WOODSTOCK — When the fire alarm sounds today, a department might be taken completely by surprise if the entire community showed up at the station ready to serve, but 200 years ago when Shenandoah County’s first fire department was organized, the alarm bell’s peal called the entire town to the rescue.

Zach Hottel, Shenandoah County archivist and Woodstock Fire Department member, explained that 200 years ago Woodstock probably only had about 1,000 people, a four-square block area.

But when the bell rang, all hands were needed — hands and elbow grease — to respond to the county’s first fire department called the Woodstock Fire Company.

In the 1800s, structures were built mainly of wood, so when a fire broke out, the only hope was that the fire would not spread, hence the main goal: keep the flames from extending to adjacent buildings.

That goal was why the fire department formed — in 1822 a large fire nearly destroyed the entire town. Therefore, the decision was made: a fire brigade was needed.

“That’s usually the case,” said Hottel, explaining that most catastrophes result in actions to prevent the next.

So, Woodstock and Shenandoah County residents decided they needed to be prepared and, with the help of the town, the county’s first department was formed in 1823, complete with elected officers and a fundraising committee. Hottel said that besides the town offering funds, Shenandoah County government donated to the department, a financial gift that made the department responsible for the protection of the county’s courthouse and jail, both located in Woodstock.

It started with just “one hose,” said Hottel with a grin, gesturing to the numerous trucks, hoses, pumps, and firefighting tools that the department currently manages. “That’s all they had. One hose.”

And with only one hose, there is not a great deal of training — or membership — just volunteer helpers who came running when the bell gave the cry. “There was no training. They just made it up as they went along,” said Hottel, laughing and contemplating the hundreds of hours a fireman must clock in order to serve a 21st Century department.

The arrival of Woodstock’s 19th-century pumper would have been a novelty as most people probably would have never seen a fire engine — a real crowd stopper as it rolled down U.S. 11, the Old Valley Pike, from Alexandria. Not only did the department need to learn to operate the machine, but the members also had to learn how to care for it, a trial by error process.

Hottel said in the beginning, the department could go for an entire year without a call, but when the call came, help was needed.

Therefore, in the 1800s, when the bell, currently located on Court Street just outside the department, sounded the alarm town’s people showed because the engine/pumper — a large-wheeled tank-like contraption whose replica graces the department’s showroom — had to be pulled by men to the fire’s location.

The Woodstock department — like many other departments — did not have horses to pull the hose and pumper because, Hottel explained, horses required care and stabling, two things that cost money, so two things that were not available in most towns.

Therefore, in order to move the pump and the roll of hose to the fire’s location, manpower was needed to drag the huge vehicle over rutted dirt roads, through muddy ditches, and along snow-covered lanes. It was the 1800s, and most roads were not paved.

And when the manpower arrived, shifts were needed of every able-bodied person who showed because the pump was also powered by manual labor. Eight persons on each side of the pump pulled water from any nearby body of water — a stream, a pond, a cistern, or a well. This labor was exhausting, so teams of men were necessary; women provided support for the laboring men.

Working in the motion of a teeter-totter, the huge pump worked like a vacuum, pushing water out of the single hose.

The process would have required back-breaking labor, a strenuous effort on a hot summer day, a muddy disaster during spring rains, or a bitter cold toil on snowy nights.

As time moved on, Hottel said, in the late 1800s, the town put in large cisterns on the corners to assist with fire suppression, an option before the town’s water systems went into place in 1901 when hydrants were installed.

“Big fires bring change,” said Hottel. He explained that the department formed after the fire of 1822; the Boyer building fire resulted in cisterns on corners; the 1970s Walton and Smoot and 1980s Woodstock Print Shop fire resulted in the purchase of the first ladder truck. “Need often is the catalyst for actions,” Hottel said.

Besides bringing about a change, fires were a means to bring the community together — not just for updating services but for fellowship. Hottel said in the early days the department did not allow women to be fire department members, so the women organized the auxiliary. Now, nearly 75 years later, the auxiliary still exists at the Woodstock Fire Department, a constantly evolving membership that allows anyone interested in being supportive of the department without being fire crew membership.

In Woodstock, as in many other departments around the county and the state, membership was a family affair. Hottel said many times entire families would attend state conventions, the entire family would be part of operations, or the entire family would be part of the social club that was the department. Dances, picnics, bingo events, poker games, and parades were all part of the calendar of events.

The department “was more like a club,” or a “social status” of membership, said Hottel. “We were an extended family community and still are.”

Hottel explained the department’s history can be divided into “basically three periods” — 1823 to 1901, 1904 to 1929, and the current period that began in the 1930s. After the Civil War, the Woodstock Fire Company was renamed the Shenandoah Fire Company. In the 1930s the name was changed to the Woodstock Fire Department when the department purchased the first motorized vehicle. This vehicle was purchased with the understanding that the Woodstock department would use the vehicle for fire suppression outside the town limits. Prior to the department’s motorized vehicle, fires were tended by good neighbors.

“The Woodstock department would go all over the county to help until the other departments formed,” Hottel said.

The final period includes trainings, uniforms, technology advances, and the multiple vehicles of today. Personal protective equipment came in stages — prior to the 1920s, firemen wore their own clothing. In the 1920s gear included a helmet and coat then later a 1940s gas mask — straight from the coal mines — to the 1970s when members were given a tank with air.

Hottel said that World War II changed the training. Prior to that time, training was monthly and conducted by members, but after WWII, training was developed by the state with specific classes and resources for departments to develop and perfect.

The department, located on various sites along Woodstock’s Court Street, occupied several homes before its current location. In its infancy, the department was adjacent to the rear of the Shenandoah County Courthouse. Then it moved to the east side of Court Street, near the current Presbyterian Church. In the 1930s, the most eastern corner of the current building on West Court Street was built with the addition added in the 1960s.

During those early days of telephone service, the department included a telephone booth.

Residents contacted the switchboard operator who called the department and rang the siren.

Firemen would have to answer the phone in the fire department to discover the location of the fire.

“Later, pagers were added,” said Hottel explaining now members are notified by cell phone.

With 200 years of service, the department is ready to move toward the next hundreds of years.

That one hose has been replaced with over 14,000 feet of hose and that one antique manually powered pumper shares space with six 21st Century vehicles — a $6 million operation that remains a leader in firefighting.

(1) comment


This is a wonderful article about the Woodstock Fire Department, but it isn't quite accurate. The first firefighting organization in Shenandoah County was The Union Fire Company in New Market, established in 1805.

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