“‘Fire!’ The household was in deep sleep,” wrote Dr. Rev. James J. Lafferty (1837–1909). “It is no poetic fancy to say that word, screamed in the ear in the still hour of sleep, chills the blood.”
Christmas week of 1889 had gotten off to a delightful start for the new Methodist preacher in the fledgling village of Crozet. “I preached for my Baptist brethren and neighbors, and slowly returning home along the hard and dry highway, luxuriated in the warm sunshine. The gracious season never came with such balmy air. On Sunday the zephyrs were vernal as May. The flowers in sheltered nooks were in full bloom.
“At midnight of that lovely day of the Lord, a boy in wild terror yelled at the window near my bed. ‘Fire!’ It startles in the city, where machines rush to the rescue. In the country the flames devour without a contest… The miller—our only neighbor—with his son, helped us while watching his threatened home. The citizens at a distance slept. For hours everything was in peril… I have been surprised in camp by the enemy. That is a shock to the stoutest nerves; but you could make some exertion for battle or flight. Here we stood, unarmed against a furious enemy, in the wild forest, with a great hole burned in the night overhead like an inverted volcano.”
Sadly, for Crozet and most other small rural villages of a century ago, the end result of structure fires mirrored the charred remains left behind at Rev. Lafferty’s barn that December night. “An old gentleman said to me some years ago,” continued Lafferty, ‘If you get the house where you keep your lumberage and stuff burned, you will never got over it. For thirty years I have inquired for things consumed in such a building.’ Over a wide area is the debris. Every time I look on it, I find the remnant of something I need now; and there are in the ruins a dozen things I never thought were under that roof.”
Another news report, in 1893: “Information has been received of the burning of the dwelling-house, smoke-house, and all the other out-buildings on the farm of Mr. John Woodson, near Crozet, this county, together with all their contents. The fire occurred at about 4 o’clock in the morning, and the family barely had time to make their escape from the burning building.”
Again, in 1911: “Crozet was visited early this morning by a disastrous fire which destroyed the storeroom and stock of J.T. O’Neill & Son, general merchants, together with the O’Neill dwelling which adjoined the store. The ice house and buggy sheds were also totally destroyed with their contents. There was no insurance on the furniture in the dwelling, nor on the buggies and harness which were destroyed with the stable.
“The fire broke out about 3 o’clock and was first discovered by John Smith, a neighbor. Mr. O’Neill was awake when he heard the cry of ‘Fire!’ and hurried from his bed. A bucket brigade was hastily formed but despite the strenuous efforts of the fire fighters the flames spread to the dwelling adjoining, which was soon in ruins. The contents of the dwelling, except the furniture on the second floor, were saved.
“Mr. J.G. Klise, a blacksmith, his wife and four children, were rendered homeless by the fire. They occupied the four rooms above the store. They were sleeping soundly when Mr. O’Neill reached the store, and had to be aroused. The family lost everything but two trunks. The best citizens of the town fought the flames, and but for their effective work the fire would have wiped out several other buildings.”
By 1917, the growing village was still without proper means to fight fires. Prosperity wrought from the growing and shipping of apples and peaches had culminated in the construction of a six-story concrete cold storage facility in the center of town by the Carter Corporation.
In March, the Daily Progress reported on yet another fire, but, this time, with a much different outcome: “There was a small fire on the roof of the Cold Storage Plant in Crozet yesterday morning which caused some damage, and quite a little excitement. It gave an opportunity of testing the new hose of the fire protection system installed in the building last fall. By this means the fire was extinguished in a few minutes. As Crozet is not incorporated and there is no general fire protection, other buildings would not fare so well in case of a similar calamity.”
Engaged in the suppression of that rooftop fire was 25-year-old Staunton native Leonard A. Bruffey, refrigeration engineer and electrician for Carter Corporation. A result of subsequent discussions among downtown Crozet residents and business owners was the formation of a Crozet Citizens’ Association. The fruits of their labors became evident on April 12, 1920, with a two-line newspaper announcement: “The new fire truck and apparatus recently purchased through the Crozet Citizens’ Association has arrived. The truck is in charge of Mr. [Leonard] Bruffey, who is organizing a fire company.
“A fund for the purchase of the equipment for the Crozet Fire Company was raised by voluntary assessment of property owners and residents under a scheme worked out by a committee of the Crozet Citizens’ Association, the local business men’s organization, by which those living nearest the engine house [then on Carter Street] each paid more than those living at greater distances, the town being divided into three different zones—the idea of the committee being that those living nearest the engine house, which is located in the center of the town, would derive greater benefit, due to the necessary time consumed in getting the apparatus to the scene of the fire.
“The apparatus consists of an American-LaFrance truck, fully equipped, with two main 35-gallon chemical tanks connecting to 250 feet of hose; two 2½-gallon hand chemical extinguishers; a Pyrene hand extinguisher; ladders, buckets, lanterns, axes, rope, spare acid containers, crowbars, etc… The company is a volunteer organization composed of residents, many of them having had past experience in fire fighting as members of other companies. The Citizens’ Association has appointed a fire board to look after the interests of the Company. The membership numbers twenty-seven men.
“In the past the town has been without adequate fire protection and it has now been demonstrated that the acquisition of new apparatus and organization will be the means of saving valuable property, should a fire occur here in the future.”
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