By Charlie M. Holmes
---- — The fire that would be eventually known as the Great Fire of 1862 started around 10:30 the night of April 10 in a cabinet shop owned by Edward Edwards. Edwards' shop was about halfway between Chestnut and Pioneer on the north side of what is now known as Main Street.
“That fire was of such magnitude that as a fire chief you hope you never encounter anything of its size,” Cooperstown Fire Chief Jim Tallman said recently.
Tallman was giving a talk in the village office meeting room about the history of Cooperstown fires. The lecture was part of the Afternoon Programs put on by the Friends of the Village Library.
At first, the Great Fire of 1862 appeared to be contained to two buildings, Edwards' cabinet shop and the bakery next door to the west, and things appeared to be getting under control. What the fire companies didn’t know was that, while they were pouring water on the front of the building, fire was shooting out the back. It had caught several sheds and barns on fire by the time anyone noticed. At 2 in the morning, the fire jumped across Main Street and caught the Eagle Hotel on fire.
“It actually stuck out onto the road, instead of being in line with all the other buildings,” Tallman pointed out. “That was how the fire crossed the street.”
The winds shifted and allowed the fire to grab hold of the Eagle Hotel. By the time the fire was finally put out at 5:30 a.m., 57 building were gone — 12 stores, four hotels, the saloon, two houses and 38 outbuildings.
The village of Cooperstown was settled in the spring of 1786. Its first known fire took place on Nov. 20, 1795, but a fire department wasn’t actually formed until May 21, 1813. Early ordinances required people to have one leather bucket for every two fireplaces and to be fined $1 if they refused to help fight a fire after being ordered to by a town trustee.
“They actually had wooden fire hydrants,” Tallman said. “They would take logs, hollow them out. Before they had metal pipes, that’s what they would use to transport water.”
Cooperstown had as many as seven fire companies at one time and each company had it’s own captain. Each captain thought he was in charge of a fire scene, which led to a lot of chaos and confusion.
Eventually the issue was resolved when the first fire chief, Marcus Field, was elected on May 5, 1873. Challenges still exist today for the Cooperstown Volunteer Fire Department. There are more and more equipment requirements to keep the firefighters safe, and that equipment isn’t cheap.
“Originally when we bought the air packs they cost between $500 and $700,” Tallman said. “Air packs today cost about $6,500. Air pack life is approximately 15 years. That’s what they tell you, every 15 years replace your air packs.”
Recently the fire department got rid of two fire trucks in exchange for a bigger fire truck.
“Because our numbers have gone down and rather than seeing a truck sit in the station and find out when we got to the scene that was the truck we really needed because of the equipment it carried, we got rid of two trucks and purchased one. It’s a larger truck but it does serve two purposes — it’s a rescue truck and a fire engine,” Tallman stated.
The new fire truck cost the department $450,000.
“Luckily, years ago Mayor Hollis set up a reserve fund and every truck in the fire hall, besides our old '52 Mack and the ladder truck, every other truck in that hall was paid for out of that reserve fund,” Tallman said.
The Cooperstown Volunteer Fire Department responds to about 800 medical emergencies per year and 225 fire calls. Last year, 59 calls came from an alarm system and of those, only five were deemed malicious — two came from very small children who pulled the alarm while in the arms of an adult and three came from nursing homes.
“We had an interesting one with green jello in it,” Cooperstown Volunteer Fire Department’s past chief Paul Bedworth, told the audience. “There was a gentlemen in a nursing home. They had green jello for dessert three days in a row and he evidently didn’t like green jello. So he yanks the fire extinguisher off the wall and hoses down the green jello. The powder goes in and sets off the fire alarm.”
The police beat the Cooperstown Volunteer Fire Department to the scene and by the time the fire department arrived a police officer was exiting the building.
“He takes his glasses off and looks like a reverse raccoon,” Bedworth said. “When the gentlemen saw him coming in, he thought he was going to jail anyway so he hosed him down, too.”
Tallman encourages anyone who would like to join the fire department to visit cooperstownfd.org.
To read more about the history of Cooperstown’s fires visit the New York State Historical Association’s library, which is on state Route 80, one mile north of the village and look for Douglas Preston’s thesis “The Clang of the Bell, the Wail of the Whistle: A History of the Cooperstown Fire Department.”
Dr. Pat Dietz is scheduled to discuss his recent Alaska adventure during the next Afternoon Program, which will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 13 in the meeting room of the municipal building at 22 Main St.
Friend of the Village Library upcoming Afternoon Programs.
Jan. 13: Dr. Pat Dietz discusses his recent Alaska adventure.
Feb. 10: Martin and Meg Tillapaugh et al: Woodstock Revisited. BYO Tie Dye.
March 10: Dr. Don Raddatz: Music, Muscles and the Mind.
April 14: John Rogers: The Eastern Bluebird.
May 12: Cooperstown Graduate Program: theses presentations.