“Old Joe” injured at Christmas Eve Fire

“Old Joe” injured at Christmas Eve Fire


“Old Joe” the fire horse

While gathering the history of South Carolina’s fire service, I have become enchanted with the period of time when firefighters and their horses were an inseparable team. Quite honestly I never appreciated the role that those steeds of yesterday played in our history until recently when my research has revealed their significant contributions. In a New York Times article dated August 27, 1896, the writer penned this comment: “The horses which draw the engines, trucks, and carts seem to learn how much depends on them, and they strive their utmost, pulling up at a burning dwelling, panting and almost ready to fall, after a run which taxes them exceedingly.”

And with these opening comments, allow me to share yet another story from Newberry about their legendary fire horse, “Old Joe”. You may remember I wrote about this icon of our history several months ago, and since we are nearing Christmas, I thought it fitting to write about Joe’s role in a Christmas Eve fire 109 years ago.

According to the Newberry Observer, a fire started in a mechanical room of the Carolina Manufacturing Co., a three-story wooden building of “immense size” on lower Main Street, around 5:30 A.M., on December 24, 1905. The son of Sheriff Buford was the first to see the fire and woke his father who turned in the alarm of fire. Fire companies responded promptly, but the fire had already spread throughout the rear of the building. A strong wind was reportedly blowing and moved the fire toward other exposures. The paper stated that “all available hose, even from the Newberry Mill and Mollohon Mill were in use so that eight or ten sprays (streams) were in use.” It was reported that large pieces of blazing timber were blown across streets and landed on the roofs of houses and businesses.

When Sheriff Buford turned in the alarm, the fire bell was located in the tower of the Opera House and could be heard all over the Town. Old Joe had only been purchased and assigned to the fire department a year earlier, but his disciplined skills and bravery were that of a seasoned horse. Apparently, the fire was well involved when Old Joe arrived on the scene after pulling either the cumbersome hose wagon or steam engine several blocks. We don’t know details of the strategy and tactics of the fire chief, but we can surmise with some assurance that the firemen were playing catch up during the entire operation due to few hydrants, exhausted manpower, and a lack of communications.

I never really thought about it, but the firemen of the day could move about freely and seek safety around buildings or even trees. However, Old Joe was obediently committed to his position unless his engineer was in a position to remove him from being hitched to the apparatus and eventually lead him to safety. At this Christmas Eve fire, Joe was badly burned around his eye and was taken out of service for a period time in order to recuperate. The Newberry Observer reports that Old Joe’s eye had healed without lasting harm in a few weeks after the fire.

The stories of Old Joe seem to never end. I am grateful for these stories that remind me that our history is important to preserve so our descendents will know the sacrifices, contributions and “deeds of daring” of their ancestors, and, in this case, of our equine friend, Old Joe.

Merry Christmas! My prayer for each of you is for a healthy and safe 2015.

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