Fire Department celebrates 150 years of service
Jenn Goad, Reporter
Thursday, August 17, 2017
In its earliest
days, David Foster referred to Kokomo as “the orneriest town on earth”
as the town established its identity.
The City of Kokomo was
incorporated in 1855, but city government wasn’t established until 1865
when Nelson Purdum was elected as the first Mayor of Kokomo. Even then,
there was no official fire department, just volunteers who would man
buckets of water when a fire broke out in one of the wards in Kokomo.
From 1865 to 1881, local
historian Jon Zeck said there was a series of mysterious fires that
occurred, and he believes many can be attributed to the notorious
Mollihan gang that ran amuck in the junction area of the First Ward.
In 1867, Zeck said a
resolution was passed that instructed that buckets, ladders, and other
firefighting equipment were to be placed at specified locations in the
wards, thus giving birth to the early Kokomo Fire Department. There
were no uniforms, and the total cost of the original equipment was
$400. The department operated under two separate organizations – a Hook
and Ladder company and Brake Pump, both recognized by the City Council.
In April 1872, the common
council ordered the bucket company to disband, with the Hook and Ladder
Company taking over. Dr. Henry Cole, a noted 3Civil War surgeon and
local bad boy, was appointed fire chief.
His first order of
business was to procure a Clapp & Jones Steam Fire Engine. The
$5,000 steam engine was built in Logansport and purchased by the city
by floating a bond that took 10 years to pay off. Uniforms for the
firemen were purchased for $6,000, and although they were considered
volunteers, they received compensation in the way of exemptions from
the road tax, city tax, and tax on $500 worth of property. They also
were exempt from serving on a jury.
Dr. Cole was shot dead by
a sheriff’s posse in 1881 as he was attempting to rob and set fire to
the Spring Mill flour mill. Zeck believes Cole had ties to the
notorious Mollihan gang, including the numerous arsons around town and
used his social stature to get away with the crimes. The vast majority
of mysterious fires ended after Cole’s murder.
In 1883, the city
purchased another steam engine, a $3,000 American La France Steamer.
The following year, they purchased another one. The department
continued to organize, and in 1893, five men were hired by the City of
Kokomo to become the first paid firefighters on the city’s payroll. A
disagreement ensued, and all but one of the men originally hired were
fired. Within two hours, four more men were hired; Elsworth Wells, John
Petty, Clint Draper, and Milt McRea joined Chief Edward Shauman as the
first paid firefighters in the city.
Over the course of its
history, the department has battled its fair share of major fires. From
1890 to 1911 alone, there were 13 major factory fires in the city,
totaling almost $1.1 million. The largest, the Haynes Automobile fire
in 1911, burned for five days and claimed one life. Zeck listed several
other major fires that plagued the city, including the burning of the
Kokomo business district in 1865, the square burning in 1871, and the
old high school burning in 1898. Between 1966 and 1971, the downtown
hotels all burned to the ground. The Courtland Hotel (1966), Wayne
Hotel (1968), and Hotel Frances (1971) were set ablaze.
From its humble
beginnings as a bucket brigade of volunteers, today’s department is
greatly different from the original hand-powered machinery used 150
years ago. The department didn’t have a motorized truck until 1915.
Now, the department is
set to celebrate its 150th birthday. The Professional Fire Fighters of
Kokomo Local 396 will host an anniversary celebration at Indiana
University Kokomo on Sunday, Aug. 20, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
During the event, guests
can take a look at the history of the department, vintage fire trucks,
and participate in fun fire department-related activities.
One of the original hose
carts used by the Kokomo Fire Department will be on display this
weekend at the anniversary celebration as well as an early refurbished