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Sue Bush
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Lee Fire Department Celebrates 150 Years

Submitted by Paul Vallone
12:00AM / Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Lee Fire Department celebrated 150 years of service during a Sept. 30 event.
Lee - The Lee Fire Department celebrated their 150th Anniversary on Sat. Sept. 30 in conjunction with the Lee Founders Weekend which began Sept. 29.

A parade including 15 area fire departments from throughout Berkshire County joined them in their celebration. There were also floats and marching bands. People young and old lined the parade route enjoying the fire trucks, floats, bands, Shriner’s and more.

History Of The Fire Department

The company known today as Lee Fire Department was started in 1856 when 49 inhabitants of Central Lee subscribed to a fund to purchase an engine.

Ninety-nine men formed the original company. It was truly a volunteer company , since the equipment was paid for by the citizens who maintained and manned the engine (the Water Witch).

An early argument for spending money on fire equipment was to decrease the cost of fire insurance. An account of the January 19, 1857 fire in the “Gleaner” includes a loss of $8,000 by Smith & Weber, who had $3,000 insurance.

Early fire fighting depended on large supply of buckets and strong backs. Each family was required to have and keep in good repair their own bucket. Some residents of Lee still have the family buckets in their home.

Hoses for the fire engines were a great improvement. However, the earliest hoses were made from leather (and one order for hose for Lee was delayed by a shortage of good hides). The leather was riveted and each connection was custom-made. The Water Witch, which used a 10 inch cylinder to push water through the hose and out the 1 inch nozzle, could deliver water up to 200 feet from the engine, but it often fell victim to ruptured hoses.

The first engine in Lee was the Forest, a hand-pumped engine from the Button Company.

Later, the finest steam engine available were purchased by the mills. After all, Lee’s 25 mills produced 1/5 of all the paper manufactured in the U.S. in 1855.

Eight cisterns were built around the town in 1859. The cisterns gave some relief to the back-breaking bucket brigade (since the water didn’t have to come from the river), but the supply of water was still limited. Marble was a major industry in Lee. The same Lee marble was used to construct the fire station on Main Street.

Its' opening was celebrated in 1912 and is recorded in the “Valley Gleaner” of July 17th, which said “The building is of Lee marble, of course, a home production and a mighty beautiful building material.”

Going through the “Gleaner” you read about fires, the gala balls, and the parades and musters regularly held to show off the men and the equipment of the Lee and neighboring companies.

In 1939, the Lee Fire Department won a prize for best appearing unit in the parade at the World’s Fair in NYC. In 1947, the company attended a muster in Pittsfield and held a demonstration of the Water Witch, still in operating condition. In 1958, a new fire station was built in South Lee. In 1977, the company was able to purchase the H.B. May engine and return it to the town. There is a very good history of the Water Witch Company at the Fire House, written in 1825 by Charles H. Pease, that posterity might profit by its existence.

“Fire Department Is Like A Big Eamily”

I talked to Walter DeFreest a longtime Lee Fire Department member who said, "This department is made up with third generation families that keep the tradition of firefighting alive in the department.”

"Most of the guys I was in with and their families go way back," he said. "Some are gone or retired. We were all family people. Some of the kids have taken our places, so even with all the changes the Lee Fire Department is still just a big family.”

The fire department had about 99 members in the original company; now there are 48 volunteers, although the roster allows for 65.

DeFreest talked about the early days on the fire department.

During his early years with the department, DeFreest said, “The gear provided to the volunteers consisted of a hat, coat and boots, all one size - extra large.”

"I got into size 12 boots and was swamped in them," he recalled. "It was one-size-fits-all. A lot of the stuff came from the Second World War. They shipped it out to all the volunteer departments. It was free, gratis, so we took it."

Eventually the volunteers got their own equipment, and both their gear and the trucks improved, although they were accompanied by some difficulties.

"We rode many, many, years on the tail boat of the truck," he said. "When they opened the Turnpike, we were riding to the 26-mile marker freezing to death on the back of the truck. Then they started getting a little more modern equipment. Toward the end they got some real good trucks."

"Today, we all have to be trained medically as first responders, spending 40 hours every three years in training," he said. "We also have to have eight hours of training in handling hazardous materials."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires considerable training for large scale "incidents," such as terrorist attacks. The training is mandatory in order to qualify for federal funding.

Paul Vallone is a member of the Clarksburg Volunteer Fire Department and a correspondent for the 1st Responder News Internet web site.

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