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One of the newest acquisitions at the Lyceum, Alexandria’s history museum, is a record of the Sun Fire Company, the city’s second volunteer fire brigade. But those expecting to read about killer back drafts and horses galloping before pumpers should look elsewhere: The company’s first minute book—whose crumbling pages bear records from 1775 to 1801—contains very little on the fires themselves. Instead, it details the classic difficulties of maintaining a volunteer organization.
“The minute book is an invaluable resource for ongoing efforts to gain a better understanding of early Alexandria,” says Kristin Lloyd, curator of the Lyceum. The book was donated by Margaret Corkery, a descendant of George Duffey, who was clerk when the company disbanded, in 1881.
The Sun Fire Company faced many of the same struggles as today’s community-service groups, for which lack of supplies is a constant concern. On Nov. 26, 1798, the clerk noted the formation of a committee to remind the mayor of “the well known, imperfect and useless state of most of the pumps and recommending to that body in the most earnest terms the adoption of some effectual measures for remedying the evill in question.” Just getting people to show up was also an effort. Membership was limited to 45 people, but some meetings were attended by a dozen or fewer members; the attendance pages are studded with inky A’s, denoting “absent.”
But mostly the challenge was getting money, some of it from the members themselves. Volunteers were nickel-and-dimed—or shilling-and-penced—for a variety of infractions. In March 1775, one William Wilson was fined 5 shillings for “not having his name on his bucket, bag & basket.”
These fines, which went into the company coffers, were probably no hardship to the members of the Sun company, many of whom were Scottish immigrants who had become merchants or professionals. Sun’s brigade included company founder John Carlyle, one of Alexandria’s first land owners; Col. Robert T. Hooe, the first elected mayor of Alexandria; and Dr. Elisha C. Dick, George Washington’s friend and physician.
“The well-to-do of the town felt an obligation to protect the town,” notes Lloyd. The volunteer fire service was a manifestation of what Lloyd calls a “public-service point of view” that was crucial in a growing community and at the start of a new nation. Protecting against fires “was to everyone’s benefit—you can’t sell your merchandise when your store burns down,” she adds.
The volunteer company was also a sort of social equalizer. Even the illustrious Dick was not immune to censure: On Sept. 27, 1790, he was fined 9 pence for not “attending to work the engine.” —Pamela Murray Winters