Friday, August 3, 2012

Relief in Mount Holly: the country's oldest volunteer fire department

Relief Fire Company Mount Holly NJWalking around a town like Mount Holly makes you yearn for the days when public buildings were designed for both visual appeal and functionality. The Relief Fire Company's 1892 building on Pine Street is a case in point, a solid stone structure with a highly-decorative Victorian-style tower topped by a horn-shaped weather vane. Though the truck bay doors are obviously replacements, it's not hard to imagine that the original doors might have been of handsome wood with metal trim.

Relief Fire Company Mt Holly NJAs impressive as the firehouse is, though, it's almost incidental to what makes the Mount Holly fire fighting story remarkable. THAT story is in a small red-trimmed yellow shed on the other side of the fire department driveway. It doesn't look like much, but it's the origin of the country's oldest, continually-operating volunteer fire company, founded in 1752, when the town was still known as Bridgetown.

Relief Fire Company Mt Holly NJRelief's original name was the Britannia Fire Company of Bridgetown, in recognition of its members' allegiance as British subjects. According to the Mount Holly fire website, each member was required to hang a leather bucket outside his house, and keep it filled with water and ready for use in protecting his neighbors' homes and property from fire.

The town's first water pumper truck was purchased in 1755, though the firehouse to store it wan't built until 1798. By that time, the company had changed its name to the Mount Holly Fire Company, considering "Brittania" to be both unpatriotic and anachronistic.

The small firehouse was sold in 1837 and became a toolshed for the local St. Andrew's Graveyard before being returned to the fire company and placed on its current Pine Street site. Eventually, the fire company's name was changed yet again, to Relief, and the current firehouse was built in 1892.

Visitors today can stop by the old firehouse and an adjacent shed, which houses a vintage pumper truck and other memorabilia. We weren't able to go inside, but a large window allowed us to see the contents of the museum from the sidewalk. The building isn't big or tall enough to accommodate the sliding pole or dalmatians you imagine to be part and parcel of every firehouse, but it offers an interesting view into what firefighting was like back in the day.


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