By Justin Feil
Rob Brown thought of the firefighters that had preceded him as he pushed Hope Hose Humane Company No. 1’s antique hand pumper in the parade to celebrate the fire company’s 250th anniversary on June 10.
The hand pumper, which is about 7 feet tall, dates back to the 1800s and was sold to Hope Hose when it went by its original name, Union Fire Company. It was recently renovated.
“Going through the streets on that parade route, I was trying to imagine what it must be like to push this thing through dirt streets and mud and muck to get to a fire somewhere in town,” Brown said. “Bordentown seems pretty small until you walk it. It’s a little heavier than we thought it would be, but it was definitely a pleasure. It was a great thing.”
Brown, the chair of the hand pumper committee, was emotional when the hand pumper was returned to Hope Hose after 10 months with Andy Swift of Firefly Restorations in Maine. It came back just days before their milestone celebration.
The celebration kicked off June 9 with the dedication and blessing from department chaplain and Burlington County Fire Chiefs Association chaplain Father Matthew Tucker of a new granite monument in front of Hope Hose, along with his blessing of the hand pumper and a new ambulance brought into the active fleet for the EMS. Present at the blessing was Ann Wiley, the daughter of former Hope Hose firefighter. Four generations of her family served with the company.
Wiley now lives in North Carolina, but she brought her children and grandchildren who live in Texas to honor the service of her father, Sam Warner, and the generations of her family that preceded him at Hope Hose.
Brown, who has been a volunteer at Hope Hose for 33 years, only found out recently that his great-grandfather John Hensley was a member of the company in the early 1900’s.
“There are a lot of family connections,” Brown continued. “The funny thing about volunteerism is we’re all brothers and sisters. We’re not literally related, but we’re a big family. That’s just how it is. It’s been that way for eons.”
The parade celebrated the company’s rich history and reminded all of those that have volunteered through the years. Twenty-one fire companies, 60 marchers, a band and two floats participated in the parade that included 60 pieces of apparatus, including Hope Hose’s old hose cart that was brought as a surprise by the New Jersey State Fireman’s Museum.
Former Hope Hose chief Marty Gaynor served as the parade’s grand marshal, while volunteers from past decades came from near and far to participate. There were 14 life members riding a trolley together, including Don Evans, one of the oldest members having served back in 1965.
“They couldn’t wait to get here,” said Ed Foley, a current 36-year company member. “We hadn’t seen a lot of the old timers in a long time, but they all had a great time on the trolley because they all knew each other. It was really nice. We kind of did it for them. It meant a lot to us to have them here.”
The hand pumper is a living symbol to those who served the company and helped sustain it as the second oldest volunteer fire company that is still active in the nation. Hope Hose Humane was founded on January 24, 1767, known then Union Fire Company, with 24 members. Only Mount Holly has maintained an older volunteer fire company in an age when volunteer fire companies are getting rarer nationwide.
“It gets harder and harder,” Foley said. “When I first joined, we had guys waiting here in the building because we didn’t have room on the trucks. Now you’re lucky to get one truck and two or three people in the second truck.
“The way things go, with everyone turning paid, I’m surprised we haven’t gone that route yet. More and more towns are going paid (fire companies) because people can’t get off during the day and employers don’t let people leave (on fire calls). Back when I started, I worked for my uncle and when the pager went off I was allowed to leave work. A lot of companies don’t let you leave work now.”
Today, Hope Hose has about the same amount of roughly two dozen active firefighters as when it was founded, plus a half-dozen EMTs. They are always looking for new volunteers.
Hope Hose president Robert Curran joined the company when he was 30. He says many of the firefighters are cross-trained. Hope Hose has around 25 life members who have served for 15 years, as well as 35 auxiliary members who help with fundraising and support.
Hope Hose staff are proud to have served the community for 250 years down through the generations, and the hand pumper stands for that pride and joy. The hand pumper has been perfectly preserved by Hope Hose and for the first time in at least five decades, it can stand alone on its own wheels and really pump water. The fire company couldn’t wait to show it to the residents whose generosity and support helped finance its preservation.
“From my standpoint, it was important for our 250th anniversary because that’s the first piece of apparatus that this company bought,” Brown said. “It was the very first fire truck that ever hit the streets of Bordentown City. And we still have it. Not a lot of fire departments can say that they have the first piece of equipment to hit the streets.”
On the hand pumper is imprinted the date 1794, which was when the Humane Fire Company of Philadelphia was founded. When then-Union Fire Company purchased the hand pumper second-hand from Humane on November 1, 1822, Union changed its name to Humane because it was less expensive to change their name than to re-letter the hand pumper, Curran explained. It remained named Humane and operated under the Humane charter until 1976, when it combined with Hope Hose to become Hope Hose Humane Company No. 1.
Curran said the fire company has log books and meeting notes going back to the 1700’s. He said he and others love to sit down and pore over those books that tell stories about the fires the company has fought and reveals the growth of the community over time. Hope Hose was there when the mansion of Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled brother of Napoleon, caught fire in the early 1800’s. There are also historic notes from engineers discussing the condition of the hand pumper.
In two years of planning the 250th celebration, the company members learned plenty about its history. They continue to find out details, including a time several years ago when they considered selling the hand pumper. Then-president Tom Antozzeski, a current life member, objected.
“He said, ‘No, we can’t sell this, it’s our history,’” Brown said. “He did everything he could to block that sale. We still have that. I didn’t know that piece of the story. We learned where it came from and how we got it. There were some other pieces that came through this venture that are really amazing.”
Curran notes that the company doesn’t just focus on putting out fires and the EMS force saving lives. They help the Fill Father Matt’s Truck food drive to restock the food pantry in one night in November, they partner with Consolidated Fire Company for a fire prevention show in October. They work with Bordentown Friends to provide presents for families having a tough time at Christmas. And they are happy to bring their trucks into the community to satisfy the curiosity of youngsters and plant the seeds for future firefighters and EMTs.
The firehouse serves as a disaster center that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy provided food and shelter and power for local residents. Hope Hose’s major fundraiser, the Bordentown Riverfest in October, climbed from 6,000 attendees in its first year to 10,000 last year and helped to finance the hand pumper’s preservation. This year, proceeds will go toward life-saving equipment.
The city, Curran said, is a vital part of what Hope Hose does, and the company wants to keep residents involved.
“We’re a small town with a lot of families who have remained in town for decades,” he added. “We have residents whose forefathers were firefighters with the company.”
Curran is hopeful that his own son will join the company’s junior ranks this summer after he turns 16. He points to a resurgence in junior firefighters 16-18 years old who can stay on to become full members when they turn 18 and form the next generation of Hope Hose Humane Company No. 1.
“We’re still going to push through,” Foley said. “We’re not going anywhere.”