Yo-Semite history

Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email knotz69@gmail.com

Here is a 1956 article written by Ed Kendall for the Springfield Reporter. It will be included in our “History of Chester’s Fire Departments.”

“Old Yosemite pumper fought many a fire. In Pember Hazen’s barn at Chester Depot in some forgotten corner resting on its laurels after many a hard fought battle in which it participated at scores of fires sometimes winning often losing is ‘Old Yosemite,’ for many years the only fire fighting apparatus that Chester possessed. I am not going to degrade it by calling it an old tub as has often been done. It is better to use its right name. A hand fire engine. When you think of the thousands of dollars it has earned in saving many a building in Chester you must be convinced that it deserves a better resting place where it can be viewed by the public at any and all times.

The earliest known Yo-Semite badge in existence, circa 1870s
The earliest known Yo-Semite badge in existence, circa 1870s. Photo provided

“It has certainly earned it. My people moved to Chester when I was nine or ten years of age. I have never forgotten the interest ‘Old Yosemite’ aroused in me as a little boy the first time I saw it being operated. It was at the fire that destroyed Gowing’s Grist Mill located on the site of Waterman’s Mill. It held my interest up to the day I moved to North Springfield 54 years ago. It took 3 or 4 men to operate it properly. It was back breaking work to be one of the pumpers. When I was 15 or 16 years of age the Yosemite Engine Co being very short of men took in all the boys available as members of the Fire Company.

“I was one of them. In a short time we young fellows began to fill different offices in the company. In due time I was elected captain of the company. Later for several years I was steward of the company. In this office it was my duty to keep the engine in working order and janitor work. In this week’s column it is my purpose to describe some of the experiences of the company. For many years ‘Old Yosemite’ was the only firefighting apparatus Chester possessed. The alarm was always sounded by the whistle at the Steam Mill. The short blasts of that steam mill whistle certainly made a doleful noise when the alarm was sounded in the middle of the night.

“About midnight on a certain night the alarm was given for what seemed to be a fire up in the vicinity of Bailey’s Mills. Albert Richardson the night watchman at the mill happened to be outside the mill looking in the sky up in the vicinity of Gassetts there was a bright glare in the sky.

“That was enough for him, he went and blew’ an alarm. Twenty-five or 30 members of the Fire Company and I among them rushed to the engine house got ‘Old Yosemite’ out and started on the run for Bailey’s Mills. It was back breaking work hauling the engine to a fire. Manpower was always used. When we arrived at a point nearly halfway to Gassetts we stopped for a brief rest.

“Looking at the glare in the sky we suddenly discovered it was no fire at all. The supposed fire was merely a reflection of the moon. Of course we about faced and hauled the engine back to the engine house. Then we all went down to the steam mill. I am very certain Editor McLaughlin would not allow the language we used in talking to that night watchman to appear in the Reporter.

“Up to the purchase of Steamer Aid No 1 brought about by a Ladies’ Aid Society South Street depended wholly upon the Yosemite Fire Company for its protection against fires. They always responded when called upon. One fire stands out in my mind very clearly. It was the burning of the Hutchinson buildings. These buildings were located just above the Congregational Church on South Street. The fire occurred in the early evening. Fifty years ago all merchandise was sold to merchants by traveling salesmen commonly called ‘Drummers.’ Nearly every night there would be several of these men registered at the local hotels.

“We were short of men at this fire. Three or four of these ‘Drummers’ had come up to watch operations. They were very free with advice as to how we firemen should pump. If my memory serves me right South Street had not been incorporated as a fire district hence we had no one to direct our work.

“Some of my older readers will remember Ira Adams who served in Chester as a selectman for many years. Ira was a typical Vermont Yankee well-liked by everyone. As a selectman the law gave him all the authority needed to take charge at a fire. Adams and the officer stood by and saw to it that they did as he directed.

“When the fire was under control he let them go back to their hotel completely exhausted. They did not have a word to say as to how a hand fire engine should be operated. As I said at the beginning of this article ‘Old Yosemite’ paid for itself many times.”

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