The Volunteer Fire Companies
Fire is a constant danger in towns whose buildings are constructed primarily of wood and packed together in a town center. Baton Rouge was no exception. By 1825, the town organized a volunteer fire fighting unit called The Bucket Company. The company’s name tells how they fought fires – by bucket brigade. Eleven years later the Bucket Company evolved into the more highly organized Washington Fire Company Number One.
The Washington Fire Company No. 1 enjoyed a long and useful firefighting life. All structures within Baton Rouge came under their protection, including the State Penitentiary, as the Company minute book demonstrates. In this case, “On Monday 2nd June  a fire broke out in the State Penitentiary and raged with a great deal of fury . . . . The Fire Companies were promptly on the spot and rendered very efficient service.” While the Washington Fire Company may have been prompt and efficient fighting fires, their record keeping required fairly frequent revision. This log entry has two corrections, “last” penciled through with “1856” added above and “26 May last” struck through with “2nd June 1856” penciled in above.
As Baton Rouge grew over time, more fire companies had to be organized to maintain efficient service in a growing town. The Independence Fire Company organized shortly after the Washington Fire Company No. 1. The Pelican Hook and Ladder Company organized in 1873 and after three years received their incorporation papers. Their Charter provides details of the fire company’s operations and a list of members, regular and honorary. A.D. was an honorary member of this Company. Howard Lytle joined and eventually became chief of the Washington Fire Company No. 3, established in 1884. In 1889 the Schloss Fire Company also began serving the people of Baton Rouge.
The volunteer fire companies of Baton Rouge not only protected the city from fires but also afforded its members an active social life. The companies organized or jointly sponsored balls, festivals, excursions, and parades throughout the year. The outstanding social event of the winter social season in Baton Rouge centered around an event jointly sponsored by all the fire companies. In commemoration of Washington’s Birthday, nearly every February 22nd from 1873 through 1916, Baton Rouge fire companies decorated their fire equipment, usually around an aquatic theme, and paraded through town.
All sorts of vehicles became decorated floats for the Firemen’s Parade. The small buggy on the right, carrying two children, has been decorated down to the horse’s bridle. Notice the butterfly on the horse’s back and the bird holding the butterfly’s reins. By the 1890s the long-standing friendly rivalry between the companies to see which would produce the best decorations took on new vigor when local merchants offered a $50.00 cash prize for first place. It wasn’t long before the prize money grew to $150.00 for first place, $100.00 for second place, and $75.00 for third place. The Washington Number 1 Company recieved first place for their floats in 1894, 1897, and 1900.