writing coherent paragraphs.

The thing arrived by train, and at 3 o’clock, highlighted a parade from the town's 20-year-old B&O station to John McDonald's front lawn, behind a 26-piece Springfield Band. (Not to be confused with a 26-piece Philadelphia string band.) Springfield itself was only about eight years old, and presumably, the band's members were musicians and patients housed at the growing asylum.

Following the band came some sort of unidentified marshals on horseback, and then carriages drawn by more horses with Mayor Mellor, Wade H. D. Warfield, and the the town council on board.

Behind the band and the politicians came "the sparkling new engine" guided along by "12 colored men in white caps and bunting sashes," who aren't explained in any way.

Ritter also notes that the "Odd Fellows came out in full force," preceding a collection of what he refers to as floats, although the floats sound like nothing more than horses and wagons with a bit of merchandise on top. (I'm not sure exactly what the Odd Fellows were.)

As Ritter, who was in fact a past Grand Master of the Odd Fellows, writes, "J. Harvey Fowble, builder, had a float representing the model town hall and truck house. R. W. Carter’s float was resplendent with furniture, as was also that of W. H. Bennet. Dorsey’s livery came next, plentifully decorated with small flags.

"W. H. D. Warfield gave a fine display of hardware and lumber and J. M. McDonald various articles of commerce. E. U. Gimple, druggist, had a unique float, with an immense bottle in the center labeled 'Chloroform — Free to All Over Sixty.'

"E. M. Mellor’s float represented a monument, surmounted by the notable figure known as 'Mr. J. M. Mackintosh.'

"A. Forthman displayed stoves, ranges, etc. J. H. Harris had a very attractive display of groceries and harness. P. T. Bennett [not to be confused with P. T. Barnum or W. H. Bennet], farming implements, furniture and vehicles; L. P. Schultz. heating and plumbing; F. M. Barnes, fresh meats and groceries; J. K. Weer, undertaker."

For some reason he doesn't say anything about Weer's undertaker float. Caskets perhaps, or maybe embalming equipment. Weer was big into embalment and had all the proper equipment and certificates.

Finally, came Richard Marsden and Master Benjamin Ridgely in a donkey cart, while "numerous private carriages, brought up the rear."

The Party after the Parade

Afterwards, there was some sort of celebration on McDonald's lawn, including entertainment under a tent "containing 'Uncle Tom and Little Eva,' the snake charmer and other attractions."

Adding to the fun, Mayor Mellor showed off some poultry, Wade Warfield showed off some Cornish Indian game chickens, and Mr. G. Schrade showed off some Hillside Pigeons. There was also a bazaar at the Lyceum, and the paper points out that "Ex-Gov. Frank Brown has given most liberally to this enterprise," although it doesn't mention whether Brown contributed any birds to the fowl display that seemed to be a highlight of the festivities. (Although I can't imagine the birds outshined the snake charmer.)

Questions Remain

You can't help wondering, as you look at the picture, "What on earth happened to all the trees?" And also, did this thing ever put out a fire?

The trees were probably turned into firewood. And as far as I can tell, the splendid shining fire engine never saw any notable action.

By the thirties, the town had better equipment, but Main Street burned down anyway in 1937 and the high school burned in 1957. And there were lots of fires before, after, and in between.

I doubt anyone knows what happened to the weird little machine that 12 "colored men" in white hats and fancy sashes rolled onto John McDonald's lawn in 1905. Or why they were there in the first place.

But I'll continue to look for answers.

bottom of page