In the early days, the town of Sumter consisted almost entirely of wooden buildings. Fire was surely a perpetual danger. Despite repeated warnings from citizens, the town did not have a fire engine or fire department in 1855.
In May of 1855, tragedy struck. A kitchen in the jail yard caught fire. The town guard arrived on scene and could hear the screams being made by Sophy and her three children. But, the town guard could not offer any help. The town guard was without fire buckets or a fire engine. Sophy and her three children perished in the fire.
Realizing the danger now of not having a fire engine, the citizens pulled together and ordered a fire engine. In the spring of 1856, Sumter’s first fire engine arrived. It was the size of a piano. The first engine was nothing more than a pump on wheels with a rail on each side for the men to push up and down to fill the hoses with water.
The first fire department in Sumter was made up of all volunteers. The department consisted of some of the younger men in town. By 1880, Sumter had three volunteer fire companies. Each company was equipped with one of the hand pumped engines. There was the Independent Company that was made up of white men. The other two companies, the Wide Awakes and the Eagle Blues, were made up of Negros.
In 1881, a city water system was installed. The Independents, Wide Awakes, and Eagle Blues companies died out. The hand pumpers were replaced by hose reels.
Four reel squads were organized. Only two of the original four reel squads lasted. The two reel squads that remained for years were the Delgar Squad #3 and the Monaghan Squad #2. It was said to be as difficult to become a member of these two squads as it was to join the most exclusive club of that time era.
The two reel squads would race each other to the fire for the honor of being the first there. Also, the first squad in got to use the closest hydrant and the last in would have to go farther down the road for water.
Over time, an intense rivalry developed between the two squads. Then, one night the Monaghan Squad won the race to the fire with no problem. The Monaghan Squad had replaced man power with horse power. The Monaghan Squad had purchased a horse to pull their engine. Not to be out done, the Delgar Squad purchased a pair of horses. In return, the Monaghan Squad went out and bought another horse so they would have a pair. So became the Delagr Reel Squad drawn by horses, Harry B. and Douglas, and the Delgar Reel Squad drawn by Barney and Billy.
The city realized the added efficiency of using the horses that sparked competition between the squads and started paying the driver of the team that reached the fire first a dollar reward. Both teams gave all they had. Then one night tragedy struck. In 1906, both companies headed out to answer a call just west of the corner of Main and Liberty. The teams crashed into each other at the intersection, and Barney was killed. The call turned out to be a false alarm.
The rivalry between the two squads cooled after the accident, but they started competing in competitions with squads from other S.C. and N.C. towns. In the contest, each squad would run 100 yards, connect to a hydrant, and lay 150ft of hose. The first team to throw a stream of water was the winner. In 1907, the Delgar Squad set a world record when they beat the reel squad from Columbia with a time of 33 seconds. The world record set by the Delagr Squad only lasted a year though. Sumter’s other squad, the Monaghan, set a new world record of 28 seconds in a competition against N.C. The record set by the Monaghan squad has never been beaten.
In 1912, Sumter adopted council management. The City Council decided to purchase Sumter’s first motor truck, a Seagrave. In 1918, a second truck was purchased. The acquisition of a third truck in 1920 marked the end of horse drawn fire equipment in Sumter. Billy, the last surviving horse from the original teams went to work pulling trash wagons. It was told that every time the fire alarm sounded, he could be seen pulling the trash wagon full steam to the fire with his driver hollering whoa.
Sumter has journeyed a long ways from the days of thundering hooves racing to fires and one engine manned by all volunteers.
Today, the Sumter Fire Department is made up of twenty stations. There are five full time paid stations and fifteen county volunteer stations, five of which have paid drivers. There are 101 paid members in the fire department and 220 volunteers. The Sumter Fire Department has 24 engines, 2 heavy rescue trucks, 2 ladder trucks, 15 brush trucks, 7 service trucks, 19 tankers, 2 haz-mat/special ops trucks, 1 Gator, 1 golf cart, 1 boat, and 8 command vehicles.
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