PARIS — The Paris Fire Department is giving itself a belated birthday party on Saturday but the celebration is really to showcase the job and history of firefighters everywhere.
The Paris department traces its formal organization to 1874, which would make it 137 years old. But firefighters are calling it the 135th birthday because, well, 135 years just sounds more worthy of celebration.
The department intended to mark the occasion two years ago, but Andy Roe had just been named as chief and the economy didn't have anyone in much of a mood to party.
In any case, the point is that it's one of the oldest fire departments in Central Kentucky. To display that history, the department will hold a "muster," or gathering of equipment and activities, to tell the story of fire protection.
"We would like the public to see where the technology started and where it is today, from the bucket brigade to these 110-foot towers (ladder trucks)," Roe said. "Everyone enjoys looking at a fire truck and this old antique equipment."
Paris did have some limited firefighting capabilities in the early 1800s with a bucket brigade, a line of people who passed buckets of water from a cistern to the fire. Training was held six times a year, and if someone didn't attend training he was fined 25 cents, according to information provided by the Hopewell Museum, a history museum in Paris. Businesses were encouraged to keep leather buckets on their premises for use in fires. They could be fined if they could not produce a bucket during a periodic check by authorities, Roe said.
One of the old 20-foot-deep, rock-walled cisterns was filled in by the city this year, Roe said.
The city recognized the need for a well-trained fire department in 1872, after a disastrous blaze destroyed the county's second courthouse, but the fire department didn't have a formal structure until 1874. The department's Station 1, located behind the Bourbon County Courthouse in downtown Paris, dates to the mid-1870s.
Another fire heavily damaged the county's third courthouse in 1901. Bystanders and courthouse employees rushed to save papers or put them into fireproof vaults as wind fanned the flames.
"They didn't have ladders tall enough to get up to it," said Dion LeMieux, a retired Michigan fire chief and former Lexington emergency manager who has researched the Paris department's history.
The fourth and present courthouse, built from 1902-05, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Firefighting wagons and steam pumpers were pulled by horses into the 1900s, but in 1915 the department got its first motor vehicles.
In 1892, Paris began using a fire alarm system that allowed a neighborhood to report a fire to the department through a system of fire boxes connected to a closed circuit of telegraph wires.
The system continued to be used until 1971, long after telephones were introduced in Paris. The department recently refurbished the system and put it on a traveling display that will be featured at Saturday's event.
It will then go on display from Oct. 13-28 at the Hopewell Museum. After that, there has been talk of loaning the display to the Smithsonian, Roe said.
Karl Lusk of New Haven, a Paris firefighter from 1970 to 1991, knows about spectacular blazes and some of the more colorful characters in the department's history. For example, he tells a story about Monroe "Shorty" Doyle, a citizen who took it upon himself to stop traffic at the intersection of Eighth and High streets so that fire trucks had unhindered passage when speeding to a fire.
"Shorty would hear the bell or the siren, and he had a red flag and a policeman-type cap, and he would go out there and stop the traffic for us," Lusk said. "When we got to Eighth and High streets, we could sail right on through there whether the light was red, green or whatever. And that was his contribution. And the city recognized him for that, so that if someone said 'You have no business stopping traffic here,' he could say 'I'm a volunteer firefighter and I do have.' There was this sense of community service."
And what's a little history without a haunted fire station? New recruits to the department learn that Station 1, the one that dates to the mid-1870s, is the residence of "Pat," a firefighter who died there some 80 years ago.
"The sleeping quarters are upstairs, and you hear some pretty unnerving things — especially if you happen to be here by yourself, and all the trucks are out," Roe said. "You don't get a sound sleep.
"Someone will make a comment like, 'Pat was busy last night.' It's just the way the building talks and creaks. It gives out its moans and whistles and cries."
Today, the Paris Fire Department has 31 paid members and a budget of a little more than $2 million. In addition to the downtown Station 1, another station is on the bypass, and land for a third station has been donated on U.S. 68 near Houston Oaks Golf Course south of town. The department responds to 2,500 to 3,000 calls per year.
While a muster is defined as a gathering of troops for inspection, the Oct. 8 muster is for the public to see and learn where their tax dollars go for fire protection. A commemorative booklet filled with photos and history will be for sale at the event.
"We'd like for the younger generation to come out and be inspired to get into this type of work," Roe said. "It's to let the taxpayers come and see where we started and where we've gotten."