Stillwater’s Oldest Firefighting Tradition:
A History of the Newland-Wood Fire Company
Written By: Shane Mahar, Assistant Fire Chief
Historical Information Provided By: Linda Sanders, Village Historian
The Newland-Wood Fire Company of the Stillwater Fire Department has a long history of protecting the residents of the Village of Stillwater, New York. This tradition began during the Revolutionary War and has continued for 228 years. From the early days of fire wardens and steam fired engines to today’s modern fire trucks with Class A foam and SCBA’s, the firefighters have vowed to guard their neighbors and protect their property.
The Early Years
From the time settlers formed the Stillwater community along the banks of the Hudson River, the word “fire” has placed fear into their hearts. The first documented fire was in 1777 at the home of a prominent mill owner named George Palmer. Palmer was a noted patriot who built sleds for the cannons of Colonel Henry Knox. It is believed that Tories and Indians started the fire at Palmer’s home in retaliation for his involvement in the war for American independence.
In 1816 the Schuyler Mills, owned by Rensselaer, the youngest son of Revolutionary War hero General Philip Schuyler, were burned to the ground. Several other buildings were also destroyed that day along the Schuyler Creek. In reaction to this devastating fire, village leaders passed new ordinances in an effort to prevent any future losses. These laws included fining locals who did not properly cover hot coals while carrying them throughout town, as well as a ban on bonfire celebrations, fireballs, and gun shooting.
Only ten years later the village was divided into three districts in an effort to increase response time to emergencies. The districts were the North Lane to the junction with Eddy’s store, from Eddy’s to the stone bridge over the Schuyler Creek, and the last from the creek to the southern line of the village. Today this would be from Stratton Lane south to Major Dickenson Avenue, from that point to the Schuyler Creek near Cannon Park, and finally to the present day village boundary. Fire wardens were then appointed to take charge of their area. The first wardens were Henry Ensign, Gardiner Conklin, and Lewis Lawrence. These men gave orders deemed fit and proper for extinguishing the fire and supplied buckets to the firemen. Bucket brigades worked for a while; however more equipment was needed and a tax was soon levied to purchase hooks and ladders.
The Formal Organization
On May 8, 1865 the first firemen were organized and assembled at the home of Samuel B. Hicks. These men represent the formal beginnings of the Stillwater Fire Department and were lead by Foreman Hamilton Hathaway, Secretary Joshua Anthony, and Treasurer Ezra Bible.
A Button hand pumper was purchased ten years later ending the use of the bucket brigade. Local mill owners Daniel and William Pemble donated a building to the firemen so they could store their new equipment. The hand pumper and hose purchased cost $1,200. Stillwater #1 was now a fire company of modern equipment.
According to historical documents the fire wardens in 1875 were D. Gilman, H. Newland, and T.S. Talmadge. The men who were considered charter members of the department were E.B. Skinner, James Conley, William Talmadge, Fred Smith, F. Fowler, C.S. Ensign, Charles Rose, E.B. Hunter, T. O’Prady, A.A. Rudd, E.E. Judd, J.L. Vandenburgh, G.N. Lansing, Sylvester Walsh, S.E. Anthony, and W.L. Denison, who also served as the night watchman. These men began a tradition of brotherhood and honor that still resonates with the volunteer firefighters of today’s department.
The Village on Fire
Several disastrous blazes occurred throughout the village in the early 1870’s including the loss of the Pemble Mills. When the Post Office building was razed by fire, a major historical document, the 50-year-old village seal, was destroyed. Later on, while the new Post Office was being burglarized, an arsonist lit the covered bridge on fire. Other notable fires of the time included Fowler’s Hotel and Stables, several dwellings, stores, and the undertaking parlor. These fires combined nearly wiped out the north end of the village.
The losses the community suffered proved that a well trained and well-equipped fire department was needed.
The Birth of Two Fire Companies
As the village community rebuilt from its devastating infernos two separate fire companies emerged. The first, Newland Hose Company #1, was named after John B. Newland, a prominent mill owner. The second, E.I. Wood Steamer Company #2, was named after Edward I. Wood. Wood was a respected merchant who later served as Village President until his death.
In 1886 the Methodist Church building was vacated. The wooden white painted structure was bought by the village for use as its first official firehouse. That same year the village forefathers purchased a refurbished 1871 Button Steamer. The horse drawn steamer was built by the Button Fire Engine Company of nearby Waterford, New York and originally sold to the City of Troy Fire Department. The steamer was the most advanced firefighting technology available at the time. It played a crucial role in protecting the neighborhood buildings and the development of the fire department.
The Firehouse Burns
On January 28, 1896, Al Pack discovered a roaring blaze at the firehouse. While the fire raged out of control above his head, Pack crawled on his hands and knees to pull the steamer and hose cart to safety. The newly purchased equipment could not stop the inferno as it destroyed the entire building. The firemen of today are thankful of Pack’s heroic actions that evening as the steamer is still owned by the fire company.
Within a year, a new two story brick firehouse was built. The downstairs contained storage for both companies while the upstairs provided for separate meeting quarters. A century plus later this building is still used by the fire department. Although the firehouse has been renovated several times, the brick architecture still outlines the doors to the old steamer room.
The Firemen’s Attire
Uniforms were a very important part of a fireman’s life. The first, a red shirt, was purchased in 1886. A year later frock coats, lapels, pants, and white caps became the proper attire. Each belt matched the suit, but had a white front piece. The members of the steamer company had “E.I. Wood” in gold lettering across their hats. In 1891 the cost of each uniform was five dollars and was purchased by the individual firemen.
The first fire alarm was installed in 1916 with a siren and telephones. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Thomas Hickey, the telephones were strategically located throughout the village for ease of notify the firefighters. The siren was originally placed at the Gillette Fiber Mills, but was removed in 1931 to sit atop the firehouse roof. This alarm not only signaled a fire, but also served to notify village workers that their lunch hour was beginning.
A 1922 Ford served as the first mechanical fire truck and in 1925 a White brand truck was purchased. This truck contained a combined pump and hose carrier. With the latest in motorized equipment now in operation, the steamer’s use quickly began to fade, although it still was displayed in parades and at competitions.
While the fire companies upgraded engines and equipment, the village installed water lines and hydrants to assist them in getting an adequate water supply. The old Champlain Canal and Hudson River were always the primary water sources while trying to fight a fire. However, both would freeze over during the winter months. Along the banks landings were prepared and ice was broken off to allow access to the water.
Two Become One
The Newland Hose Company #1 and the E.I. Wood Steamer Company #2 became one in 1925 to form the Newland-Wood Fire Company of the Stillwater Fire Department. The combined resources and man-power provided the village residents with a department equipped to respond to any emergency. This is the same department that we know today. On a side note, in 1925 the fire company also joined the Hudson Valley Volunteer Firefighter’s Association.
A Town Divided
Since the beginning of fire protection in Stillwater, the village fire company responded to emergencies within the town jurisdiction. This long practice came abruptly to an end in 1954. After several devasting fires along Saratoga Lake, the village government decided that their fire equipment should no longer cross the district line. The Arvin Hart Fire Company was then formed by a group of concerned town residents. From that point on the Newland-Wood Fire Company was deemed the fire department of the village as Arvin Hart served the town.
Ladies Auxiliary Aids Firemen
In 1956 a small group of concerned wives and friends decided to form the Newland-Wood Ladies Auxiliary. Eleven women came together to assist the firemen at functions throughout the year and to serve them coffee while they fought a serious fire. The woman met monthly at the firehouse and purchased uniforms to wear at parades and social events.
The charter members included Mrs. Edward Finigan, Miss Diane Writer, Mrs. Thomas Kinisky, Mrs. Frank Kinisky, Mrs. George Lowell, Mrs. Albert MacChesney, Mrs. Thomas S. Ryan, Mrs. Paul Conner, Mrs. Anthony Gorski, Mrs. Charles Thompson, and Mrs. John Sheehan.
Although the ladies auxiliary was becoming a great asset to the fire department, the organization disbanded four years later for unknown reasons. In 1970 Shirley Mehan, the wife of former Fire Chief William Mehan, re-established the group.
The reorganized ladies auxiliary was now incorporated and consisted of sixteen women. The members consisted of Mrs. Shirley Mehan, Mrs. Ruth Foster, Mrs. Stella King, Mrs. Judy Carr, Mrs. Gail Carson, Mrs. Myrna Dakota, Mrs. Kay Dragon, Mrs. Sandie Fitzpatrick, Mrs. Elizabeth Hurd, Mrs. Marie Minick, Mrs. Patricia Moore, Mrs. Linda Rose, Mrs. Teresa Whalen, Mrs. Marjorie Crammond, Mrs. Ann Price, and Mrs. Mary Carr.
These women continued to assist at fires and participated in many community events throughout the year. The ladies auxiliary donated blood, sang Christmas carols in the village neighborhoods, and brought gifts to many of the district’s senior citizens. The auxiliary could also be counted on to raise money at fund raisers, in which a portion of the profit was then donated to the fire company.
Nearly a half century since the original ladies auxiliary formed these women still play an active role in the fire department.
A Historical Milestone
Since the early 1800’s the village fire department consisted solely of men; however that all changed in 1982. Sandie Fitzpatrick, a charter member of the Ladies Auxiliary and the wife of former Fire Chief Joseph Fitzpatrick, entered the ranks of the fire department. Fitzpatrick became the first female to fight fires alongside of the men. She completed the same training courses they were required to and wore the same turnout gear as they did. Sandie Fitzpatrick’s membership was unprecedented and allowed for more women to enter the department over the years. Fitzpatrick herself resigned after six years of service due to medical reasons. Today six women are active firefighters with the company.
In the early 1990’s the members of the company decided that it was time to restore their most prized possession. For several years their 1871 Button Steamer, the same one saved from the firehouse blaze of 1896, sat dormant. Throughout the years improper storage facilities and weather had taken its toll on the nickel plated boiler and orginial wooden wheels. The onetime jewel of firefighting equipment was in dire need of restoration.
In order to raise money for the project the membership sought donations from friends within the community and established fund raisers. One fund raiser, the annual “Restore Our Steamer” car show, still takes place today. Donations trickled in for a few years until a major monetary award was announced. While attending the annual Hudson-Mohawk Volunteer Firefighter’s Association Convention in July of 2000, Fire Chief Jeffrey Mahar announced to the company that a $25,000 grant was awarded to the department. This grant was solely for the restoration of the steamer. The funding was secured by then-Assemblyman Robert Prentiss of the New York State Legislature.
The grant was enough money to fund the project and bring the 1871 Button Steamer back to its original glory. The fire department hired Wilde Fire Equipment Company of Mayfield, New York to complete the restoration. Over a two year period Wilde Fire’s staff disassembled each piece, restored it, and then reassembled the steamer. Today, the steamer is once again the jewel of the fire company and is proudly displayed at several parades and functions throughout the year.
The 21st Century
The Newland-Wood Fire Company of the Stillwater Fire Department has changed dramatically since its inception. Gone are the fire wardens, bucket brigades, and horse drawn fire engines. Today’s firefighters each carry a personal pager that alerts them when a neighbor is in need. They drive the most modern fire apparatus and carry versatile tools that were never thought of a century ago. The fire company even operates a rescue boat on the waters of the Hudson River.
No matter the time in history the Newland-Wood Fire Company will exemplify the true tradition of firefighting. It’s a tradition begun by the brave men who came before us and will thrive through the future generations yet to come.
Over the years one thing has remained the same. When the fire whistle blows throughout the village air, the firefighters of the Newland-Wood Fire Company rush to guard their neighbor and protect his property.