The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Finally: The true story of why firemen wear red suspenders


September 29, 2015

This month we continue with some excerpts from the very interesting book “The Golden Arrow and Other Stories” by Frances Isobel Horner, part of our collection at East Linn Museum.

I’ve selected a few of these to share in this column, because they present a very entertaining and informative picture of life in early Sweet Home.

These incidents remain in the memories of only the oldest of the old-timers of Sweet Home, but to us they are as exciting as the conquest of space.

Sweet Home’s first fire engine has had previous mention, but here is a fuller and entertaining version of why firemen wear red suspenders, thanks to Frances Horner. (Remember, this was written in the early 1960s.)

Sweet Home did not have an opera house, a swimming pool, or a golf course 50 years ago, but it did have a beautiful fire engine.

It consisted of a two-wheel cart similar to a buggy. Two chemical tanks mounted on the framework sat side by side with various gauges, tubes, and an apparatus connecting the tanks. A bell was mounted on the center above the tanks and rang a cheery sound as we ran along to the fire. A long tongue was fixed to the cart in front with a handle to pull the cart. Two reels with ropes furnished extra pulling power to the firemen who were running in front. An extra reel contained the hose with which the fluid could be aimed at the fire.

At a demonstration arranged by the City Council, piles of boards and debris were gathered in a pile at the campground, about where Dr. Dowling’s medical center now stands.

At the demonstration, the engine was not able to extinguish the bonfire. So the people pulled the fire apart and had the engine put the fire out piecemeal, as the flow of fluid was so small and not powerful enough to do the job.

In spite of the unsatisfactory demonstration, the City Council purchased the fire engine about 1910. It was a “thing of beauty and joy forever.” Sweet Home had so little to do fifty years ago that it built up the morale of this small village to own a beautiful red fire engine.

As far as anyone knows, this engine, according to the memory of the older people, was known to have gone to only one fire and fell prey to rust and decay. Once each Halloween it received a little exercise from the “spirits.” The boys would sneak the engine out and pull it up and down the muddy road as a part of the general celebration.

It was a long hot summer and the dust was deep on the streets. We children trudged our way along what is now Long Street when we saw some excitement. A group of men were opening the large, yawning, creaking doors of an old shed next to the blacksmith shop. We saw them pull out the fire engine. The telephone was busy calling to various citizens to help put out the fire. We children left our wagon at Annie Malone’s telephone office and joined the procession.

One of the firemen was having difficulty with his pants. He couldn’t buy a pair that would close in front, so he solved his problem by using a long piece of binder twine that he would tie to a steel button on each side and the string left over he would stuff in the opening. His stomach was immense.

The men pushed the fire engine out into the road. After yelling, grunting and pushing, they headed for 18th and Long Street. There were the pushers and the pullers. We were so excited that we ran right in front of Rhett Slavens, the lady undertaker who had a coffin in front on display.

The firemen had gotten up to a trot by the time we passed Watkins store. The little bell on the engine was ringing merrily and it was so exciting. The fireman who had used the binder twine to keep his pants up was in trouble, for in the excitement the long end of the string fell to the ground and when he stepped on it the buttons ripped off. One of the boys reached down and picked up the string.

A few more laps and our dog got into a fight. We couldn’t do anything about it, as the boy who owned the other dog was holding up the fireman’s pants.

We ran faster and faster; we could taste the dust as the firemen in front pulling the reels were making a terrific dust. Behind us came the fire marshal, Oakie Benson, running as fast as he could and carrying a bucket of water. Oakie was slightly crippled, and he was doing his best to keep up.

What a disappointment when we arrived at the fire, to see that the house had burned down. It wasn’t much of a house; it sat about where the undertaker’s parlor now is located. The fire marshal was so aggravated that the fire engine was too late that, instead of pouring the water on a little apple tree in the corner of the yard, he threw it all down on the dusty road and wasted it.

The house was occupied by a Sweet Home widow and one of the bachelors of the town. Many inhabitants considered the fire to be a blessing.

The firemen turned the engine around and the pushers became the pullers and the pullers became pushers... We watched the firemen put the fire engine away. They would have made it fine if they had kept moving. They became slower and slower and when they reached a small ditch just before the last push up into the shed, they came to a dead stop.

This was the prize for profanity; even the boys joined in. It took all the men and all the boys to push the fire engine up into the shed and to close the large creaking doors.

It was getting late, so we children hurried to get our groceries. My big brother ran ahead with the kerosene can (The grocery clerk had put a potato over the spout so the kerosene would not run out.). We ran all the way until we reached Hattie Rolf’s as the road was smooth.

I looked into the wagon: Had I lost anything? No. There was my Grandmother’s tea, 10 cents for it, 10 cents for a box of saleratus and a spool of thread, five cents.

I bought three cans of Tuxedo tobacco for 25 cents for my father. The cigarette papers cost 3 cents. A 10-cent bottle of bluing, five cents for vinegar, a 25 cent sack of sugar, Arbuckle coffee 15 cents a pound, a large sack of mush for 15 cents.

My little brother was crying because he was so tired from chasing the fire engine; our dog was limping home because he got the worst of the fight.

My mother came out and took the groceries. She wasn’t mad at us for being late when we told her about the fire. My grandmother had baked a peach pie for us and so ended an exciting day in beautiful Sweet Home just 50 years ago.


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