"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 25, 2014

The History of a Volunteer Fire Company: Preserved in Alcohol?

The loss of a volunteer fire company is a grievous blow to any community.  It is a loss that cuts much deeper than just that of fire protection.  Norristown’s Humane Fire Company officially closed its building at #129 East Main Street in early 2012, a site it had occupied since 1852, the year of its formation.  The reason was an all-too-common one these days: the dwindling number of people willing to be volunteer firefighters.  The company merged with the Norristown Hose Fire Company, and moved its equipment.
The Humane Fire Company is gone, but its building—and more important, its history—will not be lost.  Two partners have purchased the building, and obtained the necessary financing to renovate it and open a microdistillery called “Five Saints”.  This could be an outstanding addition to Main Street when it opens in January, 2016.  The project has the full support of Norristown Municipal Council, as it should.

It’s good news that the building will be saved, and a microdistillery might be just the type of trendy new spot that will bring people to Norristown for recreation, which is the best news of all.  But there is one more reason to celebrate, and it’s the one I want to highlight.

The building’s new owners have pledged to preserve the old firehouse’s memory, and make it the central component of their local identity.  Norristown residents, regardless of whether they even drink or not, should be pleased about that. Such a pledge could mean many things, and only time will tell.  I am all in favor of preserving an old firehouse, but I hope that the new occupant’s commitment to telling the story of the building it calls home will go beyond displaying curious hats, items of brass and yellowed photographs.  That’s nostalgia, not history, and the Humane Fire Company was an important part of the real history of Norristown.  That makes it a potentially rich source of badly needed knowledge about the way things really were “back in the day,” and we can all use more of that. 

Volunteer fire companies used to exist everywhere, but they were of particular significance to our smaller towns.  A town’s volunteer fire companies are, together with its ethnic churches, the best windows into its past.  Even the obvious things about these companies have meaning.  The fact that Norristown’s different fire companies have different color schemes was not accidental; they symbolize the ethnic affiliations of their founders.  When you look below the surface, you find even more meaning woven into their very existence.

Volunteer fire companies came into existence because fire was the omnipresent danger in those towns during their period of growth, but they were social organizations first and foremost.  They may not actually have been all that effective at their primary task until well into the 20th century—the history of the Schuylkill River towns is rife with accounts of devastating fires—but ultimately their most important function was as symbols of civic organization and individual belonging.  This went way beyond parades, the social function for which they are best known.

Their influence overlapped with that of the ethnic religious congregations in each town, because they were reflections of those groups.  These ethnic populations set the tone within each town (largely in their order of arrival), and the fire companies reflect that history.  Geography played a part, of course, because each company was established to serve a specific physical area.  Still, ethnic discrimination shaped who lived where in a town of any size, making geography largely an expression of ethnicity.  Who could join what department and who couldn’t was universally understood, if not openly expressed.  In the larger towns on the Schuylkill River, size allowed repetition, which meant that the different volunteer companies could divide along ethnic lines.  In the smallest ones, this was much more problematic.

Another reason fire companies could discriminate was that they had a large pool of applicants to draw from.  The 19th century (and well into the 20th) was also a time that membership in local organizations was absolutely central to the social life of both individuals and families.  No mass media meant no mass culture; very few people focused much attention beyond their narrowly-defined communities.  Community organizations—civic, service, religious and commemorative—flourished.  Volunteer fire companies were prestigious organizations, and membership in them was highly desired.  Ethnicity and location determined what company a man might join, but the underlying reason was that in those days men lived and worked in the same town, and thus had a vested interest in protecting it from fires.

But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  We no longer live in a locally-centered culture; we have much more free time than in the old days, but also a great many more calls on it.  Perhaps the most important change for firefighters is the fact that today very few people live and work in the same town; the availability of volunteers can be chancy.  Thus volunteer fire companies have come to depend on paid firefighters to staff the houses, but still face the prospect of consolidation and closure.  Their loss means that rich sources of local history are disappearing.

There is so much that the history of a volunteer company can teach us about the history of our towns, and how much has changed since the glory days of both.  The fact that ethnic discrimination lies at the foundation of that history has been almost ignored in the telling of their history.  They are the subjects of such veneration, and the reality of their time is so distant from us, that they have become myths themselves, each with a carefully shaped and polished appearance designed to obscure the truth that lies within.

Norristown’s Humane Fire Company was no exception.  John George’s partner in this effort, Louis “Jay” Rachelli, might have a personal reason to promote an understanding of its central—if unpleasant—truth.  The Company’s location on East Main Street made it the only company located in the east end, and the population of the east end was overwhelmingly Italian.  Yet as late as 1950, the Humane Fire Company had never admitted an Italian member.  That little fact should serve up some interesting questions, of course.  Did this policy change, and if so, when?  What about Norristown’s other companies?  How long did they retain their original complexion?  Do they have any remaining traditions about membership?

I have been writing frequently of the need to know the truth about our past if we want to make our future better.  That's why words and phrases like "racism" and "ethnic discrimination" are peppered about my blog posts.  In this post I have simply added one more component to the picture and, I hope, thereby opened one more door to that better future.  This isn't about uncovering dark secrets; fire companies and what each represented are part of the history of our towns.  The fact that they did not display the attitudes of today should surprise no one, nor should anyone try to sugar coat history out of some misplaced sense of shame.  This was a time when overt discrimination against any number of "others" could be openly practiced, so ethnic divisions among fire companies must be understood in context.  Our volunteer fire companies played a role in shaping our communities that was both vital and multifaceted.  The fact that one or more of those facets are displeasing to the modern eye is not a reason to obscure them.  It is, rather a reason to highlight them, because only the truth will make you free.

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