A love for history

Two new books published
on Madison’s fire companies

Thomas spent three months
researching his subjects

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

(July 2009) – When the Jefferson County Courthouse caught fire May 20, the importance of firefighting companies was vividly brought home to community members.
Madison, Ind.-based writer Bob Thomas, however, needed no such reminder. Thomas had just spent three months combing through hundreds of pages of notes collected by area historian Frank Bird in preparation for the book, “Fire! History and Stories of Madison’s Volunteer Fire Companies and Fires They Have Battled.”

Historical Fire Company photo

Photos provided

Many historical photos like these are
included in the new publication on
Madison’s volunteer fire companies.

Historical Fire Company photo

Bird, a Madison postmaster and member of the No. 2 Fire Co., lived from 1906 to 1987 and assembled an astonishing collection of writings on Madison history. The archive at the Heritage Center houses a total of 19 boxes worth of Bird’s notes. Fellow archive volunteer and researcher Ron Grimes said, “Bird’s papers are a real treasure trove.”
“All I did was plagiarize his records,” jokes Thomas.
Jefferson County Historical Society volunteer Bob Thomas recently completed two books on Madison area history and community life in conjunction with the Jefferson County Historical Society. “Fire! History and Stories of Madison’s Volunteer Fire Companies and Fires They Have Battled” recounts firefighting stories from 1823 through 2009.
“A Chronology of Events in the History of Madison, Indiana” explores important dates in area history beginning in the 1600s. The books are available at the the Heritage Center Museum store for $6 each. The shop is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays at 615 W. First St. in Madison. As part of the release of “Fire! History and Stories,” the author plans to give talks to the local fire companies and has already spoken to No. 6 and No. 3.
In addition to accounts of historic and modern fires, the book also includes rare photographs from the archive collection. Grimes, who assisted in selection of photographs for the book, says, “One of the pictures I think captures your interest is the one of the Auto-Horse.”
This picture shows a briefly used piece of equipment used to haul the fire engine. Thomas’ book explains how the fire company faced difficulty with the horse and mule drawn engine to the point where for one fire, the firefighters were forced to jump off the wagon and physically run to the site where they were needed. The incident highlighted the need for reliable transportation, and the three wheeled Auto-Horse took the place of the wagon team until a motorized fire engine was eventually purchased.
The cover photograph also illustrates the transition from horse-drawn fire engines to more modern equipment. The 1920 photo taken at the intersection of Main Street and Walnut Street commemorates the arrival of the Fair Play Co. No. 1 Aherns fire truck. Also in the picture is the older horse drawn wagon. Each vehicle is pumping water from the cistern under the street and Grimes explains that the point of the demonstration was to prove to the public that the new equipment worked and would be able to add to the safety of the community.
While the book deals with serious stories of loss and destruction, there are also humorous tales as well.
For example, accounts of the 1890 Richwood Distillery fire include reports of witnesses racing about using “boots and shoes” in an attempt to salvage some of the liquor, while good church women who had never had a drink of whiskey in their lives became dizzy from the fumes.
Thomas’ latest book, “A Chronology of Events in the History of Madison, Indiana” covers a broad spectrum of items of interest to the Madison community. This book evolved from research Thomas did while compiling a time line of events for the inside cover of the “1809-2009 Madison on the Ohio Remembering 200 Years” book. Work on that project yielded so much information that it warranted its own publication.
Thomas describes the content of the book as, “Whatever I felt was important to history – the death of a person, a president’s coming to town, the founding of a church.”
The book includes information on everything from Delia A. Webster, an abolitionist who lived in Madison after being jailed in Kentucky and ordered out of that state for her political views, to the fact that in 1954 the town was turned down for the U.S. Air Force Academy in favor of Colorado Springs, Colo.
Thomas laughs, saying if Madison residents “want to read a gossip piece, this is gossip I guess!”

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