By Myra Lee Adams Goff
The New Braunfels Fire Department is celebrating its 130th year of service to the New Braunfels people.
In 1886, Hermann Seele was named the chairman of the Fire Committee of the City Council by Mayor Joseph Faust. The purpose of the committee was to form fire protection for the people of New Braunfels. Seele had been on the Waterworks Committee for the city and now with the waterworks accomplished, a fire department could be established.
Just two months later, the mayor announced in the newspaper that the city had taken steps to acquire hose reel and hook and ladder equipment for fighting fires. Then two days after this announcement, on June 6, 1886, Seele announced that the New Braunfels Volunteer Fire Department was formed.
At the first meeting set up by Seele and Faust to form the department, forty interested young men showed up. The decision was to form two hose and reel companies and one hook and ladder company. Two bells on towers would be mounted in the north and south ends of town with a hose shed underneath to house the hose and pump cart. Obviously, the bells would ring to alert the firemen to a fire. One of the hose reel carts and a bell tower was stationed where Lamar School is now. Another was on the south side of town and a third one was located downtown. The hook and ladder hose reel equipment and bell tower downtown was first located next to the first courthouse where Chase Bank is now. When the present courthouse was built in 1898, the bell tower and shed were moved to that location and then in 1918 when the first fire station was built on Hill Avenue, the bell tower was moved there. We know these locations from looking at old photographs and also viewing the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps that showed the firefighting equipment locations as well as where the water mains were located in the street.
The need for such a service was so great that a list of 46 names was suggested as candidates for membership of this volunteer fire department. Each company, of around 15 men, would be a part of three companies. The company was frequently named after the citizen who paid for the equipment, hence, the Moreau (Franz) Hook and Ladder company.
The chief of the department was William Schmidt with S.V. Pfeuffer named as secretary. Paying for the equipment was quite a challenge and after working hard on this detail, only $323 was collected. After a month, the department purchased two hose reel carts, two one-inch nozzles, one bell, and as much 2 ½-inch hose as they could afford. A dance was held to raise funds for the second bell. In my family, both the Moeller and the Adams families were active in the volunteer fire department.
In September of 1891, the Charles Floege Store and home on the Main Plaza caught fire. The building was a total loss because of the combustible material in the building, however, the firemen were able to save the adjoining structures. At the same time, the ringing of the bell called the fire fighters to a small fire across the Plaza at the Guadalupe Hotel (later Plaza) and then a third fire at the fire house next to the courthouse. These small fires were put out quickly. History tells us that the New Braunfels citizens became aware that additional equipment was needed. Gradually more hose companies were organized in the following years.
Until 1912, the fire department depended on hand-drawn hose reel and hook and latter carts. The volunteers were harnessed and provided foot-power to pull the equipment to the fires. Then Harry Landa offered a burned-out chassis of his Locomobile to the department. They converted it into a motorized truck that was used until 1925. Never heard of a Locomobile? Every car manufacturer produced one. It was a self-propelled automobile with some even utilizing steam power. The Landa Locomobile used was a converted touring car.
When the first fire engine was purchased in 1913, the newspaper ran an article with rules for all citizens to observe. First, they were warned that the fire truck should not be considered a toy. The public should know that the engine will travel less than the 25 miles per hour, the speed limit for other vehicles. When hearing the engine, citizens are to turn to the right and give the fire engine the middle of the road. This applies to people walking, on horseback, in wagons or automobiles. They are told not to follow the engine.
Later, after the telephone was in use, the public was informed that there were 63 fire districts and each person should know his district number. In case of fire in their district, pick up the telephone, answer to “number please” on the part of the telephone operator, and say the word “central.” Then give the fire district number. Then hold the receiver to your ear while the alarm is transmitted to the fire bell, and be connected with the fire station. I believe I would have to write down all these instructions.
Where did the water come from to put out the fires? Darren Brinkkoeter, New Braunfels Batallion Chief and historian, said that the three companies each had a hose cart. The carts were positioned in three areas of the city in sheds. The fire department relied on wooden water mains buried under the streets. Firemen would have to dig a hole in the street, then bore a hole into the wooden water main. The hole in the street would fill up with water and could be pumped through the hoses. Leather buckets were also used to get the water and after the fire, the hole was plugged up in the pipe and street. Think about this in relation to time. The bell rings, the firemen run to the equipment where they are hooked up, they run to where the fire is, they drill a hole in the wooden pipe under the street, they pump the water from the hole to put out the fire. By this time, the fire must be a roaring blaze. When the fire is out, the hole is plugged and the running begins again to take the equipment back to where it belongs. This was no easy task and the firemen were looked up to as super athletes. You can see why.
The fire museum that Brinkkoeter is in charge of, has an old fire extinguisher. “When the heating unit behind the glass bottle reached a certain temperature, the bottle, filled with carbon tetrachloride, would spew and put out the fire. The museum has a fantastic collection of old engines, including the 1923 American LaFrance pumper truck designed for the firefighters to ride on the outside of the truck. Four original engines are in the museum, including the 1925 REO Hose Wagon (REO stands for Reginald E. Olds), that was the first move from horse-drawn or man-drawn hose carts to motorized hose transport. The old trucks have been a part of every parade in the city.
Early on in 1886, a Volunteer Firemen’s Band was formed that also participated in parades. I can remember when the firemen would stop at the Plaza during the Comal County Fair parade and have competitions. They would shoot the water up in the air, giving everyone on the Plaza a welcome shower. This was, of course, long after wooden water pipes had to be drilled and when hydrants were installed.
Up until 1918, there was no actual fire station and the first station built now houses the museum. It is located at 131 Hill Avenue and almost 100-years-old.
There are six fire stations in New Braunfels and on September 1, 2016 due to its excellent record, the Insurance Service Office changed the city’s Class 2 rating to a Class 1 rating, the highest level to achieve. These levels control how much insurance premium we pay in our city. Thank you, New Braunfels Fire Department.