Friday, July 05, 2013

Red, white, blue & Old Betsy

Down here in this neck of the woods, we salute Old Glory on the 4th of July --- and Old Betsy, our 1883 Silsby steamer.

I wrote yesterday about Independence Day in Chariton during 1887. Old Betsy was here then --- and still is. She had pride of place in Thursday's big parade, still looking mighty good for her 130 years.

Most of the photos here were taken near the firehouse yesterday as she was being hitched up for the parade. The driver is Todd Willis. Willis horses have provided the necessary horsepower to haul her for several years. Engine power is provided by chunks of wood. That's Joe Steinbach marching with Old Betsy in the second parade photo.

The old girl works just fine and could, if called upon to do so, still shoot a stream of water over the courthouse --- something that used to be a test of engine prowess in Chariton. Nowadays, most of her work involves parades, shows and demonstrations --- so usually it's necessary only to build a head of steam sufficient to power the whistle.

Old Betsy was built during 1883 by the Silsby Manufacturing Co. of Seneca Falls, N.Y. Her serial number is 758, which makes her one of the ninth (1875) and final models of Silsby steamer manufactured by the firm during its lifetime --- 1856 to 1891. The last engine manufactured by Silsby was No. 1015, built for Jacksonville, Illinois. (Engines under the Silsby name continued to be manufactured after 1891 mergers, but not by Silsby nor in Seneca Falls.)

Old Betsy arrived in Chariton as a result of a firefighting nightmare. On Sept. 9, 1883, the engine house caught fire and burned --- taking both an earlier steamer and the town's hook and ladder wagon with it.

The Chariton City Council had purchased our first Silsby (Serial No. 578) in 1877 for $3,500 and what now is the Chariton Volunteer Fire Department was organized as separate Hook and Ladder and Engine companies on Dec. 5 of that year.

The city moved quickly to re-equip firefighters after the 1883 fire and a new hook and ladder wagon and related equipment arrived during October of that year. By December, Old Betsy had arrived, too.

In the years since, the old girl has been lovingly maintained and rebuilt three times --- in 1909, 1955 and 2005 --- but she's still the same Old Betsy, pride and joy of Chariton firefighters.

In a pinch, Old Betsy has proved a few times since semi-retirement that she's more than just a pretty face.

Her last really big day was Feb. 26, 1930, when a huge blaze broke out in the three-story Temple building just east of the alley on the south side of the square and the city's big new Pierce Arrow pumper refused to work. Flames spread quickly to adjoining buildings, including the brand new Ritz Theater.

Old Betsy was hauled to the scene, fired up and used to control the flames until fire departments from other cities could arrive.

Here's video of Old Betsy in action during the 2005 Iowa Firefighters Convention, held in Chariton. The clip is a part of "Eric's Video Tube" feed. Is this Eric Johnson's video? I don't know.


Norm Prince said...

Thanks Frank, enjoyed your story about the old pumper as well as the great pictures from yesterdays event. Also glad to see and hear about preservation of our past in any form other than just memory. BUT I again have a small resentment due to the fact that Denison does not seem to get evolved with the Fourth with a parade nor with much in the way of preserving its past. I do need to make a point of visiting your area and checking on many of the offerings which you have shared.

Brenda said...

Old Betsy is BEAUTIFUL!