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Source: Kokomo Herald

From buckets to steam engines

Kokomo 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 fire engine.

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