Hidden History: Burlingame firemen fight to keep town from extinguishing – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Burlingame firemen fight to keep town from extinguishing

Burlingame was the earliest, lasting community within Osage County, Kansas, and was also the site of the first county seat. As the county figured out how to manage growth that nearly doubled the area in the early 1870s, the county seat was shifted to Lyndon, much to the dismay of Burlingame. How could they wrest the title back? What improvements or services could they do that would bring it back? Every community faced the demon of fire, and in 1876, the year after the county seat was taken from them, Burlingame established an organized fire department – something that Lyndon did not have.

Earliest citizens had to rely on their own townspeople to form bucket brigades in case of fire, but that was a slow and intensive process that wasn’t successful against the fiercest of fires. As time passed, some businesses and residences had access to extinguishers, but whether or not they could be afforded, or even easily located in case of a disaster, was another thing entirely.

Organization of two fire companies in 1876 was seemingly progress, but posed its own challenges. Volunteers for the companies were primarily from the Burlingame Guards, the town’s militia, and while the numbers were seemingly impressive, getting those who had promised their service to show up to actually fight fires was problematic. The numbers for the two companies fluctuated wildly. Burlingame would have a at least one company, and then it didn’t have either. People joked that when the volunteers did follow through, the city council would have to offer bribes of payment to the first company to perform their promised duty. And when they did show up, response times were terribly poor, and the losses were great.

Skinner Fire Escape Ladder was one of the early life saving devices used by Burlingame fire fighters. Image from Report of the Commissioner of Patents, Vol. 4, 1868.

As Burlingame strove to build this service and prove itself an exceptional city, it purchased the newest equipment available but at great cost. One of the first pieces of equipment by the city was a chemical fire engine that had been patented the previous year. Chemical extinguishers utilized a mix of soda water and acid to fight fires, and were useful when fires became confined, but not against roaring blazes. Another early purchase was the Skinner Fire Escape, an expanding ladder that hit the scene in the late 1860s. Money was also spent for brand new uniforms to adorn the volunteers. Burlingame was splashing around so much money to advance itself that they soon were in deep debt.

Even with those purchases they still had wish list items that would make the service both totally viable and reliable. Absolutely essential on that list was a secure shelter for their equipment. The “fire house” was located at the old courthouse (on the property of the Schuyler Museum today), but that was too far from the business district – if a fire took hold there it would spread rapidly. And the fire house was not efficient in covering the engine, which made it temperamental to use when needed. There was no specific fire bell either. In the meantime, school bells or church bells were used, but that would pose it’s own struggles. And so, with the unreliability of the firefighting force, while Burlingame had a fire department, it really didn’t.

Charles Drew was an early backer and recruiter for an organized fire company to protect the city of Burlingame, Kan. Photo from Burlingame Enterprise, July 26, 1906.

It wasn’t without sincere effort though. Charles Drew, who had served in the military and was instrumental in organizing the Burlingame Guards, did his best to recruit, and recruit, and recruit for the fire department. But while Burlingame was happy to have firefighters when the need arose, the numbers they needed for an efficient and reliable force were not there.

By 1883, men were indeed “only a phone call away.” Burlingame received its first phone service that year and there were 29 residences and businesses that were the first to receive phone service. But while access to better communication was there, the numbers still were not.

For 10 years, the department languished. Burlingame kept making great strides in improving its city – the city park was reclaimed from neglect; the cemetery was beautified; and the fire house location was finally moved to a new city hall on Santa Fe Avenue (near the present public library). The firehouse location was ideal for the downtown, plus it had a cistern in the back for water access. Despite all the improvements the struggle for a fire company continued. And all those improvements meant it was even more necessary to have reliable fire protection, but still it was lacking.

That is, until Wesley Thomas. Thomas had been appointed assistant city marshal in 1882, when crime was rampant in the county – he was also the self-appointed night watchman for the town. While it would seem that accolades would come all around for finally successfully rebooting the much-needed fire department, Wesley was black, and in a world full of discrimination, he had to prove himself over and over again. Black men at that time were usually relegated to labor positions, but Wesley didn’t settle for that and sought to elevate himself and those around him.

In 1885, Wesley and 16 other men of color were determined to solve the problem of an unreliable fire force in Burlingame. They organized and gained approval from the city. The first order of business was to raise funds for a suitable uniform for what was called the “Colored Fire Brigade.”

Every part of this new fire company was self-motivated, and the men had to prove themselves over and over – but they did. They were efficient. Their response times saved houses that would have otherwise been in danger of being destroyed. Their volunteerism ignited a dependable city fire department. Wesley was appointed the chief of the black department with Alex Austin as foreman, and they ensured that the company’s members were well-drilled. The black company was often assisted by town members when fires blazed. Osage City, which had established its own fire company in 1876, also had an all-black company at this time.

Eventually a Babcock pumper engine, otherwise known as the “teapot” or “squirting machine,” was added to the available equipment. The enthusiasm and dedication the black company spurred involvement among their white counterparts, where none could be maintained before. In 1892, a new city fire department was organized, again under the leadership of Charles Drew. Wesley was relegated to foreman of the chemical engine while the white members of the force were given responsibilities for the most useful equipment for fighting large fires, such as the “man-killer” manpowered pumper. The new company was 60 men strong and an integrated one, but the all-black company still existed to serve alongside.

In 1895, Kansas created the Firemen’s Relief Fund, which gave city fire departments funds from a tax levy and premiums from fire insurance companies for firefighters or their families who were injured, died, or fell sick in the line of duty. Every bit of funding helped for small town departments, and the only reason that Burlingame was able to effectively compete for these funds was because Wesley Thomas had established the department a decade before.

As the fire department grew in numbers, those men who had worked so hard to establish a viable department in Burlingame were constantly pushed to the side. When fires blazed, the black company had to fight to even push through the crowds to do their duty.

By the mid-1900s, the all-black company ceased, and Burlingame’s department moved on, forgetting the men that worked so hard to make it a success. The quest for Burlingame again becoming county seat was also forgotten. Not long after Wesley Thomas was relieved of his command of the fire company, he moved to Topeka, where he would become janitor for Buchanan School, an all-black school in Topeka’s black neighborhood of Tennessee Town.

The Babcock Self-Acting Fire-Engine, also known as the “teapot” or “squirting machine,” was early fire fighting equipment used by Burlingame’s all-black fire company.

See related articles:
Hidden History: Former Lyndon mayor, fire marshal orders sanity in Fourth celebrations
Hidden History: Bailey’s hopefulness gives Lyndon its successful beginning

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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