Friday, February 21, 2014

Chariton's First Lady: Old Betsy, Part Two

This is a really bad image, lifted from microfilm, of a photograph taken by a Des Moines Register & Tribune photographer on Feb. 26, 1930, showing how Old Betsy looked on the day she saved the south side of Chariton's square.

This is the second (and final) installment of a little essay, relying heavily on old newspaper reports, about Old Betsy, the 1883 Silsby Steamer that is the pride and joy of the Chariton Volunteer Fire Department and First Lady of Chariton. She is greatly admired locally and revered nationwide as one of the finest fully functional and lovingly maintained examples of 19th Century firefighting gear.

But it's possible that none of this would have come about had Betsy not, during 1930, roared out of retirement and emerged a hero. 

The old pumper saved many a day in Chariton from the time of her arrival during December of 1883 until the early years of the 20th Century, when motorized fire trucks replaced horse-drawn equipment and hook-and-ladder and engine companies merged to form a unified department. 

When not fighting fires during her glory years, Betsy occasionally was loaded aboard rail cars and taken to other cities to participate in exhibitions and contests during firefighter gatherings. She always was featured in Chariton's big 4th of July parade. And also on the 4th, she frequently was positioned near the big cistern at the southwest corner of the square and fired up to shoot streams of water high into the sun to amuse and amaze crowds gathered on Independence Day. 

But eventually, she was retired --- and there was talk of scrapping her. Instead, she was pushed to the back of the fire house and although minimally maintained, rarely ventured out. Occasionally, in the spring, she'd be pulled up to the square, hooked to a hydrant, fired up and used as city workers washed mud off the brick-paved streets.


By the dawn of 1930, the queen of the fire house was a big Pierce Arrow --- or at least the chassis was Pierce Arrow. The body had been built by the General Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis and she had cost $9,500.

The Pierce Arrow rolled confidently into town on Jan. 19, 1927, and was hugely admired --- not only by Charitonians, but also by firefighters and city officials from miles around. Her wheel-base was 196 inches and her tires, 38x7. Her springs were described as being "not unlike those of a Pullman coach" and her motor, "of dual type and similar to those used on large trucks and buses."

Described as one of the finest fire engines in Iowa, bar none, she was equipped with a large pumper, an 80-gallon booster tank, full ladder equipment and two types of chemical apparatus, one designed specifically for electrical fires. Her tank handled 750 gallons of water per minute and a pressure chamber ensured a steady stream. If needed, she could throw up to six lines of water at once.

There was no doubt about which fire truck represented the department in the 4th of July parades of 1928 and 1929. But when the big test came two months into the new year, 1930, the haughty Pierce Arrow failed it --- miserably.


At 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 1930, a working fire was discovered in the basement of the three-story brick Lincoln Theater building on the south side of the square, beneath the Lincoln Cafe. The Lincoln, also called the Temple Building, occupied a double lot now filled by Hammer Medical Supply and was among the prides of Chariton. In addition to the cafe and theater it housed other commercial enterprises on the first floor, apartments and offices on the second and headquarters of the Knights of Pythias lodge on the third.

It seemed initially that the blaze would be easy to control. Firefighters launched the big Pierce Arrow. Tenants of southside apartments, expecting to return home shortly, didn't even bother to gather up prized possessions before evacuating.

An hour later, however, a connecting rod in the big Pierce Arrow broke, she stalled and refused to function --- beyond hope of immediate repair. Chariton's firefighters, practically defenseless it seemed, could do little and soon flames were flaring out every window of the massive Temple building and threatening to spread across the alley to the west, into the building now occupied by the Sportsman Bar.

To the east, the fire roared into the single-front building on what now is the site of  Harbor House Christian Book Store and then into the brand new Ritz Theater, threatening the Dewey Block, on the corner, too.

Calls went out immediately to neighboring towns and assistance soon was headed for Chariton. Firefighters from Russell and Albia arrived before 8:30 a.m. and trucks from Osceola, Indianola and Ottumwa soon thereafter. But in that dreadful interim, it generally was feared that the entire south side of the square might burn and that flames might even leap South Grand to the east and take out more of the business district.

But even as calls were going out for aid, firefighters remembered Old Betsy. She was hauled out of her place at the back of the fire house, pushed up to the south side of the square, hooked to a hydrant, fired up and --- although out of practice --- performed flawlessly.

Betsy was just too small to extinguish the massive blaze, but she could and did control it. Flames were prevented from crossing the alley to the west and were contained within the auditorium of the Ritz, sparing its facade and the Dewey Block next door. And as other equipment arrived --- she just kept pumping. By 10:30 a.m., the fire was basically out.

There were lots of heroes that morning, but the day belonged to Old Betsy.


Here is Herald-Patriot editor Will D. Allender's tribute to the grand old lady, published in the Herald-Patriot of Feb. 27.

No lady cares to have her age paraded in public, and for that reason and because we do not know if "Betsy" is 45 years old or if she's 50, we'll not disclose it. But all Chariton knows that old "Betsy," despite her age, stood out as the heroine of the Wednesday morning fire that made an ugly hole in the south side of the public square. "Betsy" came to the rescue and kept the burned area from being larger.

Not in several years has "Betsy" gone to a fire. She was on the retired list, spending her old age in comparative quiet at the fire station and dreaming of an active past and with little expectation of coming back to give battle again to a menacing blaze threatening destruction to much of the property in the business section. Occasionally when the sun came out brightly on a spring day following a rainy period, "Betsy" left the fire house and went down town and pumped water through the hose that the workers might clear the streets of mud. That was not so exciting as many of the days in her earlier history when she stepped out on an instant's notice and raised the water pressure that some burning buildings might be saved. Nor was it anything like the early days when she was the pride of the city and exhibited her prowess at the Fourth of July celebrations. In those days she ate coal to bring up the steam pressure and was often given a side of bacon to hasten the heat and bring the water to a quick boil.

But all that was in the past. Changes came and the years passed, each one bringing something new and folks seemed to lose interest in the things that held their attentions in former days. New equipment usurped Betsy's place and for years the fire call was answered by younger equipment. Came a day when a new sister, younger, but Oh, so handsome and big, came to be the first lady of the fire station. Betsy never let on that she was jealous, but she knew she would have a hard time to hide the fact. Also there was certainity in her mind that never again would there be likelihood that she would step out to another fire. In that she was mistaken.

Her day for staging a comeback was Wednesday. All her ambition to again step into the battle and rout the enemy was realized. Big sister fell down at a critical time and there was nothing else to do while awaiting outside assistance but to ask Betsy to assist in the struggle.

Once more she was fed with coal and kindling added to hurry up the steam pressure, and she was rolled up to the southwest corner of the square and there she went to work and stayed on the job until help arrived from out of town. Even then she kept right on and left only after all danger had passed and the fire under control. Her machinery, old enough to be in a museum, functioned and hesitated not at all. It came through in time of need.

"Betsy" is back in the fire station and happy. She may never again answer the emergency call, but she is going to find it much easier to live with her big sister without suffering any inferiority complex. If her sister gets high hatty, Betsy will just hoist her own snoot a little higher in the air and say, "Oh, yes, I know you have considerable to feel chesty about, but I came from a good family and I never heard anything wrong with their connections."

And so this closes what might be termed a Cinderella story with reverse English. Old Betsy delivered the hit in the pinch that saved the day.


After that, Betsy was never neglected again. Immediately after the fire, all of her worn parts --- parts that might have failed but didn't --- were attended to and her place in the fire house became a place of honor.

Which is why there was considerable consternation when a problem was discovered more than a year later as firefighters prepared to move into brand new quarters. Architect William L. Perkins, who had thought of nearly everything in his design, had failed to measure the height of Old Betsy's stack and it was discovered that she wouldn't fit through the new low-slung front doors.

There was a good deal of discussion. Some proposed removing the stack. Others suggested that she be stored elsewhere. But eventually it was discovered that the chrome-plated crown on her stack could just be lifted off and that, then, she would fit --- and the crown easily could be replaced. So that was the solution adopted, and all was well.

In the years since, even though some details of her story have been forgotten, Betsy has been coddled and polished, detailed and decorated. She's had her face lifted and undergone a couple of transplants. It has been deemed inappropriate to have a parade in Chariton unless Betsy is there. She travels widely in a custom-made carriage and invariably brings home honors.

And there's no danger now that Old Betsy's status as First Lady of Chariton will be forgotten.


Brenda said...

I thought Old Betsy was beautiful before, but now that I read of her heroic past, she is even more special. Great story!

Ken said...

Great article, Frank. Even though I'd read this story before -- in one of your earlier posts, I believe -- it still brought a little tear to my eye.

Anonymous said...

My father and several of his CVFD buddies restored Old Betsy a few years ago and she is even more stunning now...