“Hear the loud alarm bells – brazen bells.
What a tale of terror now their turbulencey tells.
Much too horrified to speak. No, they can only shriek.
For all the world to know how the danger ebbs and flows…”
From - “The Bells” by E. A. Poe
When I was thirteen years old, I awakened one night to the awful hooting of the town fire horn. It shattered my dreams with its sudden shouts and I sat up in my bed, clutching the blankets around me. Downstairs I heard my mom and dad moving about the house and talking. It was very late.
The hollering and bellowing continued as I crept downstairs from my attic room and asked my parents what was happening.
“There’s a big fire someplace east of town.” My father spoke as he squinted out the window of our second floor apartment in the old Vermont farm house, part of a connected architecture structure where my family lived after we had moved a few years before from New Hampshire.
The house was on the main street of Wilmington, a village of seven-hundred fifty souls perched on the Deerfield River and smack between Brattleboro and Bennington, two of the largest towns in the southern part of the state.
Many folks were heading in the direction of the fire and suddenly my earlier fear turned to excitement. A big fire. I had never seen a big fire before and I begged my parents to let me ride my bike and see what was up. My mother frowned but dad said, ok.
“Just stay out of everyone’s way” he directed as I shot down the stairs and rattled my bike out of the garage and down the driveway.
On the night of February 9, 1956 a massive barn at the “Beaver Brook Farm” belonging to Martin A. Brown Sr. caught fire, the result of a misplaced lantern in a connecting shed. It was a horrifying blaze which killed thirty head of his prized Guernsey’s’ after gutting two-thirds of the structure. It also took many thousands of dollars of farm equipment.
Mr. Brown was just about the richest man in Wilmington at the time and the night of the fire, he was in Florida for the winter.
The flames cast long black and yellow shadows behind as I leaned on my JC Higgens bike. I felt waves of heat wash over me as I watched the blaze gobbling down Mr. Brown’s resources. My buddy Bing and I had found each other in the confusion, and we watched the firemen struggling with this enormous blaze.
The town of Wilmington had fifteen volunteer firefighters at this time and two trucks. They had all they could do to control this thing, but control it they did, saving many of the live stock. The cows that died had been suffocated by the smoke long before the flames licked into the area where they were tethered.
I went up the next morning after sleeping in a little later, (it was a weekend) and the grizzly remains of the cattle remained along with the smell of burned flesh. It was a sobering experience as I thought of the fear the animals must have felt when the smoke first broke over them in those pre-dawn hours.
The town fire horn no longer remains. The firemen in Wilmington are now alerted through beepers and pagers and cell-phones. All the electronic paraphernalia of this modern age has replaced the towns alarm system.
Back when I lived there, every home had a thin piece of printed stock, usually tacked on the wall next to the old crank phone, indicating what each series of blats and honks meant; where the fire was, what kind of fire, or even if it was a fire signal at all. It sometimes was used as an air-raid alarm. Them “Russians’” might try bombing our little town and we had to be prepared.
Because we are a social species, man has gathered together in groups of dwellings for many thousands of years; first for protection, then as a means of marketing, industry, spiritual celebrations and entertaining. A good town had at least a few shops of sorts, a marketplace where the surrounding farms brought their produce, perhaps one church - sometimes two or three - and at least one pub where a hard-working farmer could hunker down with a pint or two of the local grog after a hard day in the fields.
And with the village there came a need of alerting those living in and around it to imminent danger or catastrophe, or, for a moment of reflection.
There is a wonderful painting by Jean-Francois Millet called, “The Angelus” in which a couple working in the fields have paused for noon devotions and in the background the spires of a church can be seen where the bells have rung alerting them to this prayerful moment.
Painting by Jean –Francios Millet entitled “Angelus”. Note the church spire in the background.
It can be assumed that these same bells would be rung for a fire or other unforeseen dangers.
Where I now live, in Meredith NH, the town fire whistle is still in place and very active, and is tested every noon, to the consternation of some.
I do several hours of “busking” each week at the town docks; singing and strumming with my banjo or guitar case open to donations. I always check my watch around twelve o’clock and wait for the blast from the top of the town fire station, less then seventy feet away.
Four-horned compressed-air signal atop the Meredith NH town fire-station.
My, but the folks do a fine jig and jump!
Since the horn in my town is similar to the one that woke me up in Wilmington so long ago, I thought I would talk with the Meredith town fire chief, Ken Jones, about this device.
“We have had the ‘overhead system’ (horn) in place since the mid 1950’s” he said. The former Mainer is the only full time employee for the town fire department which depends on forty-four part and full time volunteer and paid on-call fire personnel.
“There are pagers and cell phones, of course, and we depend a lot on them for responding to an emergency.” He paused and a broad smile spread across his face. “But I will tell you there have been a few times when I have been outside or the pager was not available when I have gained a few steps after hearing the horn.”
The signal is also a safety factor for alerting locals that first responder equipment is either coming or going from the fire station.
Meredith Fire Chief Ken Jones checks on the station fire horn.
“It’s also a back-up signal when the pagers or cell phone are out of commission, like what happened a few years ago when the micro-wave link failed from the district warning system, in this case “The Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid” headquarters in nearby Laconia.”
Before the horn was used, it was a whistle from the local lumber-mill that alerted folks to a fire or emergency. Today the system is on a timer that tests the horn every noon time. It used to blast at twelve-thirty, for this was the time the local mill workers returned from lunch.
Though the fire station was completely renovated only a few years ago, this almost sixty year old horn was put in place after the work was completed.
Not everyone is happy with the noise. Back in 2009 a Meredith town consideration eliminating the horn was considered, but was over-ruled when information was submitted which overwhelmingly determined….”that the horn is…a valuable tool to the department in responding to an emergency in a timely and safe manner.” (In a letter from then fire chief Chuck Palm to the Meredith Town Council and Manager)
Recently renovated Meredith NH Fire Station.
But to some enough is enough. An entry on city-data.com recently mentioned a place in Minnesota that has three sirens all in close proximity which scream out three times a day – noon, 6: pm and 10:00 pm. The 10:00pm signal is for curfew, which is no longer enforced. He indicated some displeasure with this signal system.
Indeed, until a few years ago the overhead system in Meredith was used as a signal for a nine o’clock curfew which alerted the town’s young adults it was time to be heading home. Yes, there were such things not that long ago.
We started with triangles, bells and bugles and over the years advance warning and fire department alerts have grown to include electric sirens, steam whistles (some of which factories and mines blow to alert of cave-ins or mill fires). The mid west has tornado sirens and alarms that some folks can hear for miles away.
This direct means of reaching people is still with us in the presence of signals atop many small town fire station, or the town office. Sometimes it is perched atop an abandoned oil-rig in a small prairie community as I read the other day. It is not unique to New England or any other part of the country.
I have visited a farming community in western New York at least once a year for the last twenty-five years and it is next to a state prison facility. They have a siren that whirls to life to alert the volunteer firemen in Collins and when I first heard it, I thought it was a prison alert and that armed gangs of escaped prison thugs were lurching through the streets. My father-in-law smiled and let me think that for a while – then my wife set me straight. But to this day if I hear that siren in the blackness of night, it is a scary thing.
The bells that ring out on occasion celebrate wondrous things, like the ending of wars or the birth of a baby.
The nearby town of Laconia has a marvelous bell-tower in the Belknap Mills complex next to the Winnipesaukee River that is rung out in joy every New Years Eve.
Hampshire College in Amherst Massachusetts allows recent graduates - those who have completed their Div Three projects - to ring a tower bell. And they do, with reckless abandon as only youth can.
Small towns are collections of neighbors, farmers, shop keepers, pastors, priests, students and housekeepers with firemen and policemen (and women) and all that goes into a rural community. Small electric doo-dads are important, for they have become our life’s’ extensions, but, a loud jolting sound now and again reminds us in a powerful way of what we mean to one another.
When we hear it we become connected in some primeval way to our ancestors’ years ago when the hoot from a yellowed, carved bull’s horn or the clang of a copper bell drove them out of their huts to help one another. Connected, as Poe wrote “….with a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire.”