Teaching Cleveland

Lesson 10

Handout 3 - Memoirs of a 48er

...The racket came nearer and nearer, until finally the riddle solved itself. A crowd of people charged past before his window, shaking the air with their inarticulate howls. Horns tooted, trumpets blasted, bells clanged.

It was the 'wild bunch,' called the volunteer fire brigade, which was passing by, followed by a great number of people, mostly half-grown boys, who drowned out the shouting of the firemen with their own yell, carrying on as if possessed by a fire-demon.

Paul, who was still green, rubbed his eyes at this unexpected sight, then clapped his hands together over his head. He would have thought the group storming by was a band of Indians on the warpath, rather than a peaceful fire brigade. It was especially strange when he compared this wild group with the firemen in his dear German home town. There the firemen and citizens sworn to help under the authority and command of the 'authorities' as well as under strict police control. Each must spray when he was ordered,and he was not allowed to alarm the good citizens on his own initiative before he had received confirmation from the mayor, not to mention firemen were not permitted to make such a hellish spectacle on their own, which was without doubt what was happening here.

And yet this peculiar, undisciplined enthusiasm for fires, was impressive, even fascinating, to Paul. The howl was something so naive, original and unrestrictedly free that it enticed him into the street to rush to the fire with the yelling mass. In view of the lack of entertainment here, a good fire could rank as a sport and as a welcome change from dull life as usual.


This volunteer fire brigade certainly was a cheerful institution which suited municipal conditions in the fifties, which were still in a primitive state. Firemen enjoyed a somewhat privileged status in the community. Highly conscious of their usefulness, they did not need to subject themselves to any compulsion. They were quickly at hand when their duty called.

As soon as the firebell had rung two or three times, the hand pumpers rattled over the streets and alleyways toward the fire, each accompanied by forty or fifty men pulling long ropes. The pumper was followed by the hose and ladder wagon, also pulled by men. Firemen were usually young people with raw manners and fearless, daring natures, whose desire to rescue was not to be restricted. To these fellows, any fire in their district was a happy occasion, since it gave them the opportunity to ventilate their repressed wildness and youthful spirits. In them you could see a primitive drive for liberty expressed in wild natural purity.

A volunteer fireman on duty was the most sovereign man on earth, and he understood how to make extensive use of this sovereignty. He exacted revenge for restrictions he has endured in the past.

A true fireman of the natural sort longed for a fire like a plant for light and warmth. Fire, even more so the fight against it, was his element, the fire hose his weapon, which he continually cared for and polished. The pump house was his second home. Here he passed his evenings listening to his colleagues' stories and dreaming of heroic deeds he was going to do.

Many of the most tempermental of the 'wild bunch' felt extremely unhappy when fires were too long in coming. It seemed that fortune was having mercy on them when there were no fires during the week, so they could expect that an old building would put on a dress of fire on Saturday so the firemen's horde could charge out to take up the struggle with the flames.

Whatever one might think of the boldness and wildness of the volunteer firemen, one thing cannot be denied, which is that they showed great courage in extinguishing fires and saving lives, that they showed great endurance and shrank from no mortal danger.

The fire today was in Greenwood Streets, and it drew the entire complement of fireman from all parts of town, besides a huge crowd from the neighborhood. Among these was my friend Nitschelm, who was always full of jokes. He joined in to help with the spraying under the direction of the fire captain. Frau Heller, who owned the house, which stood next to the one burning, discovered to her horror that her own roof was beginning to burn, and since all the hoses were directed at her neighbor's house, which was beyond saving anyway, she begged the foreman to turn his efforts to her house.

Nitschelm gave the foreman no time to answer, but answering her by saying laconically with pursed lips:

"Frau Heller, all respect to you and your dear house, but we are not spraying it as long as the other has not burned down completely. We'll turn to yours next."

This biting answer upset Frau Heller, who turned to Nitschelm with disdain, saying:

"What concern is it of yours? Motioning to the foreman, she said, "That is his hose, and he can turn it wherever he wants."

Nitschelm never again tried his wit on women with burning houses and sharp tongues. Frau Heller had the laughs on her side.

from Memoirs of a 48er: German-Americans in Cleveland in the 1850s


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