Prior to 1876, Delavan did not have an organized fire department. Local fires before 1876 were fought by the bucket brigade method with most of the able-bodied villagers assisting. Cisterns and wells were the main sources of water.

In July 1876, a mass meeting was held to discuss the organization of a Delavan fire department. The village board authorized the purchase of a Babcock chemical fire extinguisher and 300 feet of hose for $2,200.

Delavan Fire Company No. 1 was organized on July 7 1876, by the election of D. Bennett Barnes, foreman; A.W. Pierce, first assistant foreman; G.M. Hemenway, second assistant foreman; D.T. Gifford, engineer; N.O. Francisco, assistant engineer; H. Gorman, captain of the hose; G.H. Sturtevant and W.H. Decker, assistant hose captains; C.J. Walton, secretary; and L.H. Nichols, treasurer.

In 1878, F.A. Smith was elected foreman with L.H. Nichols as assistant; S.W. Menzie, secretary; and W.B. Munsell, treasurer.

A second Delavan fire unity, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company, was organized in October of 1879, with L.H. Nichols, foreman; W.H. Decker, first assistant; M. Vedder, second assistant; J.E. Mosher, secretary, and C.A. Sage, treasurer.

Delavan Fire Company No. 1 listed the following officers in 1879; S.W. Menzie, foreman; James Davidson, first assistant; L.H. Nichols, second assistant; J. Devendorf, secretary; and J.B. Bossi, treasure. Nichols resigned his position in October to take command of the newly organized Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company.

The Hook and Ladder Company was equipped with a small hand-drawn wagon, 142 feet of ladder, a hose reel, buckets, and hand tools such as axes, crow bars, etc. The company had its headquarters in the city building on Washington Street near Seventh.

Delavan Fire Department records between 1881 and 1900 have been destroyed, therefore a complete list of officers and volunteers is not available. However, the following were members of the Delavan fire companies between 1881 and 1900: C.T. Isham, Edward Madden, Jr., Frank Smith, Will Blanchard, F.C. Van Velzer, F.W. Hoag, Bert Webster, Melvin Barnhart, E. Young, J.R. Williams, D.T. Gifford, H.L. Clark, W.T. Williams, D.T. Gifford, H.L. Clark, W.T. Williams, A Zoia, C.H. Bloomer, J. Rutledge, E. Wakeford, R.J. Wilson, Alex Miller, Milton Brown, W.H. Tyrell, W.G. Weeks, W.E. Hewes and Chris Wolfe.

James Davidson became Delavan’s first fire chief in 1894. Andrew J. Pramer served as chief from 1895 to 1897. Frank M. Stevens was chief in 1897, William T. Passage served as chief from 1899 to 1913.

John Ravn was chief from April to September of 1914, and was followed by Harry Utley, who served from 1914-1917. Henry Hare held the chief’s office from 1918 to 1928. Henry Gardner was fire chief for an even 10 years, 1928-1938, followed by Merle Clapper, 1938-1940; Frank Clark, 1940-1943; and Edward Stafford, 1943-1955.

Brad Liddle held the office of fire chief longer than any other Delavanite, serving a total of 28 years, from 1955-1983. Neill Flood has served as chief since 1983.

The D.F.D. has had the following secretaries since the turn of the century: J.D. Spickerman to 1914; Henry Hare, 1914-1917; George Dudley, 1917; Arthur Jackson, 1918-1928; George Cobb, 1928-1929; Howard Fernholz, 1929-1933; George Cobb, 1933-1936; Leon Fiske, 1936-1936; and Ernest Wright who held the position longer than anyone, 1939-1976. Wright was followed by Gary Collard, Tim Sturtevant, Greg Strohm, Robert Pieters, Patrick Flood, Paul Kuehni, and the current secretary/treasure, Bob Chapman. Tim Sturtevant is now a captain. Strohm, Pat Flood and Paul Kuehni are lieutenants.

J.B. Bossi was treasure for a total of 31 years – 1879-1910. William T. Ege was treasurer from 1911 until the office was consolidated with that of the secretary.

Delavan’s first fire alarm was a steel triangle made by George Sturtevant in 1877. The triangle was erected near the present site of Tower Park. In 1882, a hand-operated fire bell was installed on the fire house. An improved bell was purchased in 1884.

Delavan purchased an electrical fire whistle in 1916, which was used for a short time. However, when a fire whistle was made part of the steam plant at Bradley Knitting Mill, the fire bell was used exclusively at the station.

An electrically operated siren has been in operation for about the past 62 years, with the first one located on the roof of the police station. Over the years, additional sirens were placed throughout the city. Firefighters also carry radios and pagers.

From its organization in 1876 to 1916, Delavan relied upon hand-pulled cars and wagons for firefighting equipment. In July 1916, Delavan purchased its first auto fire truck, a 1 ½ ton four-cylinder Jeffery.

Prior to 1893, Delavan had no city water system. Several special fire cisterns were spotted throughout the community. Water also was obtained from residential wells. Chemical pumpers were always loaded to enable firemen to get a rapid start in controlling fires.

In 1866, a hydraulic ram was installed at the Mill Pond and water was piped up to the Delavan Hotel. The ram later provided for a reservoir in Tower Park.

Delavan’s first fire committee was appointed 1856, following the first election of village officers, and was comprised of Edmund Mabie, T.D. Thomas and James Aram.

The office of village fire marshal was established in 1880. S.W. Menzie was elected to the position.

Since 1898, a city police and fire commission, appointed by the mayor, has been in existence.

Article courtesy of the Delavan Enterprise


On Sept. 16 1879, a spectacular fire destroyed nearly the entire Wisconsin School for the Deaf, located on the west side of Delavan. Completely demolished was the four-story, winged structure containing the school administration offices, classrooms, dormitories and storage areas. When the flames subsided, only the gymnasium, the outdoor toilets and a few other outbuildings remained standing.

Following the catastrophic blaze, state officials in Madison seriously considered rebuilding the school in a more central part of the state. State Assemblyman D. Bennett Barnes of Delavan vigorously fought the proposal and was instrumental in having WSD maintained in Delavan.

The fire was discovered around 8:30 a.m., after the students had finished breakfast. Smoke was observed coming out of the decorative dome which adorned the roof of the building. Almost simultaneously, flames erupted from the ceiling of the boy’s dormitory on the fourth floor of the central building. According to the account of the fire that appeared in the Delavan Republican, the fire alarm was immediately sounded and the Delavan fire company, led by assistant foreman James Davidson, several volunteers and a Babcock extinguisher, arrived on the scene in eight minutes.

During the early phase of the fire, the WSD faculty and student body removed nearly all of the movable furnishings from the building. Upon arrival, the Delavan fire company made a valiant effort to save the building. A moderate southwesterly wind whipped the flames from the central building to the east wing. Firemen then carried two hoses to the roof of the west wing, hoping to save that portion of the school, but by 10 a.m., they were forced to abandon their position as the fire spread westward. Thereafter the firemen devoted their attention to saving the adjacent gymnasium and other outbuildings. By noon only a skeleton of the main building and the wings remained standing. In spite of the severity of the fire, no serious injuries were reported by school personnel or members of the fire company.

Earlier, when it became apparent the school could not be save, telegraphic messages were sent by WSD superintendent William H. DeMotte to Wisconsin Gov. William E. Smith and A.L. Chapin, president of the school’s board of trustees in Madison. Utilizing rail transportation, Gov. Smith and Chapin arrived in Delavan at 3:40 p.m. to view the destruction and initiate necessary emergency plans.

The Delavan citizenry immediately responded, offering to open their homes to students, which numbered about 200, providing lodging and food for as long as necessary. The school trustees gratefully accepted the offer and all the female students, about 70 in number, were assigned to local homes. A temporary dormitory for boys was hurriedly set up in the gymnasium and shoe shop. A large tent served as a dining site. The undamaged carpenter shop was utilized as classrooms. For a short period, the Delavan United Methodist Church was also used for recitation rooms.

Although some lawmakers in Madison opposed rebuilding the school in Delavan due to its location in the extreme southern part of the state, thanks to Assemblyman Barnes’ leadership role, the Legislature apportioned $65,000 for new construction at the Delavan site, which began early in 1880.

Barnes, credited with keeping WSD in Delavan, was an interesting individual who for a quarter of a century was known as “King of the town.” His father, Alanson H. Barnes, was an attorney who was appointed to a federal judgeship in the Territory of the Dakotas. He also served on WSD’s board of trustees, 0861-73. Ben studied law in his father’s law office and in 1876 was elected foreman of Delavan’s first fire company. In 1878, he was instrumental in starting the Delavan Enterprise newspaper, practiced law, was elected for one term in the state Assembly and for several years headed the Walworth County Republicans. He died in 1935 at age 89. His ashes are interred in Spring Grove Cemetery.

In 1936, a major fire at WSD destroyed the dining hall, chapel and employee’s living quarters and in 1962 the school’s print shop was gutted by fire.
-Delavan Enterprise

Only some of the walls remained following the WSD fire of Sept. 16, 1879. (Photo was taken by the McPheerson Studio of Delavan.)

Article and photos courtesy of the Delavan Enterprise.


Pandemonium prevailed in Delavan during the early 1890’s when an epidemic of 32 fires over an 18-month period took place. An arsonist was thought to have been responsible for a major number of the fires. Feuds developed when suspects were mentioned. Tensions in the community ran so high that the village fire committee, without the knowledge of the village board, hired a private detective to investigate the situation.

Prior to 1893, Delavan did not have a water system and fires were fought with cumbersome Babcock-type chemical wagon-carts pulled by manpower and the “bucket brigade,” utilizing water from the nearest well. Anytime a fire got a good start there was little the firefighters could do to save the building and their efforts were devoted to saving adjacent structures.

Commencing with 1891, numerous fires, usually involving barns and sheds, took place on a regular basis. On June 1, 1892, the most destructive fire since 1880 took place when several business firms located on the west end of the 200 block south, Walworth Avenue, were destroyed. No sooner had the fire been curtailed when the McKee barn behind Bradley’s store went up in smoke.

In April 1893, the large barns of J.R. Barlow and George Peacock, located in the 100 block of North Second Street, burned to the ground in arson-suspected blazes. Through the summer of 1893, numerous minor fires took place which unnerved the populace. Vigilante citizens patrolled the local neighborhoods at night as a precautionary measure against arsonist activity. At the time, ditches were being dug prior to the installation of Delavan’s inaugural water system which for several years had been strongly advocated by the fire department and leading citizens.

On Aug. 28, 1893, a fire started on North Second Street which rapidly spread to Walworth Avenue and threatened to destroy the entire business district. Before it was extinguished, the blaze claimed 16 buildings including the Delavan Hotel, U.S. Post Office, and 14 other business firms and offices, all located on the north side of the 200 block of Walworth Avenue. Sparks from the fire were carried a great distance to the southwest, setting many roofs afire including the steeple of the Congregational Church, but fortunately, quick action by homeowners and volunteers averted the spread of destruction.

The fire started at approximately 8:30 p.m. on a warm late summer evening when flames were observed leaping from the hay loft in S.V. Barlow’s livery barn on the east side of North Second Street, near the McDowell Street intersection. The fire alarm was immediately sounded and volunteers removed 24 horses and several carriages from the burning structure. The flames, whipped by a slight breeze, jumped to the adjacent two-story home and barn of Lydia Williams, with complete destruction taking place in a short time.

The fire company could do little in containing the fire as flames rapidly spread toward Walworth Avenue, destroying George Sturtevant’s blacksmith shop and Charles Winn’s carriage painting ship where the Delavan band was conducting a rehearsal. The flames then spread to I.T. Thompson’s wagon works and livery barn in back of the Delavan Hotel. The inevitable then took place as the roof of the Shulz building at the northeast corner of Second and Walworth was ignited. The two-story building contained the Odd Fellows Lodge clubroom, the city treasurer’s office, four professional offices and S.H. Hollister’s farm machinery and carriage works.

Rapidly spreading east, the fire swept through the Delavan post office in short order. Fortunately postmaster Adele Barnes had the mail and all movable equipment removed from the premises. Proceeding east, the fire rapidly consumed the frame Delavan House Hotel, operated by Mrs. E.M. Strow. The guests were evacuated although many lost their belongings. After the hotel, the fire destroyed the Hollister and Calkins building which contained a large leaf tobacco inventory owned by the W.C. Van Velzer Cigar Company. A large barn behind the building was also burned to the ground. The raging fire continued east taking the J.T. Powell Bakery and A. Matson’s barber shop. Finally a fire wall on the west side of K.N. Hollister’s hardware store halted the spread of the fire.

The cause of the fire was later attributed to a 14-year old boy who fired a leftover Fourth of July skyrocket behind the Park Hotel on Park Place which landed in the Barlow hay loft. When the water system was completed and operative in the late fall of 1893 the fire epidemic suddenly ceased. Much to the relief of the Delavan citizenry. Article courtesy of the Delavan Enterprise

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