October - November 1999 Feature

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Horton Barn May 3, 1962That’s one four-letter word with the power to frighten, panic, and send people fleeing for their lives! It’s a small word with large implications, and no one knows that better than the folks who risk bodily injury and death everyday to fight them.

Early Yorktowners understood the magnitude of destruction caused by fire, but also acknowledged its necessity in their everyday world. From heat, light and cooking uses to blacksmithing to firing kilns for making bricks, lime and everyday pottery, fire was an important element in colonial society. Water buckets were kept filled for the inevitable time when a rogue spark would set off a room fire, or a candle or oil lamp would spill over. When a fire got out of hand, neighbors banded together forming water brigades that created a human link between a water source and the fire. In spite of these and other humble efforts, however, many fires resulted in the loss of homes, businesses and lives.

Fire Equipment Circa 1904By 1909, there were fire companies in Peekskill, Croton, Lake Mahopac, Katonah and Mt. Kisco, but horse drawn fire trucks traveling over dirt roads to Yorktown would only arrive in time to see the hot embers of what used to be a home or barn. On March 8, 1909 a group of prominent Yorktown citizens met at Tompkins Hall (which was located next to the Railroad Station) to form a fire company, to be known as Yorktown Heights Engine Co. #1. So began what now completes 90 years of service to the community by the Yorktown Heights Fire Department.

Young's Barn on Maple CourtOver the next several months they collected $5 per member for 33 charter memberships, drew up and adopted a constitution and by-laws, purchased a hand fire engine and three hundred feet of hose, hose cart, fire pails, axes, hooks, rope, ladders, and ladder carrier, had 50 badges made up, and agreed to rent Mrs. H. Young’s barn on Maple Court to store the engine until a permanent place could be found.

In August of that year, they had their first fire. The church bell sounded the alarm and the men responded, but they ran out of water, from a well they were using, to fight the blaze. Mr. Slawson, the baker, lost his barn, but Mr. Ryder’s Livery on Underhill Road was saved. They realized then that a water system was needed. They asked H.C. Kear to build a dam on his property (now located on the Beaver Conference Farm property) and allow an easement for pipeline to be installed which would be hooked up to hydrants or cisterns. These they hoped to have located at the railroad station park. The New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Co. agreed to a pipeline being laid under its tracks and storage tanks placed on its property. The final agreement with the Railroad came after the Yorktown Heights Engine Co. #1 agreed on its Articles of Incorporation at a special meeting called on March 9, 1910.

Croton Heights F.D. (well-house)To pay for the water system, the Engine Co. sought subscriptions from residents and hosted fund-raisers, beginning with a New Year’s Eve dance at Tompkins Hall on Dec. 31, 1909 and another on Feb. 11, 1910. On May 30th a Strawberry and Ice Cream Festival was held. C.A. Heuss provided 100 quarts of Neapolitan ice cream at cost (30 cents per quart), C.H. Bassett provided 128 quarts of strawberries at cost and Town Clerk M.L. Peet ordered 300 lemons. Fred K. Boehmer furnished the ice, free of charge. That night another dance was held!

After four months at Mrs. Young’s barn, the Engine Co. rented Charles J. Dunning’s blacksmith shop (near the Railroad Station) to store their equipment, and met in the upstairs room of the building. SignalThey purchased a locomotive engine "tire" to use as a signal, which they hung on two locust posts provided by Chester M. Hyatt. (In the 1930’s, that iron locomotive tire was placed in the Croton Heights area in front of a well house that stored fire extinguishers and brooms. It was called the Croton Heights Fire Department. There were specific gong signals which all of the Croton Heights residents were familiar with. The fire was located north, south, east or west of the well house, depending on the signal. Eventually, Croton Heights was placed in the Yorktown Heights district and the iron "tire" was returned to the firehouse, where it stands today.)

Fund-raiser ProgramIn the meantime, they held clam bakes and oyster suppers, dances (one called a "shirt waist dance"), Masquerade Balls and other social events to raise money both for the water system and to purchase a permanent site.

They held elections and voted for officers, served on committees, tended to fires (like the one in November, 1910 when they extinguished a fire that was "curing" in the swamp behind James Syze’s saw mill), and their ranks continued to grow. Late in 1911 they ordered a 40" (replaced with a 48") steel bell manufactured by the Woodhouse Manufacturing Co. and ordered a tower built to house the bell.

Nine wives of firemen were appointed to the Committee on Entertainment on March 5, 1912. Their first duty was to hold a Leap Year Dance on March 22nd. (By 1917 they were referred to as the Ladies of the Fire Company, which appears to be the beginning of the Women’s Auxiliary.)

1916 FirehouseFinally, a special meeting was called on March 16, 1912 to vote on the purchase of a lot and building from George Vredenburg to be used as a permanent firehouse. In 1916 the house was raised up, turned and placed on a cement foundation. (In 1952, that original building was replaced by the current firehouse. It was moved to the back of the property, where it was used for storage until being torn recently. {see Our Lost Treasures})

The Engine Co. was the first to practice recycling in the Town of Yorktown. On Feb. 3, 1914, residents were asked to save papers and magazines for the benefit of the Engine Co. (although I’m not sure what was done with them!). The first festival was held on Aug.20th by the Ladies Committee and the first Picture Show on October 17th, all to raise much needed funds for the expansion of services the Engine Co. provided. On December 1st of that year, the Company voted to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Town Board.

By the end of 1914, 3430 feet of water main had been installed in Yorktown Heights. In late 1915, the Engine Company approved an extension from the hydrant in the railroad station park to the "public watering trough", thus extending the reach of the much needed water. Improvements were continually being explored which required funds to be raised. This was wartime and some felt the dances should be discontinued. However, an Entertainment Committee was formed and by late 1916, a new source of fund-raising emerged…the Winter Girls Minstrels with "chairman" Miss Gertrude Hyatt of Amawalk.

After the FireThe Engine Company purchased their first truck, a Reo Fire Apparatus, in May of 1920 at a cost of $5067. Part of the money came from Motion Picture Shows held at Copper Beach Farm and Echo Hill Farm, as well as Vaudeville entertainment at Echo Hill. In June of 1920, the firemen held their first carnival that moved to the July 4th weekend the following year, and has remained to this day. Soon after, the fire bell was replaced by a fire whistle.

On March 2, 1928 the Engine Company was called to assist the Peekskill Fire Department battle a devastating fire in its downtown district. Eventually, only nine stores and eight offices were destroyed, but it potentially could have wiped out the entire business district.

While the men and women continued to raise money, the cost of fighting fires continued to climb. As a result, a new fire district was formed in 1933 so that some of the expenses could be spread out among all the people who lived within the district.

Fife & Drum Corps, 1935Although they marched regularly as a unit, by August of 1934 the Engine Co. had not purchased dress uniforms. When invited to parade at Lake Mahopac that year, they chose white pants, white shirts and a black bow tie. However, they soon grew tired of being called Good Humor Men! Later (no doubt in real uniforms) they marched in the 1939 World’s Fair Parade in Flushing, N.Y. Other association activities in 1934 consisted of sponsoring a football team called the Cornhuskers, named in honor of the town’s agricultural heritage (today it is the name used by the Yorktown High School football team), and starting the Fife and Drum Corps.

Parading in Uniform circa 1949When WWII broke out in 1941, they discontinued their carnivals and Fife and Drum Corps and instead participated in the war effort. Temporary firemen, as young as sixteen) were accepted, by state law, and the Engine Company manned the Air Raid Telephone System and the Mohegan Observation Tower in addition to fighting fires.

Women's AuxiliaryIn May of 1947, the Women’s Auxiliary was officially formed with 34 charter members.

Beside coming to the aid of other local communities, the Yorktown Heights Engine Co. #1 has traveled out-of-state to aid other communities. Relief Supplies for WinstedIn August of 1955, they assisted the hurricane-ravaged city of Port Jervis, then turned around and brought aid to Winsted, Connecticut. That same October, after another brutal storm hit the area, they went to the aid of Norwalk, Connecticut.

Brush FireGrass fires and barn fires were the main menaces to firemen in the early days of once-rural Yorktown. However, in the years since the fire company was formed, despite the valiant efforts of its members, many homes and buildings have been lost. Occasionally some significant losses occurred in the way of important landmarks: the grand St. Nicholas Hotel on Lake Mohegan burned in 1908; the Locke Ledge mansion, located in Croton Heights and owned by opera singer Lydia Locke, was lost to fire in 1966; the Pinesbridge Inn (originally called Palmer’s Croton Lake House and moved in the early 1900’s to higher ground when the Cornell Dam was built), later called the Pines Bridge Lodge, burned on December 29, 1975; the 1852 Inn in Mohegan Lake burned down in 1993; and the beautiful Colonial Hotel, built in 1898 and overlooking the Croton Reservoir, burned down sometime after 1917.

Elks Lodge FireOthers are noteworthy: the John Birdsall House and Store in Jefferson Valley burned down in 1915; the O’Brien Hotel on the corner of Underhill Avenue and Summit Street, which had been operated alternately as a hotel, restaurant and post office since 1916, burned in January of 1962; the Elks Lodge, located on the IBM Research Center land, burned down on July 15, 1968; the Triangle Shopping Center caught fire in December 1971 which required Fatal House Firesix other communities to assist, and resulted in the loss of five stores; the Yorktown Heights Railroad Depot, which sits in the heart of Railroad Park, suffered damage as a result of a fire in June of 1980; a New York City Water Dept. building on Rt. 129 exploded and caught on fire during the shooting of the movie "Ragtime" in October of 1980; a difficult and devastating brush fire broke out on the summit of Turkey Mountain in April of 1981, which required firemen to carry the water in tanks on their backs, along with brooms and rakes, to battle the blaze; and, the main barn of the Hilltop Hanover Farm on Hanover Road burned to the ground in June of 1982 as two young firemen, Bill Nickisher and Rick Shellhammer, heroically saved prized dairy cows from the inferno.

Water RescueThere have been many more fires, including one that took the lives of three children. Firemen rescue people from drowning, save stranded animals from precarious situations, and sponsor community-related charities and organizations. Ask the firemen to share some of their stories. They’re proud of the job they perform…a volunteer job…and it doesn’t end when the fire’s out!

Say "thank you" today and everyday to the men and women of Yorktown Heights Engine Co. #1!

(Note: National Fire Prevention Week was celebrated this year from October 4-8.)

Written by Linda L. Kiederer
Photos courtesy of the Town Clerk’s office

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