This Was the Town That Made America Famous, Part 1

By Bruce Mastracchio   

Yes, this was the Town that made America famous; the local Fire Department stocked with short-haired Volunteers, and on Saturday night when they showed movies, the lawyer and the youngest teens saw their dreams on the movie screen, BUT something’s burning somewhere. Does anybody care?
– Harry Chapin

It was back in that more innocent time I like to write about. Before accruing Washingtons and Lincolns and Grants became more of an agenda than paying attention to your fellow man.

The local Fire Department was stocked with short-haired volunteers, me and my buds among them. On hearing that song by Harry Chapin, I thought he might have had East Greenwich in mind when he wrote it.

The EG firemen marching down Division street during a parade.

Volunteer activity was heavy in those days and gave that group an elitist feeling. A good feeling. A different feeling. It hasn’t been felt in a long time. Getting paid for doing something doesn’t make something good necessarily.

For whatever the reason, many EG boys joined the EGFD at the age of 15 in the Juniors program. Some joined to help others. To do a good turn. Some joined for the excitement and adventure. Some had a goal of making firefighting an occupation. Maybe a combination of all of those reasons. Back then being an EGFD volunteer meant something.

In the early days the station on Main Street was unmanned. Calls came into the local telephone operator (my mother was one as were two of my aunts). She would then press a button that would activate the siren. The horn came later.

Volunteers would either rush to the station, or call the operator and she would give them the location of the fire. If a firefighter worked for a local business, or, was a Junior fireman going to school, he was allowed to leave to fight the fire under an agreement worked out between the business community, the school and the fire department.

Later on a system was developed that allowed the siren signal to go off followed by a series of blasts on a horn placed on the roof of Station 1 on Main Street, that gave the approximate location of the fire. Every firefighter had a book to refer to. Some had the system memorized. If the first blast was solitary it meant the fire was above Main Street. Two initial blasts meant below Main. Three was for Cowesett. Four was Frenchtown. Five for Potowomut.

For instance, 2-1-2-6 was a fire at the Italian-American Club on Duke Street. 1-2-4-2 was Eldredge School. 3-1-1 was Spencer Avenue. 4-1-1-2 was The Grange in Frenchtown. 5-2-2-1 was Rocky Hill School. On top of that there were special signals such as 2, which was the test blast every day a noon (Sundays at 1 p.m.); 4-4 was fresh water drowning; 5-5 meant a riot; 6-3 was Goddard Park; 7 was an out-of-district drowning.

The young volunteers took pride in their position, especially if it meant they got out of school to go fight a big brush fire. This happened a few times, both during the days of the old East Greenwich Academy and when EG High School was on Cedar Avenue (where Cole Middle School is now). Of course, being a Junior also meant a lot of training under the watchful and critical eyes of the older men, in particular George King and Joe Lawrence. They could be tough on you.

Some of the more memorable fires were the Pig Farm fire, which was lit by a man who murdered a whole family (read about the Dusza-Reynolds case here); the Main Street fire at Odd Fellows Hall; the Efco Manufacturing fire; the Benny’s fire (read about that here); the Bleachery fire; a couple of shanty town fires and plenty of woods fires. Of course, the older guys could go on for hours about their “fights,” but the above mentioned are ones that stick in my mind the most.

Being near Quonset Point, and in the path of leave and liberty weekends for the young sailors and marines stationed there, meant a lot of late night and weekend rescue calls. In those days there were a lot of accidents, some horrific, and as young teenagers we were exposed to blood, gore and death that some people had to go to war to see. Crushed cars, battered and bloody servicemen, even, one time, a headless Navy guy hit by a train – these were fairly routine sights for boys serving as volunteers for the EGFD. One time we even got to assist when Mr. King (who died in 2015 at age 92) delivered a baby. On a couple of other occasions we had to dive under water at Goddard and Sandy Point to recover drowning victims.

Almost every one of these escapades was captured on film and a journey through Charlie Booth’s photo album would be an eye opener to a lot of people. Mr. Booth was the unofficial-official photographer for the EGFD and he was always on hand. To me his photos deserved an award. They were on-the-scene records of fires, accidents, rescues, drownings and the like. No one who has seen them can ever forget his shots of the four North Kingstown football players who were chasing their girlfriends and got hit by a train at the Cowesett crossing (one of the reasons for the bridge you see there today).

It should be mandatory viewing for every prom going teenager. I used to use them when I taught school in California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to show how a little “fooling around,” and a second’s wrong decision, can lead to death and destruction.

End of Part One. In Part Two, Bruce will talk about the Dunn Fire and Musters and thank the men who made EGFD the best volunteer company in the state.

 

10 Replies to “This Was the Town That Made America Famous, Part 1”

  1. Well done accolade to the one of the best organizations this old burg ever had. Many town lads who joined the department went on to careers based upon interests they found being members of the EGVFD. Time marches on and we are told to expect changes, but those of us with enough years accrued to be able to judge such changes, well ‘this ain’t our’ East Greenwich any longer and it’s a sad thing to watch. In its day, being a Volunteer was an education in itself, a career choice for some, and a lifetime hobby for all. It’s one of my regrets that I never joined. I was once too young and when old enough, too old. But I never missed a muster, even pulled on the old tub a few times, and I did get to bring the family to several carnivals. They didn’t just put out fires, those guys. Bravo, Bruce.

  2. Thank you for the great article. Just wondering when this picture was taken. I have quite a bit of history in my family with the fire department. My great grandfather was one of the first fire chiefs. My father in law was very involved. My husband and brother in law started as volunteers and then went on to work for the fire department.

    1. Good question, Elaine. I’m not sure we’ll have an answer but I’ll check with Alan Clarke, who supplied the photos.

  3. I would like a copy of the picture my dad is in it . My dad served on that fire Dept for a long time and did the fireman’s musters everywhere . My dads name was Harold Ball Sr

  4. The group shot posed in front of the fire station appears to be mid-1940s to me. I recognize several of the members but they are younger in the picture than when I knew them.
    The picture of the lads marching down the hill, pretty sure it’s Division Street, appears to be about the same time, judging from the cars. This picture was lovingly restored by the late Kerry Rice Rock who worked with me in restoring several old town photographs. Kerry was a Townie and daughter of Walter and Edna Rice. We miss her.
    I invite anyone recognizing people in these pictures to send them to me care of EG News and we’ll try to cobble together captions.

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