Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fire Station Horn as History

One hundred years ago, the Town of Maynard Annual Report mentioned in passing that the fire department was responsible for conducting a daily 12:10 PM test blast of the fire department's steam whistle, located at the woolen mill. That's historic, but the full history of 12:10 is older.

Down the years, the means of sounding an alarm for the Maynard fire department went through several evolutions. Originally, a battery-powered system triggered a striker to hit the school bell at the Nason Street School (current site of the Library). The year 1903 added a steam whistle at the woolen mill. Both systems operated until the school burned to the ground in 1916. Makes you wonder if the school bell was ringing to signal its own demise?  

Two compressed air horns date to 1950
The late 1930s saw installation of a diaphone horn at the fire station on Nason Street, but until the mill closed in 1950 the steam whistle was still used in addition to the horn. Later, the fire station bought a pair of compressed air powered horns for the Nason Street station, transferred to the roof of the current fire house in 1955. Yes, the horns are that old.

Why 12:10? The great majority of towns with a fire horn system conduct daily test blasts. According to "A History of the Maynard Fire Department, 1890-1970" an unpublished manuscript written by Henry T. Hanson, Maynard's 12:10 dates back to the 1890s. W.W. Oliver, a jeweler with a store in the Odd Fellows Hall (next to the Nason Street fire house) was paid $12 per year to conduct the daily test.

Oliver would walk to the train station to set his pocket watch to "Washington time," then walk back to Nason Street. As the walk was about five minutes, the daily test was set to ten minutes after the hour. He had this responsibility because there were no full time fire station employees back in the day.

A differently told story is that because the mill's lunch whistle blew at noon, the town's whistle was offset by ten minutes. Regardless of origin, the 12:10 tradition continued long after any need for either a daily time check or subservience to the mill. It's a tradition, one captured by the fact that the Seal of the Town of Maynard shows the clock at 12:10 on town documents, vehicles and street signs.

All this is prelude to the observation that the fire horn no longer sounds at 12:10. The decision was made by the fire department. According to former fire chief Stephen Kulik, the horn was still operative up through his retirement in June 2011. Anthony Stowers, the current fire chief, stated that the practice had stopped before he came aboard in February 2012. The timing puts the onus on the temporary, non-resident fire chief who filled in between Kulik and Stowers. Apparently, the town's government was not involved.

Truth to tell, the fire horn system is in poor repair and perhaps heading toward obsolescence. According to Kulik, "The horn stopped working now and then, and it was hard to get parts. Every time we triggered the fire signal we had our fingers crossed."

Stowers acknowledged the horn still works but has a tendency to stick. He said, "we have made the decision to restrict the use to actual emergencies in the effort to keep it functional for as long as possible." 

The historic purpose of fire station horns was to alert volunteer firefighters. In an increasing large number of locations this function has been replaced by cell phones and pagers. Same for reaching the salaried firefighters who are off duty. Across the country, many newspapers have run articles on debates about whether to continue, discontinue, or even resurrect the tradition of a working fire horn system. And separately, continue or discontinue a daily test blast.

Some towns are also getting rid of their outdoor
fire alarm call boxes, as most people reach
for a phone to call 9-1-1 rather than think
to run to the nearest alarm box.
Given that Maynard is on the cusp of abandoning its fire horn system, can the 12:10 daily blast be resurrected solely as part of town history?  One means of doing this would be to install a new system on Clock Tower Place property, perhaps near the intersection of Walnut and Main Streets. As a bonus, fire department staff would no longer be subjected to a daily tooth-rattling blast from their own rooftop. A new system of horns and control box from Sentry Sirens would cost between $3,000 and $12,000 depending on whether the town wants a sound heard only in the downtown area or a blast loud enough to wake the dead in Sudbury, Stow and Acton.

Can sounds be history? Three-quarters of a century ago, life in Maynard was punctuated by a chorus of steam whistles on trains, the mill, and the fire alarm. School snow days were broadcast by five blasts at 7:15 AM. None of that is coming back. But in this writer's opinion, Maynard deserves its 12:10.

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book.

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