Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: Winter 1978 Volume 16 Number 4, Pages 76–82

The Early Years of the Paoli Fire Company

George Mathias

Page 76

Just what brought about the founding of the Paoli Fire Company in 1909 is lost in memory.

Our town then was nothing more than a crossroads village along the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike. Horses and buggies, or the wagons of the farmers from White Horse in Willistown Township, or from up the Valley towards Planebrook, or down towards Valley Forge, stood hitched to rails along the Pike. On the southwest corner of Valley Road and the Lancaster Pike was the shoe store of Norris Matthews, while the southeast corner was an open field. From there to Darby Road to the east there was a small house, a fish store, the widow Shanks' house, and the general store which Francis Dixon later operated.

That was the heart of Paoli.

But on the other side of the tracks was a bigger part of Paoli. The yards and offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad were there. Many of the sixteen townsmen who signed the charter for the creation of the Paoli Fire Company worked or were associated with the railroad. During the winter months of 1908-1909 these men met and charted the Company's future.

The charter members were:

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George W. Kohler John G. Eachus
Robert F. Matthews James J. Rowe
J. Harvey McAllister Rev. Horace A. Walton
J. Harvey Dewees William B. Clisson
Edward F. Bracken Benjamin F. Whitson
Clarence W. Wagar William M. Hunt
George R. Sinnickson Edward B. Hoge
Robert Holmes Page Alfred B. Groff

Kohler was named president; Matthews, vice-president; McAllister, secretary; and Dewees, treasurer. The Fire Chief was Edward Bracken.

Pinpointing why these men thought a fire company was needed in their town is difficult. Bucket brigades of volunteers — the farmers, the storekeepers, railroaders, and town residents — had turned out whenever needed. The fire companies in Malvern and Berwyn, founded years before, would also rush in aid.

In 1904, the year before I settled in Paoli, a disastrous fire swept through the historic General Paoli Inn, a beautiful pre-Revolutionary War structure centered in a grove of trees just west of North Valley Road, and on the north side of the Pike. The stark stone chimneys and blackened timbers of the wreckage perhaps sparked the idea of a fire company.

But whatever the reason, they proceeded with plans, and gave the youthful fire company physical and moral support and, most important of all, guidance through some very difficult times.

Without a charter the men were unable to proceed as a fire company. But they were anxious to investigate, test, and consider the various steam or power-driven fire pumps being manufactured then. (A few years were to pass before the first practical motor-driven fire apparatus was to appear.)

A boosting hand was offered by the Paoli Town Association, who was selected as trustee in the purchase of firefighting equipment. A combined committee of firemen and members of the Association was appointed to investigate the purchase of a fire apparatus. George R. Sinnickson, a railroad supervisor, was elected to head the committee. The untiring efforts of this group gave birth to the spirit of cooperation which marked our early years. In March, 1909, W.S. Roney, secretary of the Town Association, appointed Sinnickson, George W. Kohler, and Robert Homes Page as members of the trustees' committee to select Paoli's first fire engine, at a "cost of not more than $2,000".

Those were great days. Trips were made to fire companies fortunate enough to own either gasoline or steam-powered pumpers.

Page 78

On July 24, 1909, complete with a brass band and speakers, we held our first housing. Firemen from the neighboring communities of Berwyn, Malvern, West Chester, Wayne, Bryn Mawr and Bridgeport were invited to attend.

Without a fire house of our own, the engine was housed in the stables of Dewees & Bracken, operators of a coal and feed business on West Central Avenue. Ed Bracken was our first fire chief, and he generously supplied the team to pull the engine. If a team was not available at Bracken's when the alarm sounded, John Eachus, operator of a livery stable at the southeast corner of the intersection of the West Chester and Lancaster Pikes, would run a team into place.

There were also times when we pulled the engine, as well as a hose cart which we bought later from the Columbia Wagon Company, by hand. A shout would go up, and away we would dash.

We were proud of our engine; so proud, in fact, that a special blue and white denim cover was made by the Derham Body Company of Rosemont and presented by Mr. Derham. The generosity and support of the town and its residents were evident on all sides.

We soon realized that an engine house of our own was necessary. But money to buy a property, and at the same time keep a fledgling company going, was difficult to find. Immediately, the ladies of Paoli came to our aid with a Fall Fair and supper. Small as our town was, they made more than $800. And ever since that day, the Ladies Auxiliary has been a good right arm of the company.

In September 1909 we purchased a small lot on the Lancaster Pike; it was to be our home. Since we were without the $1,350 purchase price, Robert Matthews, one of our charter members, advanced $150 for a down payment.

Early in November 1909 we petitioned the Chester County Court for approval of the charter, and on November 13 the late Judge Joseph Hemphill signed it. After it was registered, the Paoli Fire Company officially came into being.

A small house on the rear of the property was remodeled early in 1910. A concrete floor was laid, new siding and a new roof placed on the building, and a three room apartment for a permanent houseman was built. A telephone was installed, and Tom Miller, a retired Philadelphia policeman, was hired as houseman. While improvements were made on the house, the engine and equipment were placed in the garage of Ralph Edwards, nearby on the Pike.

Page 79

By April 1909 we were satisfied that a Waterous Fire Engine, horse or hand-power drawn, would fill our needs. The townspeople quickly subscribed for the one-cylinder, gasoline-powered pump, priced at $1,650. At last the Paoli Fire Company was on its way.

Anxious months passed. Letters flowed between Paoli and the Waterous Fire Engine plant in St. Paul, Minn. Finally, on July 7, 1909, our first engine was freighted in. By midday it had been unloaded from the box car and assembled. The men, proud of their new appartus, pulled it by hand up over the steep bridge on North Valley Road, down to the Pike, and on up to the Paoli Town Hall on Darby Road.

George Kohler and George Sinnickson on the seat of the first pumper. Others, from left to right, are Benjamin Grow, William Beidler (partly hidden), William Todd, George Mathias, Charles McAllister, Isaac Thomas, Janes Casey and Harry McGinnis

Before the engine had a chance to make its first fire run we nearly lost it. While descending North Valley Road the brakes failed, and we momentarily lost control. The engine knocked down and ran over Harry McGinnis, one of the members pulling it. He came out good and sore, and the engine quickly received a new set of brake bands!

Ten days after its arrival, the engine was given its first trial workout under the direction of a company representative.

Page 80

The membership rolls also began to swell. By the close of 1909 we had a total of 72 members. The next year the total jumped to 106.

It is hard to remember all those who were active, but I do recall the names of Martin F. Clement, who later became pres"`ident of the Pennsylvania Railroad; W.C. Roney, John Harrigan, Robert Harbison, J. Howard McAllister, J. Harvey McAllister, W.C. Matthews, Josiah Evans, Thomas Phelan, C.A. Coburn, Patrick Griffin, James Casey, Phineas Garrett, T.F. Dixon, H.C. Whitworth, Ellis Young, Alex Tollinger, W.B. Glisson, Harry Weaver, J.P. Haughton, Wilmer Entriken, and Joseph Isinger.

Now equipped with a pumper, we made arrangements with the Springfield Consolidated Water Company to place fire hydrants on the principal streets of the town.

A large fire bell was also purchased, and the giant iron locomotive wheel which has been used as an alarm was retired.

By 1911 the number of automobiles was rapidly increasing; that's when we turned our attention toward motorized fire equipment. The Waterous Pumper had given good service, but often we lost valuable time getting to a fire. As our fire coverage area increased, so did our responsibility. The time had come to procure new and better equipment.

Dr. Robert C. Hughes, a young Paoli physician, had shown us how easy it was to reach a fire in an automobile. At the sounding of an alarm, Dr. Hughes raced to the fire house in his Metz touring car, picked up a chemical extinguisher or two, and then chugged off to the fire. In many instances he was the first fireman on the scene and was able to check the blaze until the horse- or hand-drawn equipment arrived.

We purchased a Locomobile, one of the popular makes of the day, and onto the chassis we placed the Waterous Pump and a hose bin built by one of our local carpenters. It was a home-made job, but nevertheless we were motorized.

The name of the Paoli Fire Company was spreading. That spring we purchased uniforms, and started drill for our first marching unit. The inaugural appearance of the drill team was at the Devon Horse Show. With our equipment and the drill team, it was a glorious sight. They looked so grand that on the Fourth of July they traveled to Downingtown with the Sugartown Fife and Drum Corps to parade. A few years later the drill team and equipment also went to Harrisbury to participate in the State Firemen's Association's parade. The men of the drill team included:

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Horace Staats Charles Larkins
J. Harvey McAllister Dr. Robert C. Hughes
John G. Eachus John Milligan
Wilmer E. Todd H.S. Jones
Ben Grow Charles Gohn
W.M. Leech A.M. Hall
J.J. Harrigan Walter Matthews
Ellis S. Young Charles Atkins

During the two years of World War I, the older members of the company carried on, many of younger members being in the service. On their return, our soldiers were honored at a countywide celebration, held in West Chester on September 4, 1919 for all the Chester County firemen who had served.

Another first for our company was a motion picture show, held in the Town Hall in 1911. This was another of the money-raising activities that we carried on.

By 1920 the company was in excellent financial position. Annually, the Ladies Auxiliary and the men had combined their efforts in running the week-long Fall Fair, and there were generous contributions of residents such as Richard Taughton, Edward Roberts, A. Coxe, Agnew Adams, H.W. Biddle, and many others. The time had come again to purchase a better piece of equipment.

The Conshohocken Fire Company offered a Simplex Motor truck for sale. We purchased it, and it was delivered to the Hale Fire Pump Company in Conshohocken, who contracted to equip the truck with a new model direct motor-driven fire pump. This was Paoli's first motor pumper.

At the same time, additional ground adjacent to the fire house had been purchased on the Pike, and plans were made to erect a new fire house. Quarters were also to be provided for the United States Post Office, which was being moved from the railroad station. E. Nelson Edwards, a prominent architect and resident of Paoli, was selected to design the building.

The estimated cost was set at $31,000, the largest financial burden ever undertaken by the company. But the members were confident they would be supported — and they were. Contributions poured in. The list of donors contained the names of Capt. E.B. Cassatt, Gordon H. Cilley, Edward Roberts, W.M. Leech, A.G. Dickson, C.C. Highley, T. DeWitt Cuyler, John O. Platt, and many others.

It was a beautiful Spring day in April 1921 when the cornerstone of the new building was laid. Gordon H. Cilley, advertising manager for the John Wanamaker store in Philadelphia, accompanied the Hon. J. Hampton Moore, Mayor of Philadelphia, who was the principal speaker.

Page 82

"I trust these firemen," Moore declared, "may ever do their duty and stand as a shield and protection to the people of Paoli. May their number increase and may their courage never grow less." Paoli firemen have carried on this trust.

Judge George J. Henderson, of the City of Philadelphia Orphans Court, was master of ceremonies. Two well-known clergymen, Rev. John J. Voorhis of the Paoli Presbyterian Church; and Rev. Dr. Horace A. Walton, rector of the Church of the Good Samaritan and one of the charter members, pronounced the Invocation and Benediction. Carl Glisson was the president of the company that year, and Tom Miller, our first houseman, was the oldest living member of the company.

Philadelphia newspapers devoted more than a column of space to the story, including pictures. It was a great day in the life of Miss Ethel Thomas, a Paoli school girl, who helped Mayor Moore place a small tin box in the cornerstone.

At last the company had a permanent home.


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