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Federal Fire Society Adds to Its Bucket List

John Sheafe fire bucketsHISTORY MATTERS

Call it the original Portsmouth bucket list. And it was, literally, a list of buckets. Two more leather fire buckets, these made for downtown merchant John Sheafe, have returned to the city. Add them to the growing list of artifacts from the old “bucket brigade” that have been recovered in recent years. The two Sheafe buckets were a steal at just about $3,000. Antique Portsmouth fire buckets have sold at auction for up to $90,000 a pair. (Continued below)



You see these old buckets hanging in the front hallways of the city’s most historic houses. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has nine. The Portsmouth Historical Society has an entire display.

FFS_1792-Hand-PumperlJohn Sheafe was a member of the Federal Fire Society (FFS). The organization began in 1789, the year George Washington toured the city and “federal” was a popular word. Soon after -- in 1802, 1806, and 1813 -- three devastating fires flattened downtown Portsmouth. Sheafe joined the exclusive group in 1822, but his family was among the founders. Of the 15 original members, two were Jacksons, three were Havens, and four were Sheafes. Amazingly, the organization still exists.

READ: Fire Society moves 1789 archive

The FFS hasn’t been putting out fires since before the Civil War when modern equipment and professional fire departments took over. But 35 Federal Fire Society members still meet twice annually to carry on the tradition. The little-known all-male club has been celebrating behind the scenes for decades. They wear tuxedoes, give speeches, sing ancient songs, and consume vast quantities of food and drink. But his year, the FFS is stepping from the smoky past. Group members recently pooled their resources to purchase John Sheafe’s buckets that will eventually be put on public display, along with a never-before-seen treasure-trove of society memorabilia.

“We’d like to have some sort of festivity to celebrate that,” says Richard Kaiser, who is clerk (pronounced “clark”) of the group.

The date for the public coming-out party has not been set, but Kaiser says the buckets were purchased at an auction in Thomaston, Maine late last year. That got the ball rolling. John Sheafe, Kasier notes, was the son of FFS founder Thomas Sheafe. He was also director of the Piscataqua Bridge Company and the Rockingham Bank.

How it once worked

Back before professional firefighting, the city was a tinderbox. Wooden buildings were heated by wood-fed fireplaces. People carried lit candles and oil lamps from room to room. Men smoked pipes and cigars heavily indoors and women cooked over hearths and burning-hot stoves.  Families warmed their beds with rocks and bricks hot from the hearth. And their houses burned down.

Federal_Fire_Society_logoPortsmouth fought fires with leather buckets filled with water and passed hand-to-hand from ponds and wells to the blazing buildings. Or more often they dumped the water into the barrel of a hand-operated pumper that had all the pressure of a modern garden hose. They battled the flames from the outside only. Often the source of the fire was quickly given up as lost. Volunteer firefighters focused on wetting down the structures nearby in a frequently futile effort to contain the blaze.

Watchmen wandered the streets at night looking and sniffing for telltale signs. Federal Fire Society members were required to bring two buckets and respond quickly to the ringing of an alarm bell. Afterwards, buckets were collected and returned to their owners. Anyone whose name was not on the bucket list faced a stiff fine. Members were fined 20 cents for missing a quarterly meeting or 50 cents for not having their fire-fighting supplies in order. They were fined for revealing the group’s secret password or for failing to maintain fire safety at home and at work.

There have been six fraternal fire societies in town, according to historian Joyce Volk. Volk is writing an account of Portsmouth firefighting entitled “Going to Blazes” that is scheduled for release next year on the bicentennial of the city’s Great Fire of 1813. Only the Federal Fire Society and their rivals, The Mechanics Fire Society, carry on today as social clubs. They exist primarily to perpetuate the memory of the long-extinct practice.

Each early fire society was created to protect the property and valuables of its own members. The groups were small and exclusive for a reason.  While the members espoused fire prevention and showed up to fight fires, they were primarily concerned with theft, Volk notes. Thieves frequently targeted burning homes, sometimes setting fires that spread rapidly. In the chaos and darkness, as families rushed to bring their possessions outdoors, the robbers struck quickly.

“The reason for this exclusivity, she explains, “was that each member was shown exactly where all the others kept their most valuable possessions --- money, jewelry, silverware, important papers  --- so that these articles could be removed promptly in case of fire and kept safely.”

Besides two painted buckets, society members were required to show up at fires with two sturdy bags able to hold four bushels-worth of items. Using a secret password, society members entered the threatened home and scooped up the valuables including books, clothes, and linens, and brought them to the street where they were guarded by other group members, and ultimately returned.




Leon Arsenault and Peter Lamb with Fire bucket

Carrying on traditions

Today’s FFS members stick to the rules. Before each meeting the society wardens conduct “surprise visits” at member homes to make sure they are prepared. As in the eighteenth century, members must quickly produce two buckets painted with the group insignia and the owner’s name. The warden must also see two personalized canvas bags, a mop, and a bed-key. Long-handled mops were used to wet down the exterior walls and roofs of endangered homes. The bed-key or “bed wrench” was used to quickly disassemble the family bed, a valuable possession, so that it could be removed from the house.

FFS_fire_bucket“A good bed-key is hard to find these days, so sometimes people bend the rules a little,” one member admits, “but it’s all in good fun.”

Membership is by invitation only with unanimous approval of the group. Peter Rice is currently president. Most FFS initiates buy their buckets from Leon Arsenault, among the last of his craft, for about $500. Society historian Peter Lamb decided to make his own buckets and travelled to Freeport, Maine to work under the tutelage of Arsenault, who is 90 years old, and his son Andrew.

. “The fun part was hanging out with Leon.” Lamb says. “so I could learn from him and extend my leatherworking skills.”

The buckets, Lamb explains, were typically made from heavy “vegetable tanned” cowhide taken from the animal’s shoulder where hides are the most consistent and free of blemishes. Each piece is then soaked and stretched around a tapered wooden mould. Once dry it is hand-stitched in the two needle “whip stitch” method. The top rim gets folded down over a flat wooden hoop and stitched to give the bucket strength and form. The handle, with a rope core is attached by two wrought-iron rings that allow the bucket to pivot and swing when being filled and emptied with water.

All buckets were painted with a base coat to keep them waterproof and the insides coated with tallow and often waxed. The outside typically was painted with the symbols and “cartouche” of the owner’s family or fire protection society as well as the owners name and the number of the bucket. Many cities required families to have two buckets due to the rampant fires that devastated compact urban areas like Portsmouth. It was after the three big fires that the city passed the “Brick Act” of 1814. By banning wooden buildings at the heart of the city, downtown Portsmouth took on its familiar look.


Let it be perpetual

The Federal Fire Society was not the first of its kind. Ben Franklin started a membership group in Philadelphia in 1717. Fire wardens were established in Portsmouth in colonial times and they kept their single wooden pumper, 12 leather buckets, and six axes in the bottom of the Old State House in the middle of what is now Market Square. The United Fire Society of Portsmouth was established here first in 1761 and the Friendly Fire Society followed a year later, with the FFS launched in 1789. Then came the Humane Fires Society (1796), the Mechanic Fire Society (1811) and Alert Fire Society (1814). Although they haven’t put out a fire in over 150 years, the Federal and Mechanic societies continued to meet and celebrate.

“We’re one of the oldest continuous fire protection groups,” says Lamb, “We’re not secret, just low-key.”

Lamb and FFS history committee co-chair John Rice suggested at the November 2011 meeting that the group purchase the two Sheafe buckets. (Member Mark Arenburg attended the auction.) They also successfully proposed that the FFS collection be transferred to the Portsmouth Athenaeum, a membership archive that also serves the public. Currently the society records, intact and complete since 1789, are kept in a large “treasure chest-like trunk” in a vault at Piscataqua Savings Bank. Besides the Sheafe buckets, the FFS collection also includes an ancient punch bowl, a silver “loving cup,” the original society banner, as well as a huge flag. The Civil War-era flag, measuring roughly 14 by 20 feet is painted with the phrase “Patriotism not Party” – an apt slogan in the contentious election year of 2012. The flag, now being conserved, may go to the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Although no date has been set, Lamb says, the FFS hopes to make the transfer of its treasures into a public celebration. The idea is to have an escort, hopefully with members of the Portsmouth Fire Department, walk the ancient trunk across Market Square from the bank to the Athenaeum. A public exhibit in memory of the Great Fire of 1813 is in the planning stages.

Will the Federal Fire Society ever kick the bucket? Not likely. Their motto is ''Esto Perpetual,” which translates “Let it be perpetual.”

How many Portsmouth leather buckets are left on the list? No one knows. Buckets were lost or destroyed; they wore out and were replaced over time. Some are purely ceremonial. Some are copies, some are fakes.

Just when you think you’ve seen them all,  Peter Lamb texts over a Web link and a message:  “Check out this one!” The well-used fire bucket of Joseph Haven, a founder of the Federal Fire Society, appears on the computer screen. The auction date is set. The alarm bell rings. How many Portsmouth homes, how many Portsmouth lives, Richard Kaiser wonders, did these old buckets save?


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site Robinson is the author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812. His new e-book novella, Kill All the Vampire Writers, is available instantly on


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