On Sept. 11, 1908, The Pantagraph announced the death of “old Buck,” a horse who had given 13 years of service to the Bloomington Fire Department. “When the alarm summoned him to duty, he went, and he put his whole soul into the work,” read the rather touching obituary.
A veteran of the Great Bloomington Fire of 1900, Buck spent his final years pulling the assistant chief’s buggy before being put out to pasture (literally) at Miller Park. It was there he “answered the last alarm.”
Bloomington’s first volunteer fire company dates to 1854, and the earliest engines were pulled (and pumped) by hand. It took something like 20 men to pull an engine, and another eight or nine the hose cart. Bloomington’s first steam fire engine arrived in 1867, and it too was pulled by hand for something like a year until the newly organized fire department could train and put into service several teams of horses.
A “Pantagrapher” (that is, reporter) visited the No. 2 firehouse at 108 N. Madison St. in August 1889, telling readers how the department’s horses, upon hearing the alarm, were trained to dash from their stalls to the waiting equipment and “jump” into their harnesses (which were suspended and dropped from above).
After the June 19, 1900, Great Fire, the city constructed a modern firehouse on the 200 block of East Front Street (the old Central Station is still there, though it’s now the restaurant Station Two Twenty). The station featured a concrete-floored barn with 14 stalls — room for four teams and the chief’s steed, as well as horses in the “training school” and those sick or injured. The hay mow was above and could accommodate 100 tons of baled hay, 1,000 bushels of oats and about half that number of corn.
Two months after the Great Fire, The Pantagraph detailed how horses were broken and trained for fire duty. The often-difficult process involved slowly introducing the naturally skittish animals to the noise and confusion common to a city firehouse. Upon first hearing the fire bell the new horse “is almost invariably scared within an inch of his life,” it was pointed out, while the sudden and heavy drop of the harness presented another obstacle.
“To the fire itself, the horses never get thoroughly accustomed,” added The Pantagraph. The Great Fire was particularly hard on the city’s four-legged firemen. “The old horses, as well as the new ones, would wheel around from the falling glass and sparks and it was out of the question to lay hoses in some desired quarters.”
In the spring of 1904 the department faced a shortage of equine power. “Not only are the right kind of animals difficult to locate, but the price is almost prohibitive,” reported The Daily Bulletin, another Bloomington newspaper. Most telling was a comment by Chief Henry Mayer, who was “beginning to think that it will be necessary to operate automobile fire apparatus in the near future if there is no increase in the stock of available horses.”
The motor era finally began on Dec. 11, 1911, the day the fire department purchased its first “motorized apparatus,” a Seagrave chemical truck equipped with hose, ladders and a dry powder to put out small fires.
It took less than a decade for the new-fangled machines to supplant the department’s entire equine roster. In the end, it was not so much the cost to purchase, train and care for fire horses that led to their obsolescence (though those factors played a role), but rather the promise of improved speed and response time offered by motorized vehicles.
Longtime Fire Chief Roland Behrend’s first day as a Bloomington firefighter, May 4, 1920, was also the very day the last team was driven out to Miller Park for permanent retirement. The previous day, the Bloomington City Council had agreed to close the three outlying firehouses and consolidate operations to the central station on East Front Street, the argument being that the fully motorized department could now reach all corners of the city from one centrally located firehouse.
By the spring of 1932, “old John” was the last surviving BFD horse, the 23-year-old spending his days at Highland Park Golf Course, “harnessed occasionally to cut grass or other odd pulling jobs.” Elmer Mohr of Carlock had sold John to the department in 1914 for the handsome sum of $200 (or the equivalent of more than $4,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars).
Old John, observed a nostalgic Pantagraph, “lives to recall the alarms which meant fast gallops through the streets, causing thrills which even the sleek and speedy modern engines cannot surpass.”
Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column produced by the McLean County Museum of History.
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