Of Iron Boxes, Fire Bells, and Burning Buggies

The burning buggy was a mishap that struck a farmer driving his team along the road to Wake Forest from Franklinton in 1916.

He was delivering a load of eight dozen eggs to sell in town and, finding the weather comfortable, put his buggy blanket in the space behind him so it covered the eggs.

About halfway to Youngsville, he passed a pile of burning brush close by the side of the road. A mile farther on, he began to realize his back felt way too warm–so he turned around.

A roaring fire was crackling there, fueled by the blanket and cooking the eggs! The farmer put it out without too much trouble, but the blanket was ruined, the buggy scorched, and the eggs all prepared to varying degrees of “done.”

This was not uncommon in the days before fire departments.

Early 20th century horse and buggy at the entrance to the Wake Forest College campus.

Honestly, for folks in Wake Forest the most available emergency response team was a crowd of students lined up in a bucket brigade. They sometimes managed to squelch a smaller blaze, but did little to prevent disasters like the one that leveled Dr. Holding’s barn. That one happened while the fire pump was locked in the guardhouse and the man with the key was gone to Raleigh.

This is why even the most basic technology felt like an enormous leap.

So when the town’s first modern fire protection system went up in October 1922, the confusion led to this tongue-in-cheek explanation from the editors of the Wake Forest College newspaper, the Old Gold & Black.

“For the information of the freshmen who have been viewing with fear and trembling the numerous red iron boxes attached to electric poles in various parts of town, it is requested that they be informed that these are not warning signals reminding them to beware the wrath to come because of the sins of former freshmen which may have been visited upon them unto the third and fourth generation.
These are the fire alarm boxes.
The town for the past month has been installing a new, up-to-date fire department.”

Along with the boxes, the Town of Wake Forest also purchased a Wescott fire truck with a modern pump and a thousand feet of hose, a forty-gallon force chemical tank, and two five-gallon hand chemical tanks.

But getting the new truck rumbling down the dirt roads promptly enough to extinguish a blazing barn, house, or business also meant installing a communication system. So town leaders attached a loud bell to the top of the water tower adjacent to campus.

This photo of the water tower was taken in 1932.

The system also used small electric bells wired into the homes of local firefighters, so when someone pulled any of the alarm boxes they would all go off at once.

As each box gave a coded number of blasts to indicate location, keys were occasionally published in the Old Gold & Black.

Fire alarm box locations, circa 1920s.
Fire alarm box locations, circa 1930s.

The town’s original firefighters were some of the most prominent citizens of the day, such as Chief T.M. Arrington, along with J.C. Caddell, Jr., J.M. Brewer, W.W. Holding, Jr., and George Saintsing.

With the town still segregated, the African American community organized its own volunteer fire department.

Located on North Taylor Street, Wake Forest Volunteer Fire Company #2 went into service in 1942 and was led by Chief Edward Alston, along with firefighters Matthew Williams, George Massenburg, and Robert Alston.

To engage the community and encourage young people to support the volunteers, Fire Company #2 held regular street parties, picnics, and competitions that revolved around fire safety challenges like climbing, running, and reeling hose.

This history is well worth celebrating, which is why the Wake Forest Historical Association is proud to be joined by representatives from the Wake Forest Fire Department to host a free public forum at the museum this Sunday, January 13th from 3-5pm. 

The forum will be led by Captain Ben Davis and include several additional speakers and a visual presentation. Refreshments will be served afterwards.

The museum is located at 414 N. Main Street. Parking is available behind the building, along E. Juniper and E. Walnut, and on N. Main Street.

Leave a Reply