NOTE: The numbers cited in parentheses, e.g. 1:5, refer the researcher to the Series#:Folder# in which that name/topic will be found. Additional materials that remain in private hands, including scrapbooks covering the 1950s-1980s, are available online through the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.
This collection provides a window into Greensboro Fire Department operations from the late 19th century through the third quarter of the 20th century. Letters, minutes, photographs, detailed scrapbooks, and a variety of printed material shed light on 100 years of evolving organization, regulation, equipment, personnel, and firefighting challenges. The focus is Greensboro, but the collection includes some periodicals and news stories from around the country, as well as informative materials from the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association. The scrapbooks from the middle of the 20th century offer the most detailed and organized view of all Greensboro firefighting-related activities.
Arrangement: This collection is organized into eight series by material type. The series are: Broadside, 1920s; Correspondence, 1896-1975 [bulk 1921-1945]; Map, ca. 1925; Miscellaneous, 1888-1947; Photographs, ca. 1892-ca. 1960; Printed Material, 1875-1962; Record Books, 1888-1952; and Scrapbooks, 1925-1978.
Provenance: This collection was acquired from multiple sources beginning in the 1950s. Principal donors were R.D. Douglas Sr. (1951.10), the Southside Hose Company No. 4 (1951.13), Nellie Bain Fowler (1953.15), and Edwin S. Lee (1964.40). In addition, a considerable amount of material, including all the scrapbooks, came from the estate of Edwin S. Lee, a retired fireman who died in 1978.
Processing: This collection was originally processed by Stephen D. Lanier, and the finding aid was completed on May 7, 1984. The collection was reorganized, additional materials were incorporated, and the finding aid was updated by volunteer Ann Koppen in November 2022.
In 1833, Greensboro city commissioners formalized fire protection law. Each household was required to have two ladders on the premises, but no fire station, fire engine, or water source existed. The first volunteer fire company was established in 1847, and the city bought a pumping engine and built two cisterns after a devastating fire two years later. An unsuccessful attempt to organize a hook and ladder company in 1871 meant that the city’s firefighting capability proved inadequate to prevent serious property loss in the devastating fire of 1872, which destroyed the courthouse. A second volunteer fire company equipped with a double chemical engine was established but dwindled to five men.
Harper J. Elam, a young entrepreneur from Charlotte, convinced the city to form a new volunteer organization, Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1, in 1884. Incorporated in 1889, the company housed a steam fire engine named the General Greene and horses to pull it in the city’s first fire station at 108 West Gaston Street (later West Friendly Avenue). In 1926, that station moved to North Greene Street and became the Central Fire Station, which in turn was abandoned for a new one on North Church Street in 1980.
The first African American fire company was established in 1887 and likely became the Excelsior Hose Company No. 2 at the corner of Gaston (later Friendly) and Elm streets. Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was organized in 1890 and later headquartered at 209 South Davie Street, while Eagle Hose Company No. 7 was established in 1891 and eventually located next door at 207 South Davie Street. By 1896, two additional hose companies had been organized: Southside Hose Company No. 4, which was later situated near the corner of Asheboro and Bragg streets, and West End Hose Company No. 5, which was eventually located on South Mendenhall near Spring Garden Street.
The fire companies were able to save the city from a major fire that broke out in the Benbow House Hotel in 1899, but a blow-out on the General Greene slowed their work and the hotel was ruined. By 1913, motorized vehicles began to replace horse-drawn vehicles. All available firefighters came together again in April 1936 to battle Greensboro’s greatest single catastrophe, a tornado and its resulting fires. In the end, 56 buildings were destroyed and 289 more were damaged. Of 144 people injured, 13 died.
In the early years, Greensboro firemen served on a volunteer basis, drawing mostly from prominent citizens. The transition from volunteer service to paid employment took place gradually; not until 1926 were all members on the municipal payroll. That same year, in response to recommendations by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the city council added Station 7 at Church Street and Bessemer Avenue, as well as Station 8 on West Lee Street (later West Gate City Boulevard). It also organized all stations under the Central Fire Station on North Greene Street, thus establishing a basic system of organization that has endured with only minor adjustments. The new city water system provided the water supply.
During the second and third quarters of the 20th century, the Greensboro Fire Department underwent the inevitable change of personnel, including four different chiefs, and was racially integrated in 1967. This period also saw the increased modernization of training and mechanized equipment. Since then, the names and locations of the fire stations have changed, and the city’s growth has led to the establishment of new battalions, stations, and specialized units. By 2022, the Greensboro Fire Department numbered 24 stations, 11 specialized ladder companies, one heavy rescue company, and two hazardous materials stations.
Born in Greensboro, Edwin S. Lee (1915-1978) became interested in firefighting as a child living near a firehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina. His scrapbooks begin around 1925 and contain materials from around the country about fires, firefighters, and equipment. After he joined the Greensboro Fire Department in 1945, his scrapbooks became “the most complete history in existence on activities of the Greensboro department” (The Greensboro Record, March 22, 1952), containing all the local fire-related news, supplemented with his own photographs of fires, fire stations, and their personnel. Lee was one of the first four inspectors for the new Fire Prevention Bureau, established in 1950, and he was active in the newly-formed firefighters union, Local 947, the Greensboro branch of the International Firefighters Association. He served as vice president in 1948, and when elected president of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association in 1952, he gave a speech extolling the courage and accomplishments of early union members. Lee served as recording secretary for Local 947 in 1956 and 1957. In 1962, he was the first recipient of the Greensboro “Fireman of the Year” award from the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He became a captain in 1964 and retired in 1976.
Historical/Biographical Sources: The historical information was acquired from three official histories of the Greensboro Fire Department: Greensboro Fire Department, 1808-1984, edited by Battalion Chief B.C. Cox (1984); Greensboro Fire Department, 1808-1990, edited by L.W. Coble and D.E. Spears (1991); and Greensboro Fire Department, 1926-2001, edited by C.W. Whitworth (2001).
Additional historical information was obtained from Greensboro: A Chosen Center, by Gayle Hicks Fripp (Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 2001), the online “Greensboro Fire Department Historical Timeline,” Greensboro city directories, Sanborn maps, and the following early newspaper articles: “Another fire” (Greensboro Patriot, January 6, 1849); “Town meeting” (Greensboro Patriot, January 13, 1849); “Resolution in regard to colored fire company…” (Greensboro North State, November 24, 1887); and “Fire Department of Greensboro and its workers…” (Greensboro Daily News, September 20, 1908).
The biographical information about Edwin S. Lee was found in the following newspaper articles, some of which are contained in the collection’s scrapbooks: “Fireman turns hobby to utilitarian purpose” (The Greensboro Record, March 22, 1952), “Two city firemen get captain’s rank” (The Greensboro Record, April 27, 1964), “Blazing days over for Lee” (The Greensboro Record, June 5, 1976), and his obituary (Greensboro Daily News, March 23, 1978).
SCOPE & CONTENT NOTE
The materials in this collection span the late 19th century through the 1970s and include correspondence, minutes, photographs, a wide range of printed materials, and detailed scrapbooks on Greensboro’s firefighting activities during the heart of the 20th century. Information on the early volunteer years can be found in the minutes of the first Greensboro fire companies and the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association. At first orderly and neat, these recordings become more haphazard during the first quarter of the 20th century. The correspondence, which is mainly from the 1920s and 1930s, sheds light on the Firemen’s Relief Fund. The printed materials hold the most range, from bylaws to national firefighting magazines to firefighting theatrical productions. The later scrapbooks of Edwin S. Lee, dating from 1945 to 1978, provide a view of all aspects of the Greensboro Fire Department.
Historians of municipal history or anyone interested in the evolution of fire department operations from the late 19th to late 20th centuries should find this collection useful. The focus is on Greensboro, but portions of the printed material and scrapbooks series include information on fire departments elsewhere in the United States, such as New York and Chicago.
The social historian might also find the collection interesting, especially the portion covering the years when the Greensboro Fire Department was composed mostly of volunteers from various sectors of the community. The time and effort devoted to fundraising and recruiting activities like parades and fairs — as reflected in the minutes and photographs — is notable. A few items in the printed material, record books, and scrapbooks reveal the many extracurricular activities for firefighters, from drama clubs and bands to athletic leagues. Some of the handwritten letters reflect varying levels of literacy and socioeconomic status. Among these are letters of application for membership in the Greensboro Fire Department (2:2) and those requesting financial aid from the trustees of the Firemen’s Relief Fund (2:10). The evolution of this fund and insurance provisions for fallen firefighters and their families is also evident in this collection. The battle to establish and maintain union membership for firefighters in the 1940s-1960s and the integration of the department in 1967 are well-documented in the later scrapbooks.
This collection does contain informational and chronological gaps. For example, the early Excelsior Hose Company No. 2, which had an all-African American membership, is not represented. Apart from published booklets, pamphlets, and magazines, the most orderly arrangement in the collection is found in the scrapbooks, which span the half-century from 1925 to 1978. These comprehensive scrapbooks and the collection’s photographs showing fire department personnel and equipment, together with other useful parts of the correspondence and record books, provide a stimulating portrait of municipal history in the making.
1. Broadside. 1 folder (1 item). ca. 1920s.
This broadside lists the locations of Greensboro’s fire alarm boxes. The approximate date is based on the car in the advertisement.
2. Correspondence. 13 folders (ca. 185 items). 1896-1978 [bulk 1921-1945].
Organized by fire companies and organizations, these folders contain correspondence received unless otherwise indicated. The North Carolina Firemen’s Relief Fund (FRF) is the primary focus, with letters revealing how funds were assessed and dispersed (2:5), as well as how the FRF invested its money (2:7) and how it reported its business to the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association (2:9). Some letters from the early 1930s show the precariousness of the local banks (and therefore the FRF’s preference for purchasing bonds over certificates of deposit), as well as concern for the families of deceased firefighters (2:6). Letters from two of these families describe their difficulties (2:10). Other correspondence includes invitations from the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association to its annual convention and letters accompanying dues to the association. The 1920s correspondence from the Firemen’s Fraternal Insurance Fund of North Carolina makes clear that it required insurance policies in addition to assessments from every firefighter in the event of a death (2:5). By the 1930s, only these assessments are recorded (2:6).
Correspondence unrelated to the Firemen’s Relief Fund and North Carolina State Firemen’s Association includes applications for membership in Greensboro fire companies with handwritten notes revealing the process of confirmation (2:2, 2:12). In addition, one letter from the Greensboro Fire Department announces the appointment of a committee to plan the unveiling of “The Firemen’s Monument” in Green Hill Cemetery in 1924 (2:11).
3. Map. 1 folder (1 item). ca. 1925.
This oilcloth map of downtown Greensboro shows the locations of fire alarm boxes and hydrants.
4. Miscellaneous. 4 folders (13 items). 1888-1947.
The highlight of this series is a group of six items from the cornerstone of the 1888 firehouse at 108 West Gaston Street (now West Friendly Avenue), including a handwritten roster of members and a program for the Firemen’s Tournament. Also of interest are two original newspapers: The Daily Workman (Greensboro, Saturday, November 10, 1888) and The Fireman’s Herald (New York, Thursday, November l, 1888) (4:2). Other miscellaneous items include a 1938 autograph book owned by Susanne Jones (4:1) and a drawing of a 1913 steamer (the first motor driven truck) by Edwin S. Lee (4:3).
5. Photographs. 10 folders (40 items). ca. 1892-ca. 1960.
This series contains photographs of Greensboro Fire Department personnel, equipment, and events. The personnel include “George” the horse led by his keeper (5:10) and firemen with their mascot, “Jack” the dog, in front of Smith Tire Co. (5:4). Also included are two photographs of Edwin S. Lee (5:7) and a collage of members of the Greensboro Fire Department, including Chief Frank Shaw (5:4). Another photograph depicts members of the newly formed Local 947, the Greensboro branch of the International Association of Firefighters, gathered in front of the Engine Co. #7 for an award ceremony in 1949 (5:4). Photographs of equipment include a horse-drawn fire wagon (5:10) and an early steam-powered fire wagon (5:3). A championship race (5:10) and Firemen’s Tournament Parade floats (5:3) illustrate traditions. The parade, organized in 1899 for Greensboro’s first hosting of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association annual convention, proved to be one of the city’s most memorable events. Another photograph from the same year shows the Benbow House Hotel after the historic fire that nearly destroyed it (5:1).
6. Printed Material. 17 folders (ca. 140 items). 1875-1962.
The printed material consists of by-laws, regulations, programs, periodicals, newspaper clippings, yearbooks, and even plays relating to firefighting. Most items concern the Greensboro Fire Department or the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association, including the establishment of the Firemen’s Relief Fund (6:15), but some come from other cities. And some are not firefighting materials but supplied essential rules for their vehicles or fire prevention.
Most of the Greensboro items reflect the fundamentals of the department or individual fire companies, including by-laws (6:6), memorial service programs (6:7), and awards (6:1). Several out-of-town fire department by-laws, likely used as a reference, are also included. Miscellaneous materials from the Greensboro Fire Department include an early bi-fold listing all stations and fire alarm boxes, an early roster of members of Eagle Hose Company No. 7 and its Dramatic Club, an order from the Guilford County Board of Commissioners exempting firemen from the poll tax, several blank fireman’s poll tax exemption certificates, and a program from the unveiling of the Firemen’s monument in Green Hill Cemetery (6:8). One newspaper clipping describes a gathering of the volunteer firemen in 1915 that featured speeches by Mayor Murphy and Ceasar Cone (6:11). Also included are copies of a 1926 article from The Fireman providing a history of the department and a 1976 article from The Greensboro Record announcing the retirement of Capt. Edwin S. Lee. Non-firefighting but related materials range from a book entitled Motor Vehicle and Traffic Ordinance of the City of Greensboro, North Carolina to the by-laws of the Greensboro Industrial Immigration Association, whose goal was to increase immigration to Greensboro (6:10).
Representing the state level are annual convention programs and proceedings from the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association (6:12-13), as well as by-laws for the Firemen’s Fraternal Insurance Fund and founding documents for the Firemen’s Relief Fund (6:15). Beyond North Carolina, issues of national firefighting periodicals (6:16), a history of the New York City Fire Department (6:9), pictorials of New York and Chicago’s firefighting vehicles (6:4), flyers from firefighting museums (6:3), and a regional yearbook (6:9) provide history and trends. One program from the Southeastern Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs reveals another network utilized by the Greensboro Fire Department (6:10). Both local and national fire prevention materials include fire ordinances and building codes, as well as a booklet on arson entitled The Crime of Crimes (6:2).
Of cultural interest are materials from a few fire-themed plays: two programs from the New York Fire Department’s annual fundraiser, “The Midnight Alarm,” and two original plays about firefighting, “The Fireman’s Heart” and “Cherry, or Labor vs. Capital.” The last was written in 1897 for and about Eagle Hose Company No. 7, and it was performed by the Eagle Dramatic Club (6:17).
7. Record Books. 34 folders (ca. 135 items). 1888-1952.
This series contains early minutes and records of the Greensboro Fire Department, four of its companies, and the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association. The four companies represented are Eagle Hose Company No. 7, Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1, and West End Hose Company. Their records include account books of contributions, expenditures, and dues, as well as fire records, by-laws, and minute books describing approval of members, fundraising activities, and equipment purchases. The 1916 Eagle Hose Company No. 7 minute book also contains a guestbook for the opening of the Central Fire Station in 1926 (7:6). The 1916-1929 Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 account book records company dues and also includes accounts for the 1937 Greensboro Firemen’s Convention Fund (7:16). The citywide record books document roll calls, fire response, and even the fire department band (7:11). A time book contains the wages paid to stationmasters, redcap porters, and firemen at the Southern Railway Station (7:29). A copy of the minutes from the founding meeting of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association announces its purpose: “to organize a Firemen’s Association in North Carolina of white volunteer fire companies; to discuss such measures and to take such action upon matters concerning firemen as would best promote their interests” (7:28). Additional books record delegates and attendance at the annual convention, as well as financial accounting for the Firemen’s Relief Fund.
The scrapbooks provide a detailed and chronological history of 50 years of firefighting. Newspaper clippings about fires, firemen, and fire-related news fill the early scrapbooks (1925-1945), which cover departments and fires from around the United States, particularly New York City and other northern metropolitan areas. Starting in 1945, after Edwin Lee joined the Greensboro Fire Department, the scrapbooks focus on Greensboro and contain newspaper clippings on virtually every local fire and fire department news item from the 1940s until his death in 1978. Also included in these later volumes are Lee’s photographs, miscellaneous letters, personnel information, programs, department reorganizations, and awards and certificates. Together, these materials reveal increasing attention to public safety, innovation, training, and the protection of firefighters by showing the full spectrum of Greensboro firefighting: fires; firefighting personnel; fire stations; fire prevention and education; fire department events, policies, and budgets; social activities and fundraisers; union news involving Local 947, the Greensboro firefighters union; and the activities of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association.
|1||1||Broadside||-- Fire alarm boxes (ca. 1920s)|
|2||1||Correspondence||-- Condolence (1978)|
|2||-- Eagle Hose Company -- Applications for membership (1896-1930)|
|3||-- Eagle Hose Company -- North Carolina State Firemen's Association dues (1921-1922)|
|4||Correspondence||-- Eagle Hose Company -- Resignation (1912)|
|5||-- Firemen's Fraternal Insurance Fund -- Applications for insurance and assessments (1926-1928)|
|6||-- Firemen's Relief Fund (FRF) -- Assessments (1931-1932)|
|7||Correspondence||-- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Business (1922-1942)|
|8||-- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Condolence acknowledgment (1929)|
|9||-- Firemen's Relief Fund -- North Carolina State Firemen's Association (NCSFA) to FRF (1923-1933)|
|10||Correspondence||-- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Requests for funds (1931-1945)|
|11||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Announcement (1924)|
|12||-- West End Hose Company -- Applications for membership (1922-1923)|
|13||-- West End Hose Company -- NCSFA Annual Convention (1921-1923)|
|3||1||Map||-- Fire alarm boxes and hydrants (ca. 1925)|
|4||1||Miscellaneous||-- Autograph book (1938)|
|2||-- Drawing of 1913 steamer by Ed. S. Lee (n.d.)|
|3||-- Gaston Street fire station (cornerstone items; 1888)|
|4||-- Inventories, receipts, statements (1925-1947)|
|5||1||Photographs||-- Benbow House (1899)|
|2||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 (1892-1893)|
|3||-- Firemen's Tournament Parade (1951.13.2, 1951.13.12, 1953.15.1-8; 1899)|
|4||Photographs||-- Greensboro Fire Department (1951.13.21-23; 1926-1940s)|
|5||-- Miscellaneous (1951.13.4; ca. 1900, n.d.)|
|6||-- Portraits -- Keith, Flay (1951.13.16; n.d.)|
|7||Photographs||-- Portraits -- Lee, Edwin S. (1951.13.24; ca. 1960)|
|8||-- Portraits -- Mast, Dr. J.O. (newspaper plate, 1951.13.26; 1940s)|
|9||-- Portraits -- Unidentified (1951.13.13-14, 1951.13.25; 1909, n.d.)|
|10||-- Southside Hose Company No. 4 (1951.13.6-11, 1951.13.19-20; ca. 1899-ca. 1910, n.d.)|
|6||1||Printed Material||-- City of Greensboro -- Fire prevention awards (1928-1938)|
|2||-- Fire prevention regulations (1921-1930)|
|3||-- Firefighting museums (ca. 1960s-1972)|
|4||Printed Material||-- Firefighting vehicle pictorials (1968-1972)|
|5||-- Fireman tribute plaque (ca. 1949)|
|6||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- By-laws and regulations (1890-1928)|
|7||Printed Material||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Firemen's Memorial Service programs (1931-1955)|
|8||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Miscellaneous (1902-1987)|
|9||-- Histories (1927, 1962)|
|10||Printed Material||-- Miscellaneous (1894-1930)|
|11||-- Newspaper clippings (1915-1976)|
|12||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Annual convention proceedings (1888-1942)|
|13||Printed Material||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Annual convention programs (1927-1952)|
|14||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Fireman's certificate of service (1917)|
|15||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Firemen's Fraternal Insurance Fund and Firemen's Relief Fund -- Founding documents (1907-1925)|
|16||Printed Material||-- Periodicals (1927-1977)|
|17||-- Theatrical productions (1894-1947)|
|7||1||Record Books||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Act of Incorporation, Constitution, and By-Laws (1901)|
|2||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Dues (1925-1929)|
|3||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Fires (1893-1894)|
|4||Record Books||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Minutes (1891-1899)|
|5||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Minutes (1891-1925)|
|6||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Minutes (1916, 1926)|
|7||Record Books||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Minutes, loose (1896-1929)|
|8||-- Eagle Hose Company No. 7 -- Minutes, loose (n.d.)|
|9||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Addresses and roll call, loose (n.d.)|
|10||Record Books||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Alarm roll call (1913-1927)|
|11||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Band (1938-1948)|
|12||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Fires (1919-1926)|
|13||Record Books||-- Greensboro Fire Department -- Minutes (1852-1899)|
|14||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Account book (1891-1896)|
|15||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Account book (1897-1900)|
|16||Record Books||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Account book (1916-1929, 1937)|
|17||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Minutes (1891-1896)|
|18||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Minutes (1897-1901, 1918)|
|19||Record Books||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Minutes (1901-1909)|
|20||-- Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 -- Minutes (1918-1926)|
|21||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Annual convention -- Attendance record (1942)|
|22||Record Books||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Annual convention -- First book of delegates (ca. 1927)|
|23||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Annual convention -- Second book of delegates (ca. 1927)|
|24||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Account book (1908-1933)|
|25||Record Books||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Account statements, expenses, and receipts, loose (1921-1937)|
|26||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Minutes (1934-1936)|
|27||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Firemen's Relief Fund -- Miscellaneous computations, loose (1903-1937)|
|28||Record Books||-- North Carolina State Firemen's Association -- Minutes (1888)|
|29||-- Southern Railway Station -- Stationmaster, porter, and fireman time book (1948-1952)|
|30||-- Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 -- Attendance and gas (1910-1926)|
|31||Record Books||-- Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 -- Dues (1908-1926)|
|32||-- Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 -- Minutes (1908-1923)|
|33||-- West End Hose Company -- Minutes (1904-1920)|
|8||1||Scrapbooks||-- Newspaper clippings (ca. 1925-1928)|
|2||-- Newspaper clippings (ca. 1928-ca. 1945)|
|3||-- Newspaper clippings (ca. 1945-ca. 1946)|
|4||-- Newspaper clippings, photographs and miscellanea (1948-1978)|