FITCHBURG — Historians are like archaeologists, they dig things up to find things out.
Mining old documents for clues as well as facts, they match up names, dates and events, then tie it all together to tell a story. Because there’s no better way to bring the past into present, vivid focus than a well told tale. And perhaps no better place to tell it than a cemetery, where the past is always present.
That winning combination — history and storytelling — served Stratton Players President andFitchburg City Councilor Sally Cragin well as the basis for her original play “Still Chasing the Fire.” The play formed the framework for a recent historical walking tour at Forest Hills Cemetery, honoring Civil War veterans who joined the Fitchburg Fire Department.
Researched by Eunice Halbedel, Dr. Joseph Cronin and retired Fitchburg firefighter Phil Jordan, who worked for the department for over 30 years and authored “A History of the Fitchburg Fire Department.”
Cragin’s play is a series of narratives that tell the stories of several Civil War veterans who joined the Fitchburg Fire Department when they came home.
Cragin credited the event’s creators, with thanks to the businesses and individuals who helped out with various donations — from flower arrangements to funding — noted in the program.
“Stratton Players, Fitchburg Historical Society with the Cemetery Commission and the Fitchburg Fire Department created this event to bring the stories of these brave men to a 21st century audience,” she said.
The men — Edwin Danforth Atherton, George A. Sawyer, Boardman Parkhurst, Calvin Augustus Bigelow, Isaac P. Connig, Cyrus Granville Hosmer and his brother, Henry Hosmer; Andrew J. Green, William E. Battles and Joseph Lanus Moody — all lie buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, where a group of present-day members of the fire department — and one retired member, narrated Cragin’s script during a walking tour with stops at most of the men’s graves on a sunny Saturday morning.
Printed markers set in front of the grave sites sketched their stories.
Cragin, who dressed in a period costume wearing a black bonnet, long sleeved black dress with a voluminous hoop skirt — welcomed the crowd.
“We are here today to honor a very special group of Fitchburg firefighters — those who fought in the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865,” she said.
Cragin said that when these men lived “a very long time ago,” programs like this opened with school children’s’ recitations. In keeping with that tradition, two elementary school students — Danielle Hebert and Juan Cordoba — read a poem by Fitchburg’s poet laureate, Caroline Atherton Mason.
Of the hundreds of men who returned to Fitchburg after the Civil War, about a dozen joined “the brotherhood of firefighters,” one of the narrators said, reading from Cragin’s script.
One of the men profiled in the play was wounded. One — Calvin Bigelow — enlisted twice.
A line-up of narrators read from the script at each gravesite, concluding with thanks to each man, by name, “for his service.”
These are some of their stories.
George Sawyer enlisted at age 20. A musician who crafted a banjo for the city’s 1885 Summer Fair, he was also a skilled machinist. As a member of the Fire Dept, he “held badge #13 in the Franklin Hook and Ladder Company.”
Wooden extension ladders in those days “in case you’re wondering,” were 20 feet long, plus extensions so firemen could reach the tops of four-story buildings, a narrator said.
Other narrators continued to paint the city-centric, Civil War era picture outlined in the play.
“In the olden days,” for example, before horses pulled the heavy fire wagons, it took 50 men to do it. As for outfits and gear, firemen wore “regular work clothes,”dungarees and cotton or wool shirts. They had helmets, though, heavy leather with a back brim to keep water and embers out of their collars.
The buckets were leather, too, as well as the hoses. Later versions were made of linen or cotton.
Now comes the resting place of Boardman Parkhurst, a lifelong Fitchburg resident whose father, John, is credited with building the Baptist Church on the upper common. The younger Mr. Parkhurst was a hardware store clerk before he enlisted at age 21.
After the war, Parkhurst took up his father’s trade, carpentry. At age 32, in 1875, he joined the fire department, working with Mazeppa Hose Company No. 3 in Factory Square, where the Rollstone Bank is now. At age 40, he switched trades and became a mechanic.
Hose companies in those days competed in water-throwing musters, reenacted today at local parades and country fairs using old-fashioned, long-handled, man-powered “pumpers.”
The Mazeppa men were full of bravado, according to historian George Torrey, professing to have “more brains…” than other hose companies. But the other companies won more contests.“…unfortunately, they had considerably more muscle,” Torrey wrote.
According to another “sidebar,” one of several in the play, which assumes a folksy tone at times, Boardman Parkhurst had a moment of glory that was written up in the Fitchburg Sentinel. At age 54, he saved “Miss Flossie Metcalf” from a disastrous accident, pulling the girl off the electric car tracks she’d fallen on as a car came close.
One of the narrators, Phil Jordan, interjected a horse’s tale. “Don’t forget the best friends of the fireman: their horses,” he said, quoting from an 1875 account by Chief George Manchester about a retired fire horse called “Old Dan.”
A large, white horse known for his calm, it seems Dan had a good memory. Ten years after retirement, working as a cart horse, he was pulling a load of lumber past the fire house when George Marston, “his old driver” had an idea that fellow firefighters carried out. The teamster placed the horse in his old stall to see his reaction. He was “perfectly at home,” the narrator said, and when the gong sounded, Old Dan “rushed to his old place on the engine.”
Jordan also narrated the story of Calvin Bigelow, born in Fitchburg, who enlisted at age 19. He worked as a mechanic at Putnam Machine Shop for over 50 years and was a firefighter at the Oliver Street station, which was beset by “poor conditions” such as flooding and standing water under the floor that made men and horses sick.
Described in Jordan’s history and in the play, firehouses then consisted of an engine room, a stable for horses and a house where the men slept. The Oliver Street station was one of Fitchburg’s first.
Edwin Atherton enlisted in 1863. When he mustered out, he worked as a machinist and at 43, joined the fire department as a member of the Wachusett Hose Company.
Isaac Connig enlisted at 25 and fought in the battle of South Mountain and at Antietam. Wounded in the leg, he survived bouts with measles and pneumonia while convalescing. Honorably discharged in 1863, he worked as a machinist at Putnam Machine Shop and the Fitchburg Steam Engine Company.
In 1875, Connig was a member of the Fire Dept’s Rollstone Hose Company. He was 37 and served with Joseph Moody, who, at 49, was the oldest firefighter and veteran in the honored group.
“You may be curious as to whether firefighters were paid in those days,” a narrator said. The answer was yes. Drivers who lived at the station and managed the horses made “a living wage,” but “volunteers” like Isaac were paid about a dollar a week, he said.
The firemen participated in vigorous training exercises that included jumping into a net from the roof of the Fitchburg Hotel, where Workers’ Credit Union is now. Training sessions were well-attended by local residents “who turned out in droves” the narrator said.
All veterans who had served on the front lines, “something in their souls” may have urged them to “keep chasing the fire” when they came home, the play posited.
The tour ended at three hilltop grave sites. Two are those of brothers Cyrus and Henry Hosmer. Brothers “in war and peace” they served together in the same regiment and became firefighters together at age 41. Born in New Hampshire, they came to the city as children and both lived in West Fitchburg.
Nearby was the grave of Andrew Jackson Green, “a truly great man,” Cragin said. Green was the Civil War veteran who served longest in the Fire Dept, 15 years, including two as chief engineer.
Chief Green was very concerned” about the department’s “obsolescent” gear, the narrator said, including old hose that was unreliable. In all, the department then had 7,450 feet of hose, a mix of old leather and linen material and “new” cotton. Green asked the city’s mayor for “at least” a thousand feet of new hose. The play does not reveal the mayor’s reply.
The narrator also noted that Chief Green, a wheelwright and carriage maker by trade, was concerned about available water and pridefully noted repairs at the Scott Brook dam for water storage and pipes laid all along Water Street to bring water to the City Farm and nearby streets, “thereby ensuring the safety of that portion of the city from destruction by the fiery element.”
Green died in 1912 at Burbank Hospital. Over 15 Civil War Veterans attended his funeral. One of the pall bearers was fellow firefighter and veteran George Sawyer.
Noting that his “modest” stone is “in a different style from others of that period,” the play explains why. Green’s daughter “applied for him to receive a veterans’ headstone” in 1933, the narrator said.
Cragin noted “the efforts of the Soldiers’ Aid Society and the Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Society in Fitchburg.” Over 100 women joined, for dues of 25 cents each. They worked around the clock, she said, sewing sheets, shirts, blankets and other items for the soldiers. They also knitted socks, scarves and rounded up medicine and other supplies to send south. Susan Norcross was the society’s secretary. Her daughter, Eleanor Norcross, later donated money and art work to start the Fitchburg Art Museum.
Besides the playwright, narrators were Fitchburg firefighters John Girouard, Jake Morin and Dan Voutila, Lt. Andrew Duquette, retired firefighter Phil Jordan and Fire Dept. Chaplain Chuck Pendleton.