Establishment of the Yantic Fire Engine Company
It was 1847, and a mill owner in Norwich, Connecticut realized that his mill would be quickly destroyed if a fire ever broke out on the property. He petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for a charter for a fire company in the village of Yantic, which is tucked into the city's northernmost section.In July of 1847, the General Assembly granted the charter to Erastus Williams, and the Yantic Fire Company was born. It should be noted that the Charter was given by the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut, and only the General Assembly can revoke, alter or amend the charter. Members of the fire company met for the first time on Sept. 23, 1847, gathering at the store owned by Huntington Wadsworth. As presiding officer, Williams led them through the organizational tasks, including the choice of the company's first officers:Albert Stafford, Captain; Gilbert H. Tanner, Lieutenant; and Joshua H. Woodworth, Clerk and Treasurer. The Constitution and Bylaws were written into the first volume of company records, with the first Article stipulating "The Name of this Company shall be the Yantic Fire Engine Company Number 1 of the Town of Norwich."
Preamble or Promise to Serve
We, the undersigned, do agree to enlist in the Yantic Fire Engine Company Number 1, and promise faithfully to perform all duties, obey our lawful officers, observe the rules and regulations of the Company, which may be from time to time made agreeable to the Charter of said Company.
The eighteen men who took that oath to form the original fire company are: Albert Stafford, Joshua H. Woodworth, Thomas Greenbank, Austin Brown, James Dearden, James Arnold, Benjamin Lucas, Amasa Square, David Toft, Gilbert Tanner, Samuel Smith, William Banning, James Johnson, John Falkner, William Wise, Frances Taylor, Jabez C. Hunt, Jeremiah Sims.
Oddly enough, the name of Erastus Williams was not on the roster. Perhaps he felt he had done his part in obtaining from the legislature the charter to establish the fire company, and was content to leave the organizational details to others. Perhaps he was bowing to social conventions of the time, which would almost certainly have considered it inappropriate for the mill owner to belong to an organization with social overtones, whose membership would be largely the mill hands.The original constitution provided a clear definition of what constituted an alarm of fire: Art. Ninth. An alarm of fire shall consist of the cry of fire and the ringing of the Factory Bell in the village. A fire out of the village shall be considered an alarm only provided an alarm shall be made in the village and the Company does not go. Although the fire company was established to protect the mill and the village, it actually covered much more area than Yantic village - in fact at one time the fire company's territory encompassed a goodly portion of the Town of Norwich as well as surrounding towns. The earliest meetings of the fire company were devoted to testing the engine, with a meeting following the testing, or drill as we now call it. In the records, the heading was written as Norwich, not Yantic, with the date, although sometimes that detail was omitted. The company clerk recorded, "agreeable to a warning, the Company met at 6 1/2 o'clock." The roll was then called and the engine taken out for its test. Sometimes the results were recorded, sometimes not.Albert Stafford was the first Foreman, or Chief, of the Company. He served as Assistant Foreman and was the Foreman during the Civil War years. He served a total of 10 years in this capacity. After leaving Yantic, he moved to Poquetanuck and died there in mid-1905.
Williams Family History
The early history of the Fire Company is so closely bound up with the Williams family that some background about the Williams’s seems in order. Captain Erastus Williams was born in Essex in 1793. He settled in Saybrook, but went to sea at an early age and soon advanced to Ship's Master or Captain, and amassed a small fortune. After the death of his first wife, he married Elizabeth Tracy of Norwich after retiring from the seafaring life. He bought the Tisdale property in Yantic, which is now the Yantic Woolen Mill. Besides establishing the Yantic Fire Engine Company, Captain Williams was also instrumental in establishing the Episcopal Church in Yantic, which was formed officially November 27, 1853. Captain Williams had one son, Erastus Winslow Williams, to whom he leased the mill. On May 26, 1864, the mill burned to the ground. E. Winslow Williams had a new cornerstone laid in 1865 and within a year, the new mill building was completed. At 11:30 a.m. on April 16, 1866, his sons, Louis, age 8, and Winslow Tracy, age 3, started the wheels and the mill was back in operation. Captain Williams subsequently gave his son full title to the mill. Just a year to the day after the mill restarted, Captain Williams died. Erastus Winslow Williams, who was born in 1831, lived at 41 Broadway and also at 66 Broadway. Through his mother, he could trace his lineage to two Norwich settlers, William Hyde and John Tracy. He was a graduate and trustee of Trinity College and trustee and Corporator of Norwich Free Academy. In 1868, he built his mansion, called Rockclyffe, in Yantic, on what is now called Mansion Hill. He died in 1888. Winslow Tracy Williams, the third Williams to own the Yantic Woolen Mill, was born in 1863 and moved to Yantic when he was five. Since his brother had died in 1884, it was Winslow Tracy Williams who took over operation of the mill upon his father's death. He also continued his father's tradition of looking after the Fire Company. Many times, they had both come to the rescue, financially and otherwise, and the Fire Company probably wouldn't have survived if not for their help. W.T. Williams was actively involved in the Fire Company, serving for a time as Foreman, and also as the Engineer. In 1908, Williams built the bridge to what is now Sunnyside. The old wooden bridge was taken out and a temporary bridge built upstream until the new structure was finished. Williams was also active in the Grace Church and undoubtedly was heavily involved in construction of the church now on Chapel Hill. Like the mill, the firehouse and the bridge to Sunnyside, the church is built of stone. W. T. Williams retained control of the mill until bad economic conditions forced him to sell in 1918. The mansion became property of the new mill owners, the American Woolen Company, which sold it in 1929. It was then razed, and although it has been gone for nearly 70 years, the site is still known as Mansion Hill. Williams moved to Sound Beach on Long Island, where he died in 1930. The Fire Company acknowledged his death with a wreath, and in returned received a letter of thanks from his widow. The fourth generation of the family was Erastus Winslow Williams, the only one of the family born in Yantic, in 1890. In 1918, he joined the Army, then returned and was listed on the Fire Company roster for 1918 with New York City as his address. From then on, nothing about him was heard.
The Civil War
October 24, 1864. Word has been received of the death of Joseph Tracy, who was wounded in action and died at Sandy Hook, Maryland. Foreman Albert Stafford calls a special meeting of the Fire Company to draw up a Resolution regarding Tracy's death. Foreman Stafford, James Dearden and Samuel Harrison were appointed a committee to make arrangements for his funeral, including receiving the body, the opening of the grave and obtaining a suitable hearse. The Fire Company voted to attend the funeral wearing the usual badges of mourning. Eighteen-year-old Joseph Tracy joined the Fire Company in 1861. He was elected Clerk-Treasurer on March 29, 1862, perhaps because of his excellent, clear handwriting. Just a few months later, on August 7, 1862, Joseph enlisted in the 18th Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers, serving as a musician. He was wounded at Snickers Gap, Virginia on July 18, 1864 and died of the wound at Sandy Hook, Maryland. The Fire Company resolution acknowledging his death was drawn up and placed in the fire company records, with a copy given to Tracy's family. That resolution was, of course, not the first war-related matter to involve the Yantic Fire Company. As early as August 1861, the Fire Company was called upon to turn out for a procession to greet the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of Volunteers as they returned home from the Battle of First Manassas, or Bull Run. The 2nd Connecticut had been mustered into service for three months, just in time for First Bull Run. They did not see much action there, and were one of the few units to reach Washington with their arms intact. Most of the other Federal units had been routed. On August 9, 1861, a total of 13 uniformed members of the Fire Company assembled at noon to travel to Norwich in time for the afternoon parade to greet the returning soldiers. Since they were early, they were invited to the Wauregan Hook and Ladder Engine Company's house, where they remained for about an hour, then formed to march to the Railroad Depot. It was difficult to form there, so they returned to Washington Street, marched through several streets, then back to Washington Street and the Breed House where a "bountiful repast" was served. Finally, they assembled to march home, arriving about dusk, and were dismissed. Joseph Tracy was not the only Yantic fireman killed in the War. Captain John McCall was killed at Drury's Bluff near Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted as a private at age 25 in the 8th Connecticut Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers. He was chosen sergeant, and in February 1863, promoted to captain. Capt. McCall served in the North Carolina campaign under Major General Ambrose Burnside and also fought at Sharpsburg, Maryland, or the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. It was there that 14,000 Union men were killed and 11,000 Confederates. Although wounded and captured, Capt. McCall endured until his third year as a soldier. He was sitting on the ground at Drury's Bluff near Richmond, Virginia, when he was shot through the heart. He sprang to his feet, declared, "I'm a dead man." and fell backwards, dead. Capt. John McCall was noted for his bravery and the skillful management of his men. His certificate of service is still in the Yantic firehouse. A. Dwight McCall, who had served as Clerk of the Fire Company in 1854, was wounded at Cold Harbor. In addition, there were a number of members of the Kingsley family on the fire company rolls, among them Col. T.G. Kingsley, Charles Kingsley, Alpheus Kingsley, Jason Kingsley, Fred Kingsley, Frederick Kingsley and J. William Kingsley. Many of them were on the Fire Company rolls for only a short time. Col. Thomas G. Kingsley had been a colonel in the Connecticut Militia for eight years before taking command of the 26th Infantry Regiment in Norwich in 1862. The Regiment left Norwich on Nov. 12, 1862, aboard the Commodore, with the band playing "The Girl I Left Behind Me." They went to Louisiana and fought at Port Hudson, where losses were quite heavy. Among the wounded was Col. Kingsley, who was sent to a hospital in Baton Rouge, where General William T. Sherman was also among the patients. When he returned to duty, Col. Kingsley was given command of his brigade.
New Fire Station
Saturday, April 21, 1906. 1:1O a.m. The alarm sounds for a fire in the village - the Firehouse is going up in flames. Several members of the fire company, returning from a benefit dance, spotted the flames and immediately sounded the alarm. They had to break down the Firehouse door to get the equipment out to fight the fire. Hoses were attached to the mill hydrants and three lines played on the fire. After an hour of hard work, the fire was extinguished. The Company was dismissed at 3 a.m. with a caretaker left at the building for the rest of the night. The upstairs and contents suffered heavy damage due to smoke and water, leaving the building unusable, just as the Company was trying to raise money to beautify the assembly room. It was generally agreed that without the prompt action of the members who happened by, nothing would have been saved. The fire started in a closet under the stairs but how is unknown. The building had been the Company home since 1863. The memory associated with it during this long time endeared it to the older members, especially those who had been at the fire. The new Firehouse was built in 1907 and occupied in 1908. The records have almost nothing to say about its construction, so we know very little. We do know it was built on order of Winslow T. Williams and without him it probably never would have been built. He ordered the same type of stone used in construction of the mill. This Firehouse is still in use today.
July 5, 1909. For what is probably the only time in its history, the Fire Company passes in review before the President of the United States. The Fire Company was among units marching in Norwich's 250th Anniversary Parade. Mill owner W. T. Williams was a Vice President of the General Committee of the 250th Anniversary of the town and City. He was also the President of the executive committee of the Quarter Millennium Celebration, as it was called. The President of the United States, William Howard Taft, visited Yantic as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Williams at Rockclyffe. From there, the President was escorted to the city to watch the parade on July 5, 1909. The actual celebration spanned July 4, 5, and 6. The 4th of July was on a Sunday and the Parade was held on Monday. Very little is said in the records about this parade, but it is probably the only time the Company ever passed in review before the President of the United States.
April 1, 1923. Easter Sunday, 1:10 p.m. Alarm of fire at the Sacred Heart Church on West Town Street. The 10 men in the station started out in about 30 seconds, but it still took 4 minutes to get to the Church. The fire was burning in the rear of the church and had reached a building adjacent to the Church called "The Chapel". The large chemical tank was used at first. The engine was put on a hydrant on the north of the Church and the streams of water played on the fire. The fire was also between the slate and the ceiling metal, making it hard to get to. The City Department arrived and hooked to the hydrant south of the Church and put two streams on the fire. After four hours, the fire was declared under control. The Chapel was burned to the ground. The roof was burned off and everything inside was practically destroyed except the floor. The cause of the fire was thought to be from a heater or from a candle. The Company returned to the Engine House at 5:30 p.m., with 29 members present. The Engine burned out a bearing in the motor at about the time the fire was out. After that water was used direct from the hydrant but with little pressure.
World War II
December 9, 1941. Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Foreman Sinko calls a special meeting to discuss plans relative to the United States entry in World War II. The following was inserted in the records of the Company: "Whereas the United States is now at a declared war with Japan and practically with Germany and Italy, and whereas bombing raids may occur and or other disastrous emergencies arise that may require action of an unusual character on our part, therefore it seems wise to us to prepare in advance to give as effective service as possible in any event." After earnest discussion, the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:
Voted - That the Foreman secure a competent man to give a course of instruction in First Aid.
Voted - That the Company solicit an auxiliary corps to have no voting or other Company membership privileges, to assist at all calls during the War emergency, provided the Town Council finds no legal obstacles.
Voted - That such volunteers be enrolled in an Auxiliary Corps upon receiving a majority vote by ballot of the members present at a regular meeting.
Voted - That the members of the Auxiliary Corps be exempt from the payment of dues.
Discussion brought forth the consensus of opinion; that such members of the Auxiliary Corps should be granted full use of the Station and Equipment but should not be permitted to drive or ride on the truck. But formal action was not taken on these points pending legal advice as to the responsibility, in the event of an accident. It was further agreed that a reasonable quantity of kerosene be kept on hand to supply lanterns, in the case of a blackout occurred while their services were required. Sixty-six men and one woman left this small village to offer their lives on the Holy Altar of Freedom and to save the world for democracy. They served in all branches of the Armed Forces of this country.
Expansion of the Department
December of 1962, the ownership of the Yantic Fire Engine Station House passed into their hands. To this day the firehouse remains property of the Yantic Fire Engine Co, and is not considered a government building; rather it is private property.
April 5, 1970. Ralph Lodyko will draw up plans for a new annex building to house the old antique equipment. A motion was made to go ahead with the new building. Republic Oil of Willimantic put in 500 gallon fuel tanks, one for diesel fuel and the other for gasoline. On January 2, 1973, the new building was started by F. W. Brown Construction Co. Ray Quinley is doing the painting and Joe Daigle is doing the wiring and electric heat in the building, with parts purchased at cost from Higgins Electric. The project was to be completed within a month. hat annex building is still in use today, housing the 3rd due engine and 1st due squad to medical responses.
October 1975, the Fire Company bought from Ed Sinko the 5 acres of land just north of the station on the other side of the railroad tracks. We have subsequently built a large covered area with a bar-b-que pit and often use this for firehouse events including the steak and lobster dinners. We also rent this area out to anyone looking for an open, well kept area in which to enjoy their outdoor activites.
Activation of the Women's Auxiliary
November 1962, the Company voted to establish a Women's Auxiliary. A motion was made to have a letter written to the Connecticut Attorney General relative to the legality of a women's auxiliary. By January 1963, the women were working on a set of bylaws to be submitted to the Fire Company for approval. The Women's Auxiliary was established February 4, 1963, and their constitution and bylaws accepted. This was a very smart move on the Fire Company's part, as the women have made this Company a lot of money and have proven very valuable in many ways. This was another feather in Chief Kane's hat, or rather, in his helmet.
Arson at the Firehouse
January 15, 1970. 11:22 p.m. Fire is reported at Yantic Firehouse. Firefighters used a garden hose and a booster line to quickly contain a fire in the cellar stairwell of the Firehouse itself. Additional 2 1/2 lines were laid as a precaution. Units from Taftville and East Great Plains and Norwich Engine 3 all responded. Subsequent investigation determined that the fire was "of incendiary origin" - that is, deliberately started. The blaze started in the cellar way on the first landing leading from the basement. A considerable amount of Zip Guard Polyurethane Varnish had been taken from storage and spread over the stairs from the cellar to the first floor. When this was ignited it set off the fire detection units and alerted firemen to the fire. Norwich Police Officer Dorr made the initial investigation and Detective Kenneth Keeley followed up, along with State Police Cpl. Ronald LaLiberte. As a result of their investigation, one of the company's own men was arrested for arson. Chief Kane informed him that he was under suspension until further notice and as a result he was voted out of the Company permanently. Chief Kane later dropped the charges against him because of his wife and children. As a result, he never went to jail. The only good thing that came out of this fire was that the company decided to renovate the entire basement and after the cleanup by Peter Cuprak, a contractor was brought in to finish off the interior. It was made into a lounge area with a pool table, television and furniture to make it comfortable. The small room off the lounge was made into an exercise room a few years ago with exercise equipment including two exercise bicycles installed. This area is for rest, relaxation and watching television.
Death of Walter Kane
Wednesday, July 29, 1987. 10:30 a.m. A body is reported floating in the Yantic River behind the Firehouse. The body was identified as that of the Fire Company's former Chief, Walter Kane. He had been reported missing by a man who lived with him on Mansion Hill. Kane would sometimes go off for a few days but if he did, he usually told his sister, Patricia Stolz, where he was going. She had not heard from him either and was upset and worried. The crowd that gathered included radio and TV crews. The present Chief, Ray O'Connell, arrived and took over the situation. A Stokes basket (wire stretcher) was taken into the water and Kane's body put into it and then taken to shore where it was transferred to a body bag. Before it was put in the body bag, the police photographer took a picture of him lying in the stretcher. His forearms were covered in mud and he had a mark on his face probably from a stone or something in the river. By listening to what was being said at the scene, it was deduced that Kane had gone to the Firehouse during the night, or the previous evening. He had apparently gone home across the Railroad Trestle, which was common in Yantic, lost his footing and fell into the river, knocking himself out in the process. The water was fairly deep in that spot, directly under the bridge. Kane's body was taken to the morgue for an autopsy, which is the law in the State of Connecticut, in all cases where cause of death is unknown or foul play could be a factor. Chief Kane was carried to his grave on his beloved Diamond T truck with former 1st Assistant Chief Lester Shaw riding the back step and Chief Engineer Robert Allen driving. The men and a Color Guard from the East Great Plains Fire Company lined up in front of the Firehouse before the Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Norwichtown, and presented the last salute to their former Chief. Chief Ray O'Connell was in command. Kane was the Secretary of the Company at the time of his death. He succeeded Thomas F. Tumicki who had served for 32 years, but had moved out of the district to North Franklin. Chief Kane was a good man and will long be remembered by those who knew and served with him. In Chief Kane's memory, a memorial dance is held each year and is very well attended. It is the time when a student at Norwich Free Academy is honored with the Walter C. Kane Memorial Award for service to the community.
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