The Town of Penfield was officially established on March 30, 1810 with a population of 400 people. At the time of the town’s origin there was no formal fire company in place. One year and 2 weeks later on April 16th, 1811, the first recorded fire happened when the home of Elisha Smith burned to the ground. This home was located on a fifty one acre plot of land on the east side of Baird Rd near Whalen. Less than two years later on February 9th, 1813, the home of Levi Crippen burned taking with it his six children. The exact location of this tragic fire has been lost to time. There were many fires during this era as the result of candles and use of fire places, so many in fact that they simply weren’t recorded. It is believed do to the types of hearth fires and candle flames that were used in that era that there were many fires that simply weren’t recorded. It is believed, that although a formal fire company wasn’t yet formed, each house and business had a fire-bucket. When the alarm of fire was sounded everybody would grab a bucket and pitch in to snuff out the fire. According to our history book, and in conjunction with the Calvin Owen’s diary, a large barn on the west side of Five Mile Line one half mile south of Penfield Rd burned on August 30th 1830. The history book is quiet until 1840, which brought a devastating fire, and the realization that something needed to be done. According to the Rochester Daily Advertiser, on May 4th, 1840, a large three story brick building high school academy was destroyed by fire at midnight. The Penfield Academy was built in 1827, located on the west side of Five Mile Line Rd 600 feet north of Liberty Street (possibly where the current bus garage sits today) on a small one acre plot know as Lyceum Hill. This was devastating fire for the community, and plans began for an organized fire company in the community began as a result.
In July 1841, the community met to organize fire protection for the town and purchased a hand drawn engine from the City of Rochester (formally known as Engine 2). This would be the very first piece of equipment the company would own, and was stored in a small barn on the D. E. Lewis, property located on the North Side of Penfield Rd, 500 ft East of Five Mile Line. The town’s people would dub the engine Old Betsy, a goose neck style of hand pump that was produced in 1827 by James Smith and Sons of New York. It had an impressive capacity of 300 hundred gallons per minute pump, and could throw a 1 inch stream of water 150 feet when it was running at its max. Between 1841 and 1848 there were several large fires noted in the history book, which included homes and stores in the four corners area.
From 1848 to 1853 there were very few if any fires recorded, and the organization of the company had just about fallen apart. In the Calvin Owen’s diary, it was stated that it had been about 3 or 4 years since any meeting had taken place. In October of 1853, a large fire would level a wool factory business located on the west side of Irondequoit creek, between Washington and Linden. Once again, the citizens of Penfield would reorganize the fire company with 28 members of the community, in November of 1853. A small engine room was built on the side of the Presbyterian Church at the four corners. At this time the shout of “FIRE” was no longer considered sufficient to alert volunteers. Arrangements were made to ring the bell in the cupola of the Methodist Church in the event of a fire.
Several fires were recorded from 1854 – 1860, including barns, homes, and a store. In 1868, a large fire consumed the Penfield Paper Mill, leveling the business. As 1870 approached, the fire company fell into disrepair again as the young volunteers from the 1850’s slowly matured and moved on. Things were quiet until 1876, when a large fire struck the business section of the village. The fire consumed the Joseph Gearing Hotel, Wallace Hipp’s Grocery store, the public meeting hall, and other stores. The fire was reported to have started in Hall’s Marble Shop around midnight, on October 10th.
The town began rebuilding two years later in 1878, the fire company was reorganized for a third time. Another large fire in 1879 took down a mill, and in 1883 the Methodist church caught fire, but was saved by the members of the fire company.
In 1886, the town’s people learned that the Presbyterian Church had abandoned the property where they were housing the only piece of fire apparatus, Old Betsy. It wouldn’t to be long before the property was going to be sold so the towns people moved the little engine house to its new home on Engine Drive (AKA Motts Lane). What followed next was a bizarre and unfortunate accident for the town to suffer. In November, a gale force wind blew over an unsecured smoke stack from the Lawless Paper Mill (which had been damaged in 3 previous fires). It came crashing down through the roof and doing considerable damage the second floor and first floor. However, for whatever reason Old Betsy just happened to be parked on the second floor of the mill that night. In fact according to the article the mill workers had just moved out of the way before the smoke stack came crashing through the roof. The 45 year old engine was destroyed that night, and again Penfield was without any organized fire protection.
In 1887, a new fire company was organized including a hose and ladder company. Corinne, a piano-type hand pumper was purchased second hand from Seneca Falls, NY. For the next several years there were only two fires both occurring on the J. K. Lincoln property. In the last fire in October 1892, Corinne ended up sitting on the property for several days before she was taken back to the four corners suggesting that perhaps the fire company had disintegrated again. No meetings were held but they did fight fires.
|Photo of the 1899 Ockenden fire - Southeast corner of the Penfield 4 corners
From October 1892 until 1899 no major fires were recorded until June 24th, 1899. The article of the newspaper which is still in the fire station today reads “Incendiarism in Penfield”. A large business section of the town was destroyed by fire that night, taking out two large general stores, and a black smith shop/wagon shop. Over 200 villagers forming a nonstop bucket brigade prevented the fire from spreading, and taking much more of the town with it. Villagers also razed one building with a team of horses, as a fire stop to prevent the fire from jumping down the neighborhood. This fire became known as the Ockenden Fire, due to the loss of the Ockenden General Store.
For a fifth time, the town reorganized the fire company after the Ockenden fire. On Labor Day, September 4th, 1899 the town held a celebration for the benefit of the fire company. From the book it sounds like the enthusiasm was short lived, and the company fell apart 6 months later.
For approximately 10 years things remained quiet. Modernization came to Penfield in 1910, as a water hydrant system was established. Prior to that, there was a cistern which collected rain water for fire protection located in the area of the north east section of the 4 corners. With the new hydrant system, 47 members of the community were called upon to formally form a volunteer fire company. The newly appointed water commission also purchased the old Penfield Seminary building, which then became the fire station replacing the old engine house on Mott’s Lane. Three pieces of additional equipment, two hose carts and a ladder cart were purchased. Field days were held in the town to help raise money for the new equipment. No serious fires were recorded until 1916, when the East Penfield Baptist Church caught fire, and then in 1924, when the D. T. Lawless Mill burned once more..
In 1921, the fire company saw the end of hand drawn equipment with the donation of the Hudson passenger car from Frank E. Ockenden Sr. The Hudson car was modified with firefighting equipment, and held up for about 7 years.
Although the company was still formally intact, organizational meetings weren’t being held often. On December 14th, 1929, the company reorganized for the last time, with by-laws and defined leadership to pave the way for future generations. A 1929 American LaFrance fire truck was purchased, and a year later in 1930, a Chevy Chemical truck was purchased. The fire company now had concrete guide lines and requirements to maintain, and prevent the breakdown of the organization again. Additionally at the time Penfield was starting to rebuild its population from decades of decline. The thirties brought the depression which halted the growth of the fire company, the forties brought WWII which took several members away to war, and the fifties and sixties were somewhat uneventful except for the fifth and final burn down of the Lawless Paper mill. The seventies saw a huge spike in population, which brought the first station expansion to the northwest side of Penfield. With even more growth in the eighties Penfield fire began investing in more specialized equipment such as ladders trucks, rescue trucks, and it’s first pair of jaws of life. This growth required the second big modification to station 1 to accommodate the new equipment. The nineties brought several more changes, thus turning the small town into a thriving community with fire call volumes close to 1000 per year. As the new millennium began, station 1 was expanded again to reroute the fire trucks entrance and exit off of 441 and a permanent station 3 was built. This increased the districts fire protection to 3 stations. On September 11th, 2001 with the World Trade and Pentagon attacks the whole fire service faced yet another challenge. More regulations, training, rules, and fear hit the fire service in ways never thought possible to prepare for this new and never heard before threat of terrorism. The FDNY has not nor will ever be forgotten and have continued to shape emergency response policies to this day.
Presently, the Penfield volunteer based fire company is made up of 75 members who service approximately 30 square miles of our community. This includes half of the town of Penfield and parts of Perinton (the town of Penfield is so large that is actually protected by 3 fire districts, Penfield, West Webster, North East Joint). The coverage encompasses a population of over 25,000 people with several business and residential areas. It also includes several farming areas and geographically hazardous areas, such as Linear Park and Ellison Park. The volunteer fire company continues to be run out of the same building it took residence in over 100 years ago and remains a strong presence in our town.
As ever changing times present challenges, the fire company has learned to adapt and overcome in many ways. As long as there are those who are willing to give of themselves the volunteer fire company will continue to be strong and prevail.
Listed below is the known major structure fires that the town has had since 1810. Included in the list are also other major unique events that have occurred over time.
It isn't 100% complete but it's the best that could be done as some records have been lost.