From a forest of chimneys – serving as a grim reminder of New Bern’s most destructive fire in history – to an antique American LaFrance fire truck and a loveable horse named Fred, the New Bern Firemen’s Museum serves as a unique experience for visitors.
The museum celebrated its sixth decade of preserving the history of firefighting in the city by moving into the picturesque New Bern Fire Station at 420 Broad St. Until recently, the museum was housed in a Hancock Street building that just couldn’t meet the needs of its visitors and growing exhibits. And as the first chartered fire company in the state, there’s a lot to show off.
For more than 10 years, the museum’s board has pushed for the move and raised funds for the restoration of the building. Thanks largely to the board’s efforts, antique fire equipment was finally moved to its new home in March. Though the first floor of the renovation project is complete, the work continues on the second floor, which will house exhibits specifically for children.
The striking Spanish-inspired building was built in 1928 under the direction of Mayor A.H. Bangert in hopes of quelling a rivalry that had erupted among New Bern’s two separate fire departments. His notion was that housing the units in one building would create a sense of unity and camaraderie, but the move may have put even more emphasis on the division. Each of the department had one half of the building, including separate staircases to the top floor and yes, separate firemen’s poles. The only shared space, according to reports, was the balcony on the second floor where the firemen would step outside to smoke. Visitors will note a tall tower toward the back of the building, however, it isn’t a smoke stack. Interestingly, the tower was created for the hanging and drying of hoses.
New Bern’s Firefighting History
The original New Bern Fire Dept., the Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company, organized in 1845 as a fraternal organization and is noted as the first fire department in the state. The company became inactive after the bulk of its members left to serve the Confederate Army during the Civil War, according to Nancy Mansfield, who serves as president and chair of the board of directors for the Friends of the New Bern Firemen’s Museum.
It left, as one would expect, a hole in the community. Union forces who had settled in New Bern picked up the torch, forming the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 on Jan. 1, 1865. After the war, both of the fire departments continued to serve the growing community kicking off a north vs. south rivalry that would last longer than anyone might have possibly guessed.
“The rivalry escalated when Union troops received a hand pump from the north,” according to a history compiled by the museum. “This contraption reached its maximum output when eight men exerted their weight on each end of the pump’s cross-beam lever.”
After pulling and pumping the apparatus for about three years, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company was able to persuade the town council to purchase the city’s first steam fire engine in 1879. A little more than a decade later, the Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company received a new Silsby steam fire engine.
To compete with the rival fire company, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company traded its first steam fire engine for a new Button steam engine in 1884 and gained the nickname, the Button Company.
Both companies were fierce competitors and set world records at events held across the state. The Button Company still holds the record for running quick steam at one minute and 46 seconds while the Atlantic Company won the state championship for reel racing several times, according to historical documents prepared by the Firemen’s Museum. The rivalry spilled over into daily firefighting as well, with the separate departments racing to fires to see who could get there first and who would extinguish the blaze. Fist fights weren’t uncommon and members of the community would rush to the streets to watch the competitors battle it out every time the fire bell rang. In 1914, the two sides received their first motorized engines – the Atlantic Company’s truck was white, the Button Company’s truck was red.
Although the Atlantic and the Button were the most well-known companies in New Bern, they weren’t the only ones. The Excelsior Bucket & Axe Company was a junior unit of young men between the age of 16 and 18. Once the junior firefighters reached maturity, they were absorbed by the Atlantic and Button companies, Mansfield said. Other companies in New Bern included the Independent Colored Fire Company, the Fourth Ward, the Holden Company and the Rough and Ready Fire Company.
While the two primary companies were officially combined in 1928 with the construction of the shared fire house, the rivalry persisted well into the 1950s. In 2000, everyone moved into a new central headquarters on Neuse Boulevard and in 2001 a full-time fire chief was appointed to the department. Today, New Bern Fire and Rescue has nearly 70 staff members who work side by side with volunteers and an operating budget of just over $6 million.
This rich history is brought to life at the Firemen’s Museum though artifacts, stories and pictures, including those from the Great Fire of 1922 and that loveable horse that served the city for nearly two decades.
“One of our top priorities here is education,” Mansfield said. “While we want to educate people on New Bern’s history, we also strive to get people ready for something we hope never happens.”
Children and adults alike can experience the Great Fire of 1922 – which destroyed more than 1,000 buildings left a quarter of the city’s population homeless – through an interactive display that shows the spread of the fire through a model of the city and a forest of chimneys display alluding to newspaper accounts of the fire which left “row after row of ghostly chimneys.”
Accounts of the fire collected by the Friends of the New Bern Firemen’s Museum are available to the public. One, published on Dec. 1, 1922, in The Robesonian of Lumberton details the aftermath of the fire:
“An army of grimy chimneys, standing as grim sentinels amidst an area of smouldering (sic) ruins which extends for half a mile from the western boundary of the city to Neuse River, tonight, marked the course of New Bern’s two million dollar fire, the worst in the city’s history.”
Visitors to the museum can learn about the damage to New Bern and how it impacted the city’s future growth through interactive displays and an oral history collected from survivors of the fire.
Guests will also find an exhibit on Fire Horse Fred, who pulled the hose wagon for the Atlantic Company during the early 20th century.
Fred had the ability to recognize tones of fire alarms and reach different locations by himself. Born in 1900, Fred died of a heart attack while answering a false alarm after 17 years of service to the city. Driven by an African-American, John Taylor, Fred is said to have known the most frequent locations firefighters were called to.
“While we do focus on the history, the children’s programming is at the heart of everything we do,” Mansfield said. “We try to teach people, young and old, that they have to be aware of what to do in case of a fire. It’s instantaneous. There’s no time to think. So, through the children’s programs, we hope to educate.”
Hands-on activities are available for children. They can board the Ella Bengel fire truck and pretend they’re in route to a fire as real video footage is shown on a monitor mounted outside the windshield. There are also videos of New Bern firemen answering a call so that kids feel as if they are truly in the driver’s seat. There is a fire safety house and a junior fire station. In addition to the children’s programs, seven historic engines and wagons are on display at the museum as well, all showing off the name of one local company or another. Bright red, polished for display, the engines stand as a stark reminder of New Bern’s place in North Carolina fire history.
If You Go:
The New Bern Firemen’s Museum is located at 420 Broad St., New Bern. Its hours of operation are Monday through Saturday from 10am-4pm. Admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children. Those under the age of 6 are admitted for free. For more information, call 252-636-4087.
To support the restoration of the Central Fire Station building, a Buy a Brick Campaign is underway. Those who wish to support the museum and leave a mark can purchase an engraved brick or paver which will be placed in the “Honor Walk” of the newly landscaped museum courtyard that will house an historic bell from city hall, according to Mansfield.
By Crystal Garrett