This fire company was predated probably by bucket brigades of citizens who showed up at blazes. The first fire chief, in 1861, was called "inspector of the fire wood." In those early days, little was known about fire-resistant building materials. There was no composition roofing or siding. Most buildings were made of wood or stone. A few had tin roofs. In -most cases if the fire had much of a headway before being discovered there was little hope of saving the buildings or any near it.
In the early fires, water was taken from wells, cisterns and even horse troughs. Only those fires near the river were fought with an unlimited supply. Citizenry often joined regular firemen in the bucket brigades. These early-day firemen answered alarms by gripping hooks attached to a pole on a cart and running to the scene of a fire. The cart carried water hoses and a tank. Since speed afoot was essential, Dixon's firemen became quite proficient at the job. By 1978 they were gaining state and national acclaim for their ability. The 1878 running team went to Chicago for competition and won the state contest and finished third nationally. That 1878 team was able to pull the cart 400 yards, raise a 3O-foot ladder and have a man ascend it in just under 67 seconds. The 1902, 1903 and 1905 teams were also state champions. Many of the prizes won by these early teams are still on display at the present fire station in City Hall.
Those early fire departments offered no pay. The prestige of serving as a fireman was considered salary enough in the early days. The first paid fire department for the city was established in September of 1898. The first regular firemen on the payroll were A. Groff, G. Detrick, C. Cupp and F. Coffey. Coffey served the longest of this group, remaining with the department for ten years. About the year 1910 the firemen quit running to fires and began using horses to pull their equipment. The horses were stabled at the rear of the fire department's present quarters. Harness was held up against the ceiling by pulleys. When a fire alarm sounded the horses were backed into position and the harness lowered into place and the hookup was made.
The use of motor-driven vehicles came just before World War I. The sleeping quarters for todays firemen was once the loft storage for hay and oats for the horses. The city had pressurized water as early as 1869. "The History of Lee County" mentions that in that year the Water Power Company had put in a rotary pump with a rated capacity of 1,200 gallons per minute. That was about double the capacity of a steam-powered fire engine of the day. This pump together with 600 feet of hose, was originally intended for use by the manufacturing firms at the water-power site. When the fire department was formed, the city assumed responsibility for the pump and bought an additional 1,000 feet of hose, hose reels, hook and ladder truck and other necessary apparatus.
The first fire station was built in 1871. The upper rooms were meeting rooms and the lower area was for the eqipment. The building was at Second Street and Hennepin Avenue, the site of the present City Hall, facing Hennepin Avenue. In the winter of 1871-72 water mains were laid from the pump to the corner of Main and Galena and afterward to the corner of Second and Hennepin. Main Street is now First Street. In 1876 the city put in a piston pump capable of operating at 1,600 gallens a minute, but the small water mains prevented it being used at full capacity.
The early fire records l isting major blazes show that on Aug. 2, 1856, the stable belonnging to the Mansion House burned down. Records indicate it was believed to be arson. Eleven horses died in the blaze. On April 25, 1958, a jewelry store belonging to S.A. Bancroft, on Main Street, burned. The records says "not all good were in the safe." The following year on Oct. 14, 1859, one of Dixon's worst fires was reported. A total of 20 businessmen were victims of the flames. Seventeen buildings burned, covering more than half a block on both sides of Main Street. Loss in the fire was reported to be $30,000 with only a little over $10,000 insured.
A fire listing $25,000 in damage occurred on Jan. 29, 1860 when a machine shop owned by Col. John Dement, later to be mayor, was gutted by flames. There was no insurance. Repairs to the building were completed in two months, but structural damage resulted in lowering the building from two stories to one.
In 1862 a fire swept through Giles shoe shop, a stone building on the corner of Galena and Main housing a hat store operated by a Mr. Roberts, and another shoe shop belonging to a Mr. Sprague. Dixon's first fire fatality was recorded on Feb. 8, 1865, when a house in Dement Town, belonging to Col. John Dement, burned down at about 3 a.m. The house was occupied by a Mr. Peifer, who died trying to save valuables from the fire.
On June 2, 1866, a paintshop on Hennepin owned by W. J. Daley burned down. ( Nearly five years passed without a single fire loss, if the early records are correct, until March 3, 1871, when fire broke out in a building used as a residence and saloon by the Schuchart family. The building on Peoria, and three other frame buildings to the west,a barn close by and F. C. McKenney's Livery stable were all consumed by flames.
An industrial fire March 12, 1873, destroyed knitting mills, the roof of the flax factory and machinery. On Dec. 4, 1875, another industrial fire gutted the upper stories of Becker and Underwood's flour mills. Elevators and machinery were destroyed. Much of the equipment suffered water or fire damage. On Feb. 8, 1878, a blaze claimed two businesses on Main Street when a building occupied by I. T. Van Ness, druggist, and Will Sussmilch, jeweler, went up in flames. J. C. Mead's, bookstore caught fire on March 23, i879. The upper story and roof were destroyed, ,but there - was little damage to the stock. On April 8, 1880, probably the most disastrous fire ever to hit Dixon broke out at 1:30 a.m. The fire was in the heart of the Dixon imdustrial area of the tiine, the water power site near the rvier.
The following is a word - for - word account taken from fire department records:
"Fire alarm sounded 1:30 a.m. giving a general alarm to all the firemen and citizens on account of the continued ringing of the alarm and the great reflection of the light. The origin of the fire is located by some in, W. P. Thompson's Flouring Mill. Those persons claiming to have noticed the fire in the start (living on the North Side of the river) are positive of being able to locate it in Thompson's Mill. While others who first seen it when under full headway claim that S. C. Bell's Flax and Bagging Factory was mostly consumed before any fire could be found in any other building. The cause of the fire is therefore unknown but supposed by many to have been spontaneous combustion. "Both pumps were in excellent condition and worked as well as could be wished and until the fire was driven from the Flax Mill into Thompson's Flouring Mill by a strong northwest wind and the boys were confident , getting it under control. Even then when it as impossible to save Thompson's Mill some - the braver climbed on the roof over Becker & Underwood's office hoping at least to save some of the property, depending partly on a heavy party wall between Thompson's and Becker's and Underwood's. Never thinking of the possibility of a dust explosion which occurred, throwing the boys from the roof before a blasat of blaze dust and burning flour.
Those most seriously injured were promptly cared for while those who were left and not too badly scared still continued to fight the fire and try to confine it to he north side of the street. About this time the house containing the pumps was discovered to be on fire and soon drove the engineers from their post. The Amboy Fire Department was telegraphed to for assistance and arrived in time to sae Browns Machine Shop, Curtis Plow Factory and John Dement's Flax Mill. The Pump House by this time was burned and the Dixon Hose Company formed in with the citizens to complete a bucket line. The Amboy Engine Co. worked until the fire was all out, and returned home with the heartfelt thanks of the whole city; this being the third they have responed to our call of distress. Enquiry and search being made for Ezra S. Becker and Wm. Schumm Jr. and not being found it was concluded that they had been killed in the explosion. Their bodies were found in the race. Ezra Becker being fearfully mangled while Schumm was drowned.
The Fire Department and Odd Fellows united in the funeral services of Ezra S. Becker and a committee was appointed from both the I.O.O.F. and Dxion Hose Company to act as an escort to the remains of comrade Schumm to his former home in Dubuque. The firemen wounded at this fire were; O.B. Anderson, W.H. Rink, W.W. Vann, C.O. Lint, Patrick Duffey, James Rueland, Peter Ramsey. Citizens; James Hayden, Lee Stevens. Estimated loss $250,000 Insurance $68,000. Signed Foreman (Chief) C.C. Atkins. Fire records since the 1880 tragedy are not nearly as detailed. On June 23, 1903 a major fire at the Dixon Opera House was reported
This tragic event destroyed completely the roof and second and third floors of the building. It also heavily damaged the post office and three other businesses located on the first floor. Although no fire damage was reported to the basement, the bowling alleys located there were destroyed by water and falling debris. This inferno, which caused total damage then estimated at over $40,000, also destroyed the club rooms and records of several organizations that had used its third-floor meeting rooms. Among them were the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and Women's Relief Corps (WRC).
The GAR at that time stored over 600 rounds of blank cartridges in their section of the building for later use in ceremonial activities. During the fire these shells "popped away like skirmish-firing." The Evening Telegraph reported, "The entire paid and volunteer fire departments worked like heroes through the smoke and drenching water." Over 14,000 barrels of water were estimated to have been used to fight the glaze. The newspaper also commented, "No better walls were ever put up in Dixon, save for the new Court House, and at no time were they much in danger." Mrs. E. M. Truman and her daughter, Eleanor J., were then the owners of the structure and announced shortly after the fire that the Opera House would be rebuilt as quickly as possible. This rebuilding process, in almost miraculous speed, was completed by Nov. 17 of the same year by Dixon contractor William J. McAlphine. The newly rebuilt and remodeled structure was designed to seat over 1,000 people and reopened with the "tuneful and jolly comedy, 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home!" . A spectacular fire in October of 1907 devoured the South Side High School Building.
Then, 17 years after the Opera House was reopened, on Feb. 17, 1920, it was the scene of one of the more prominent blazes in the city's history. On Feb. 18, the day after the fire, the Evening Telegraph reported, "A blackened stone wall and a pit filled with charred smoking and steaming debris are today all that remain of the three-story building known as the Dixon Opera House Block, the home of five business institutions, a physician, a shoe-shining parlor and the city's only legitimate playhouse." This conflagration was first discovered by Lee Rice, son of the manager, M. E. Rice, and would grow in financial loss to over $100,000, with total insurance coverage about $75,000. The fire, which had started in a basement storage room at about 12:30 p.m., soon became a raging inferno bent on total destruction of all that came before it. The local newspaper said, "Smoke and gas were vomiting forth from every crack and crevice and before 1 o'clock tongues of flames were leaping from every part of the building." The roof later caved in with the north and front walls of the structure also falling. The fire's heat became so bad, eight plateglass windows in buildings across Galena Ave. from the Opera House cracked and splintered. The gathered crowd assisted in every way they could, by holding fire hose, hauling extra hose and equipment to the scene and by helping to direct the over 1,000,000 gallons of water used on the flames. Fire Chief Thomas Coffey, when interviewed the following day, commented on the blaze and said, "I have always feared a terrible fire in the Opera House building, as it was a fire trap and was known as such to every fireman who was acquainted with the construction."
Many business and professional people suffered great loss during this terrible catastrophe. Among them were the E. C. Kennedy Music Co., Walter Cromwell Electric Shop, C. A. Todd Gent's Furnishings, the Huggins Shining Parlor and the O. D. Disinfectant Co. In addition, Dr. A. F. Moore lost all his professional equipment and two local business people suffered a great loss of equipment needed to conduct their respective trades. These last two being Mrs. Celia Jones undertaking rooms and John Vaile's Dixonian Billiard Parlor. Scott's Store in downtown Dixon burned Aug. 20, 1943. That same year on Sept. 1, Sinow and Wienman Co. was the scene of a destructive blaze. The Christian Church, on March 17, 1947, broke out in flames as the Sunday School session was closing. The building was gutted by the flames. Two Dixon factories were the scene of a Dec. 15, 1954, fire. The Kavanaugh Co., a plastics factory, and Henry Pratt Co., both in the west end, were levelled by the blaze. On Jan. 15, 1957, a $150,000 fire destroyed a women's dormitory at Dixon State School. The Dixon Publishing Co. was wiped out by a Feb. 15, 1958, blaze. Jan. 11, 1959, saw a fire which severely damaged three Dixon business firms. The fire at First Street and Peoria Avenue hit the building housing the Miller music store, Glenn's radio and TV repair shop, and Conley's Meat Market. In October 1961 another downtown blaze, on First Street, destroyed -the Newberry Store. The Newberry fire launched the decade of the 1960s which saw more than $1 million damage from blazes. The first five years of the decade accounted for $700,000 of the losses. Loss in the Newberry fire was estimated at $100,000. Other major blazes during that decade were at Purity Mills, the Club Cafe on East First Street, United Lunch, Dixon Mills, Blackhawk Photo Mount, Eckman V and S Hardware Store, the Ferris Walker home, Royal Palms, James Billiards, the FourSquare Gospel Church and Harold Cook's Christmas Shop.