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Helping out the 'fire laddies'

By Henry Timman • Aug 8, 2019 at 10:00 PM

Last week I told you the stories of two major Norwalk fires in the mid 1800s.

When I come upon such stories in my research I’m always amazed at the contrasts between 2019 methods and the methods available so many decades ago to our ancestors. Here is one more story of a great contrast in methodology for firefighting.

In September 1898 the boiler house at the County Infirmary (now known as the Shady Lane complex on Shady Lane Drive) caught fire where the smoke stack went through the ceiling, and in a short time the second floor of the brick building was a mass of flames.

This might be the brick building still on the back driveway to the north of the main buildings. The second floor of this boiler house was used as a men’s dormitory and everything was destroyed except for two beds which were carried out. The Norwalk Fire Department responded but were hampered by the metal roof keeping the smoke in so that the building could not be entered. Finally a corner of the roof was pried up and the smoke was released.

The fire department suddenly realized that they did not have sufficient chemicals with them to conquer the fire. It happened that Dr. John Henry Fulstow was present. He was a Norwalk veterinarian and a great lover of horses and he had ridden to the scene on his personal horse. When he heard that the fire department needed more chemicals, he rode his horse downtown to the fire station on East Seminary and obtained a fresh supply of chemicals so the “fire laddies” could bring the situation under control. Can you imagine someone going on horseback here in 2019 to obtain firefighting supplies? There were not yet any autos in the area. Horseback was the quickest mode and Dr. Fulstow was perhaps the surest horseman in the county. 

I want to turn now to the accompanying photo, which shows the Huron County Jail which stood at the corner of Benedict and Seminary behind the courthouse from 1837 to 1887. This jail was not well designed, and there were frequent jailbreaks.

On Oct. 6, 1865, there were nine men in jail and some of them dug through the wall, but the sheriff knew of their plot and stopped them after several shots were fired. Then on Nov. 27 of that year the prisoners were in the yard when some managed to dig an escape hole. Two ran east and two ran south. Two weeks later it was reported that three had been recaptured. Eventually all four were back in jail, due to the hard work and perseverance of the sheriff, his deputy (only one then), and concerned citizens.

In 1902, Sheriff Gates suspected that something was going on with his prisoners in the present “old jail” behind the courthouse. He and his deputy searched the cells and found a steel slat three feet long; a steel bunk brace; a foot long rod; a large iron hook; a piece of hose about a foot long; four small saws; a grappling hook and a fork with bent tines. We can only wonder what plans the prisoners had for this contraband.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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