House fires were very common in early Forest Grove, which isn't surprising given that buildings were made of wood and all cooking, lighting, and heating relied on flames. Neighbors would rush to do whatever they could, but for about the first 60 years of the community's existence, the fire department did not respond to even one of those blazes.
The reason was simple: There was no fire department.
When a candle fell out of its holder or embers spilled from a woodstove, residents would yell for help or run to ring the bell at the Congregational Church. Neighbors would run to a shed where a few leather buckets were stored, then form a line from the burning house to the nearest creek or pump and start passing buckets of water from hand to hand to douse the blaze. It wasn't uncommon for more of the water to end up on the ground or on the neighbors' clothes than on the fire.
Needless to say, few buildings were saved, so most of the effort consisted of trying to save furniture, clothes, family Bibles and the like. The structure itself was expendable, because with no foundation, plumbing, electrical needs and with an abundant supply of free or nearly free timber, friends and family members often could construct a new house in days.
That system was adequate until the downtown became denser, with buildings sharing walls. A fire in one building immediately threatened an entire block or beyond.
So in 1891, Forest Grove City Council members looked for ways to improve fire safety. Their options were limited, however, because early Grovers hated taxes and distrusted government. Besides, there always were neighbors who responded to blazes, so the idea of a fire department fizzled. The best they could come up with was stronger building codes so they made changes such as requiring brick or tin firewalls between adjoining structures.
But when a downtown block caught fire in December 1892, council members decided they needed a fire department after all. The problem was not that too few townspeople showed up to fight that fire, but rather that too many did. Newspaper accounts put the number of good Samaritans at about 500, and as this mob of goodwill battled the fire, buckets got lost and chaos ensued.
It took a year to work out the details, but on February 4, 1894, Forest Grove welcomed its first fire department. Unfortunately, the department's members lacked training and — perhaps more importantly — a city water system, which hadn't been needed because each family had its own well.
The next year, the city installed a water system for the firefighters and for two other purposes: to create electricity and to flush raw sewage from the city's open ditches, where many people with indoor bathrooms drained their toilets.
So by 1895, Forest Grove had a fire department and water to fight blazes. The timing was perfect, because the city was entering decades-long battles over Prohibition and immigration, in which arson was the weapon of choice.
Ken and Kris Bilderback are
authors of four history books,
including "Walking to Forest Grove" and "Fire in a Small Town," which contain more information
on local firefighting.