Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Once a Fire Horse, Always a Fire Horse

by H. A. Herman

    When I was growing up on a farm near Hannibal, Missouri, our family sold and delivered milk.  The business grew steadily, since our milk had a cream line extending at least one-third the length of the bottle.  Customers loved this rich milk then;  I never heard cholesterol mentioned in those days.

    We began our deliveries early in the morning because few people had iceboxes to keep milk fresh for very long.

    One day, my father bought "Old Frank."  He wasn't our first horse to pull the milk wagon, but he was the best.  We purchased him shortly before World War I from the Hannibal Fire Department.

    Why we called him "Old Frank" I've never known, but it was likely because the horse-drawn fire-fighting rigs in those days required young horses with speed, strength, stamina and intelligence, and Frank had apparently gotten too old for that job.

    He was 9 years old when we got him.  He had a teammate, "Fox," who was purchased for the milk wagon operated by our friendly competitor, Bross and Bier Dairy.  Both were Percherons, and both had been through the training school for "fire horses."

Still Slid Down Pole

    The fire station housed the fire wagon, the horses and all the fire-fighting equipment.   The firemen slept in a loft above the horses and equipment.

    When a fire alarm sounded, the firemen hastily donned their outfits and slid down a pole the the pumper wagon.

    Horses were stationed in front of the wagon with their harnesses suspended overhead.  A pull on a lever dropped the harnesses in place on the horses, which were usually dancing with excitement and eager to run.

    It was thrilling to see the fire wagon speeding down the street with the horses snorting and tugging at their bits, and "Mac" Megown stomping on the pedal that activated the bell to warn vehicles and pedestrians to stay out of the way.

    Anyway, back to Old Frank.  He was a proud horse and quick to learn.  All we had to do to hitch him to the milk wagon was to lift the shafts, and he backed into place on his own so the tugs could be fastened to the singletree.

When we delivered milk, my father took one side of the street and I took the other.  Frank soon knew the route so well he moved down the street and stopped at each customer's house without being driven -- he kept pace with us as we ran back and forth to the wagon.

    One fine summer morning in 1914, we were making deliveries on what was known as upper Union Street, a steep, hilly area.  Deliverymen from Bross and Bier were making deliveries with Fox on lower Union, a few blocks down the hill.

    About 6:30 a.m. the fire bell at the station rang.  It was loud and piercing;  it could be heard for many blocks.

Did as They Were Trained

    The moment the bell sounded, Frank took off, broke into a full gallop and headed for the fire station.  Neither Father nor I were near the wagon, so there was no stopping the driverless wagon.

     As Frank pounded down the street, Fox pulled out and joined him.  The two horses raced down the street, neck and neck, just as they did when pulling the fire pumper wagon.  The two milk wagons behind them hooked wheels and eventually both turned sideways as spokes flew and the wheels crumpled.

        Milk cans and bottles and milk were strewn along the route of the runaways.  A few other delivery vans took to side streets as the racing team and wrecked wagons approached.

    When the two houses reached the station, the fire engine had already pulled out and the doors were closed. Frank and Fox stood there looking confused, oblivious to the damaged milk wagons they had dragged for a half-dozen blocks and, no doubt, wondering why things had changed.

    When Father and I got there, we calmed them down and unhitched them from the remains of the wagons.

    If Frank and Fox were criticized, I am unaware of it.  Most people said that the horses only did what they were trained to do.  Both horses pulled milk wagons for the next 7 or 8 years.

        Frank was "turned out to pasture" when he was about 20, and lived to be 25 years old.  He never ceased to be a proud, intelligent animal.  Few people who saw the "race to the firehouse" episode ever forgot it, and some of the old-timers were still taking about it years later.

    Obviously, I vividly recall it today.

--Reprinted from Draft Horse Journal--

   This article  was forwarded to THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE by Mike Garot, LAFD, Retired and appeared in the October, 1992 issue.

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