Waterville fire Lt. Scott Holst marvels at the way firefighters fought fires in the 1800s.
“They used what they called a ‘tub’ back then. It was just a box on wheels — a big wooden tub. They filled it with water and the guys would pump the handles on it, and the water would go to a hose and nozzle and they’d shoot it on the fire. Before horses came along, you had to pull the cart to the fire. They had to have a lot of people because they had to do everything by hand.”
Holst is writing a book about the history of the Waterville Fire Department, doing research at both Colby College and the Waterville Public Library, as well as online.
He launched the project in September after elementary school children touring the Fire Department were looking at framed pictures of the city’s fire chiefs on the wall in the lobby and asked Holst why some frames were empty.
Holst said he did not know, but he promised to find out. He found a couple of missing photos of former chiefs, but some remain elusive.
His quest became an obsession. He read everything he could get his hands on about the 28 fire chiefs Waterville has had since the department was established in 1809.
The more he read, the more fascinated he became, not only by the lives of the former chiefs but also with the stories he discovered about how firefighters did their work, about fires that occurred in the city and about firefighters who died in the line of duty.
He decided to expand his book to include those stories.
Fire officials printed a book in 1995 about the department and Holst learned that, after it was printed, people came out in droves, saying they had stories and photos about the department that would have been great in the book.
Holst wants to give people the opportunity to tell him such stories so that he can include them in his.
“I’m going to give them a chance to do it this time,” he said.
People with information may e-mail him at [email protected] or call him at 314-2703, he said.
If they want to share documents, photos or related items, Holst will photograph them, he said.
“If they want to bring something in or want to sit down and talk, or if they want anything put in the book that their ancestors would be proud of, they can. I think everybody who has had a family member in the Fire Department has good stories, and if they are willing to share them with us, I think it would be a benefit.”
He particularly is seeking photos of five fire chiefs of whom he has not been able to find any: Appleton Heath Plaisted, who served as chief in 1887, as well as from 1892 to 1900; Charles Rockwood Shorey, 1883-84; Warren F. Brown, 1891; Roscoe W. Hanson, 1905; and Ellery Adelbert Vose, 1905.
The city should have a more comprehensive history of Waterville’s firefighting history, which started in 1809 when five men were appointed to organize a crew, Holst said. Some of the men were high-ranking officials in the War of 1812, he added.
Before that, if a fire occurred, people would just grab buckets of water and try to douse the flames, he said.
One of the city’s early horse-drawn pump engines, called Ticonic 1, was placed on a rail car in 1911 and taken to Bangor to help fight a big fire that destroyed part of the city there, Holst said.
Holst discovered sad stories in his research, including one about George H. Proctor, the first Waterville firefighter to die in the line of duty.
“He was helping the city’s public works crew in 1901 and he had his horses down in a pit, and it caved in,” Holst said. “The horses got spooked and Proctor went to grab the reins to control them, but they just overpowered him. They ran him over with their hooves and then the cart ran over him. He died instantly.”
Another firefighter, Millard Goding, was on the department just four months when he died in 1929, according to Holst.
“He was riding on the back of a fire engine, heading to Clinton, and they were going through Fairfield and they had a collision with a trolley car. They called them electric cars back then. Goding got tossed off the back and into a utility pole, which killed him instantly. He was 35 years old.”
Many of the city’s fire chiefs led interesting lives, according to Holst. Frederick Charles Thayer, for instance, was a surgeon who started Thayer Hospital at his house on Main Street. He was fire chief from 1878 to 1880.
The city got its first full-time fire chief, Fred Brown, in 1980.
Holst, 53, has been a firefighter 32 years, the last 20 in Waterville, where he was named Firefighter of the Year in 2001. He started his career in Winslow, where his wife, Ruth, comes from a family of firefighters.
Holst, who moved to Maine from Nebraska in 1981, has written two books about his own family ancestry.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]