190627ind History

The building at 35 West Main Street, pictured as it looks today, was at one time the West Main Street Fire Barn. The Wickford Fire District, and later the North Kingstown Fire Department, used the building as its headquarters.

Nothing brought more of a sense of dread to the inhabitants of a closely constructed community like Wickford, Davisville, Belleville or any other of the local villages than the thought of a fire racing out of control and consuming homes and businesses one by one. There was no greater agony for a family and their neighbors than to stand by helplessly and watch all they possess being devoured by flames; and, short of hurriedly-formed bucket brigades, watch was all the population of these communities could do in the 17th and 18th centuries. With that in mind, the populations of these and many villages like them began to form fire districts and organize themselves against the inevitable—fire.

The origins of the North Kingstown Fire Department can be traced back to April of 1805 when the community leaders of Wickford and its immediate surroundings incorporated the Wickford Fire District and assessed a fire tax against all village property to be used to purchase firefighting equipment. The all-volunteer company elected George Tennant of West Main Street as its first fire chief and purchased a hand engine complete with buckets, ladders, hooks, and ropes. In November of 1806 a vote of the fire district required all property owners to purchase two leather firefighting buckets within 90 days. Subsequent votes required residents to clear the streets of all lumber and stones to allow clear passage for the engine, as well as to keep stray livestock off the roads so as not to impede the passage of the hand pumper. In 1847 the district purchased their third engine, a hand-pumper which some believe is the “Narragansett” which is now housed at the South County Museum. In 1885, the fire district purchased the hand-pumper “Washington #1” which was until recent time housed in the firefighting museum in the building which once was the Methodist Church on West Main Street. At some point around that same time the company opened the West Main Street Fire Barn in a building it purchased from Charles Stafford the town treasurer and village blacksmith. The building was next door to his blacksmith shop (now the site of the Wickford Package Store) and served the town as its fire station for many years.

At the financial town meeting in December of 1916 the town voters cast their ballots to purchase the equipment of the Wickford Fire District and to use it as the beginnings of a true “town-wide” fire department. This transaction officially occurred on June 1, 1917. The town subsequently absorbed the Saunderstown, Davisville, Quidnessett, and Slocum Fire Districts into this new North Kingstown Fire Department. At the same December meeting it was also voted to purchase the town’s first motorized pumper, an American-LaFrance model with cost around $8,000. Later in 1917 the newly-formed fire commission voted to pay all callmen (volunteer firemen) $2 for the first three hours of a fire attended and $1 for each subsequent hour. The 1917 financial town meeting voted to approve the expenditure of $10.16 per month to the Providence Telephone Company for a fire alarm signal system which rang a bell in each callman’s home as well as a few prominent businesses such as Ryan’s Market to alert the volunteers of a fire. The bells all rang continuously until a callman unlocked the fire barn and disengaged the system. Interestingly enough the fire barn’s water needs were partially fulfilled by a rain water collection system which gathered the rain that fell on the roof and funneled it into a huge iron tank on the ground floor of the building. The all-volunteer system operated in North Kingstown until 1950 when Arthur Selley, the fourth North Kingstown Fire Chief, became its first permanent paid employee, although the majority of its firefighters were still volunteer for many years to come.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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