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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #143 
September 27, 2012

It was supposed to be a bigger affair. Plans to move the Federal Fire Society archive from the vault at Piscataqua Savings Bank across Market Square to the Portsmouth Athenaeum originally included an escort by fire department members. That plan was trimmed down to one, as Assistant Fire Chief Stephen Achilles helped carry the wooden trunk containing the records of the 1798 organization from the city’s oldest bank to the city’s ancient research library just a block away. It was, all the same, an historic event, and I was honored to be asked to tag along. Next year is the bicentennial of the Great Fire of 1813 that devastated the city and it was time for the treasures of the 1798 organization to finally see the light of day. You will get to see what’s in the trunk as part of an Athenaeum exhibit next year. But here’s a quick and exclusive peak inside. (See photos below)


READ MORE about the Portsmouth Federal Fire Society

The Federal Fire Society still exists, although its small hand-picked membership (no more than 35 members by club rules) no longer put out fires. But modern members are required to own two leather fire buckets similar to those used in the days of the “bucket brigades” that attempted to quell the fires that plagued Portsmouth and other old cities back in the days when tightly-packed wooden buildings could easily be destroyed. All it took was a spark from a fireplace or an upset oil lamp, or any of a dozen sources. Groups like the Federal Fire Society formed to protect the homes and property of its members. Despite their efforts, hundreds of buildings burned in a series of three downtown fires in 1802, 1806, and 1813. Modern members must also own a bag like those used to hold the valuables of those whose homes were engulfed by flame. Thieves were all around in the early days and FFS members were required to guard the valuables of other members. Putting out the fire was secondary to preserving possessions.

The fires sparked the Brick Act of 1814 that legislated the use of brick instead of wood in buildings downtown. Richard Candee, an expert on the topic, led a walking tour last week to point out how the Brick Act impacted the developing port city. Historian Joyce Volk is an expert on the three famous “Christmas fires” and she will be studying the contents of the FFS trunk at the Athenaeum. Stephen Achilles is a scholar of the history of the Portsmouth Fire Department that evolved out of the early fire societies. Steve has written a book on the topic and was instrumental in getting the 1870 pumper Kearsarge back in the city where it will be fully restored as a memento of the days of horse-drawn engines.

Richard Candee talks about the 1814 Brick Act to a group at the Portsmouth Athenaeum / J. Dennis Robinson photo

For decades now the Federal Fire Society has been a semi-secret club, staying out of the limelight. It existed mostly as a social club where members met annually for dinner and drinks to invoke the memory of their founders. The group’s treasures were kept in the barn of one of the members until about 15 years ago when they moved to the vault at the bank. The trunk that the FFS members carried through the street yesterday is only about 100 years old. But inside it are all the artifacts of the original 1798 organization  and all the memorabilia gathered by FFS members since. I was allowed a quick peek inside the trunk (see photos below) before it was moved to the Athenaeum. The contents will be studied and catalogued in preparation for the exhibit at the Athenaeum next year.

It was a quiet event, but it truly is a big deal. Rarely dies a cache of artifacts like this find its way into public view. The FFS members have been good stewards of the past and now, finally, they are passing their treasures to the rest of us. The fact that the city has recovered the amazing Kearsarge pumper at the same time is a wonderful coincidence. All ancient cities have a memory of fire. In Portsmouth, the memory of fire is almost as important as our memory of the sea. Thanks to the FFS and the scholars like Candee, and Volk, and Achilles – that memory still shines a light on the city’s past. And the past, as many of us believe, is Portsmouth’s future.

© 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. 
September 26, 2012

Peter Lamb, FFS historian, opens the society archive / J. Dennis Robinson photo

The original storage box from the Portsmouth Federal Fire Society / J. Dennis Robinson photo

Fire society documents soon to be studied and catalogued / photo

Moving the Federal Fire Society archive from Piscataqua Savings Back to Market Square / photo

Fire chief and historian Steve Achilles (left) and Federal Fire Society president Peter Rice (right) carry the  1789 FFS archives throuh Market Square in Portsmouth, NH. Histoiran Peter Lamb, Tom Watson, and Dick Kaiser follow close behind. / (c) J. Dennis Robinson photo

Fire Dept, Federal Fire Society, Athenaeum reps pose in front of the Portsmouth Athenaeum on September 26, 2012 / J. Dennis Robinson photo

200 years of artifacts from the Portsmouth Federal Fire Society enter the Portsmouth Athenaeum for study and anlysis prior to an upcoming exhibit / J. Dennis Robinson at

Photos and text (c)




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