Imagine living in a time whereby fire was an ever present threat to the community. In Colonial America, colonists depended on fire for the basic necessity of heat for cooking meals and warming homes and shops. Fireplace fires and candles produced light for their day-to-day activities. With fire being used everyday by so many people, accidents, carelessness or neglect often happened. Structures in Guilford were largely composed of wood with wood shingles and wood interiors. They were built close to one another and the risk of a blaze spreading was great. Dwellings, shops and warehouses all had potential to be easily consumed before a fire could be contained. So, it was necessary for residents to work together, neighbor helping neighbor, to prevent fires from happening and to extinguish those that did.
In the 17th and early 18th Centuries fire fighting equipment was rudimentary consisting largely of buckets, ladders, wet blankets or bags, along with a well and sheer manpower. Laws required residents to purchase fire buckets and keep them in repair. Fire buckets in colonial towns had the owner’s name printed on them, such as the one pictured that once belonged to “Issac Mix” and now resides in the collections of the Hyland House Museum. Having a name on the fire bucket allowed for its return to the rightful owner after the fire. Sometimes an owner might have several buckets. We knew this of “Issac Mix” who had at least 3, as indicated by the “No.3” printed on the bucket. The number of buckets a homeowner or business had was determined by the level of risk of fire. For instance, the town baker had 3 buckets and a brewer had 6 buckets on hand in case of fire. Fire Buckets generally held 2 – 3 gallons of water. They were made by local cobblers or saddlers patterned after English fire buckets.
Once an outbreak of fire occurred, a “Bucket Brigade” was formed. It consisted of 2 lines of people extending from either a town well or nearby resident’s well to the fire. Buckets of water were passed down the first line to the fire and empty buckets were returned via the second line back to the well to be refilled. Later, with the invention of the hand pumper, bucket brigades were then used to keep the pumper full of water.
From neighbors helping each other with buckets to fire companies manned by local residents to professional fire departments supported by local taxes, firefighting has changed along with population growth and the expansion of local governments. With each new century of improvements in equipment, technological advances and the development of firefighting forces, all had contributed to our modern firefighting capabilities in the United States today.