Idaho History

Boise City’s first fire department, in 1876, about good times, hard work

These early Boise firemen shared hard work and good times.
These early Boise firemen shared hard work and good times. Provided by Arthur Hart

After years without a fire department, or even firefighting equipment, and after a series of blazes, any one of which could have wiped out the town, on Jan. 24, 1876, the leading citizens met to organize Boise’s fire department. Twenty-eight men signed the membership roll and a committee was formed to raise funds for the purchase of firefighting equipment.

At a second meeting a week later, held in Turnverein Hall with Idaho Surveyor General Lafayette Cartee as chairman, a committee was appointed to create a constitution and bylaws. On Feb. 15, 1876, these were adopted and officers were elected: Lafayette Cartee, president; Milton Kelly, owner and editor of the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman, vice president; A. Wolters, secretary; and Mayor John Lemp, the city’s leading brewer, treasurer. Weekly meetings were scheduled for Saturday evenings at 7:30. On May 18 a second election was held with Cartee and Lemp re-elected president and treasurer. Attorney John H. Gray and Joseph Perrault were chosen vice president and secretary respectively. By the end of the month, 56 members had been enrolled.

To serve his community as a volunteer fireman was to share in the prestige and adventures of a special fellowship. A volunteer fireman received many intangible rewards for his services: first, of course the satisfaction of doing a good turn for his neighbors. Like a knight of old, he was in a position to be the protector and rescuer of those in peril. His fireman’s uniform was a conspicuous reminder to all who saw him in it that he was manly and brave. Then there was the sheer fun of parading on holidays in that bright red uniform, and of attending social functions in a costume more admired than the fanciest formal dress.

Perhaps most rewarding was the good fellowship he shared with his comrades — a bond that came from sharing both the good times and bad. There were the nights of firefighting in the wet and the cold, but also the happy hours at a dance or a party, helping drain yet another keg of John Lemp’s beer.

There were competitive pleasures, too, such as proving whose firefighting team was the best. That meant having the neatest uniforms, the shiniest equipment and the smartest drill. Perfect attendance at drill and at fires was another mark of excellence in which firemen competed, for being ready for any emergency was part of the business of a fire department, and to do the job right when the time came meant hours of practice. For an unpaid volunteer, it meant giving up other things in order to drill and maintain the equipment.

When, as occasionally happened, attendance flagged and interest waned, strong efforts were made to get things going again. Contests between picked teams within the department were common, such as hose-cart races to water hydrants, or races between ladder companies to carry buckets of water to the top of a building. When a team felt it had drilled enough, a challenge might be issued to a team in another town. No matter who won, there was sure to be a party shared by victors and the vanquished.

It is a notable fact that in a small town like Boise City, and most other frontier communities, volunteer firemen were a true cross-section of the population: lawyers, merchants, bankers, brewers, blacksmiths and saloon keepers all there together. The department was not recruited from any special class or from any special background. The rolls of Boise’s volunteers included natives of Germany, France, England and Ireland, as well as American-born men from across the country, including some who had fought on Union and Confederate sides in the Civil War. Although middle-aged businessmen were not expected to drag the fire engine on a winter night, there were few who did not do their part by paying someone to take their place or by making regular donations for entertainment.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email