Firefighting in Pioneer Days

A local pioneer's book relates the tale of a tavern consumed by fire.

In thinking back to all the hardships the pioneers faced in settling this area, one aspect can be easily overlooked: The public services we take for granted today were totally absent.

There were no police or fire departments to look after the safety of the settlers. Even after the roads were improved, the area lacked a formal fire department, and even the simplest of fires often completely consumed the buildings.

In fact, buildings were designed with this in mind. Doors and window shutters, which were expensive items, were often mounted on two-leaf hinges, which allowed them to be lifted off their hinges once opened. Firefighters were simply your neighbors who would usually turn out at the first sign of a fire, to make an initial rudimentary attempt to put out the fire, but then turn their attention, instead, to removing all possible items of value from the house, including doors, wood-burning stoves, furniture, etc, while the ever-growing fire eventually consumed the building.

Here is a first-hand account of just such a fire, taken from the “Memoirs of Lillian Drake Avery”, included in Jean Fox’s book The Watercolors of Lillian Drake Avery published in 1985 by the Farmington Hills Historical Commission. The Drake family, at the time, lived on a small 14.9 acre farm in Farmington Township, located on the east side of today’s Power Road, between Grand River and Shiawassee Roads. The fire occurred in Farmington Village’s Murray Tavern, then situated on the northwest corner of today’s Grand River and Power roads, in 1859 or 1860. Here is Lillian’s story:

“About my earliest recollection, however, was being aroused from sleep one night and carried in my father’s arms to the south window, to see a great fire, made by the burning of the Murray Tavern, which stood on the corner of our road and the Grand River Road, about a quarter of a mile away. This spectacle has always remained with me a vivid memory. I can’t tell how old I was but I don’t think I could have been more than three or four at the most. Long afterward I learned that the fire started in the barn, supposedly from the carelessness of a smoker or some straggler who had stolen into the hay mow.

"The barn was connected with the house by a wood and wagon sheds, so the whole was doomed as soon as the fire started, although strenuous efforts were made to save the house. There was plenty of time to salvage the contents as everybody turned out, and tales are told to this day of the behavior of some of the would be helpers: such as tossing mirrors and crockery from the second story windows. Otis Power was the most crazed of all, for he took a bag of flour from the store-room, carried it across the road, wading almost knee deep in the mud, emptied the flour out in the ditch, then carried the bag back and threw it into the fire.

“The doors were taken from the hinges and put in a safe place; as my father was planning to build a new house, he bought them and after several years of storage, used them as he intended, yet these doors ultimately met the fate of the old tavern.”

Also included in these memoirs is a delightful “Map of our Neighborhood” hand drawn by Lillian, which clearly shows the relationship of her house to the tavern. At the time, the eastern boundary of Farmington Village was Power Road, and her father moved to this small farm in 1851, leaving his small house in the village center, to get more land, which he always wanted, as the place where all his children were to be born.

In the late 1860s, after Drake built his new house, the fire alluded to at the end of Lillian’s story occurred, partially destroying the house. That house was rebuilt and survives to this day on its original foundation.


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