, Newburyport, MA

January 24, 2013

Great Portsmouth fire recalled in Athenaeum exhibit

Newburyport Daily News

---- — The brick buildings that make the downtown areas of Newburyport and Portsmouth, N.H. so distinctive each have their origins in fire — catastrophic blazes that swept through each city two centuries ago.

Newburyport’s fire of 1811 was followed two years later by Portsmouth’s “great and distressing fire” of 1813, in which 272 buildings burned, most of them wooden.

The legacy of the Portsmouth fire — as well as two other conflagrations in 1802 and 1806 — is being explored at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in “Going to Blazes,” a free exhibit that opens Feb. 1 in the Randall Room.

“Why does the center of town look as if it were rebuilt at the same time? Basically, it was,” said Sandra Rux, who is co-curating the exhibit with Joyce Volk.

Volk said before 1840, fires were fought by individuals, not professionals. The focus was on saving the contents of a house and trying to stop the fire from spreading, she said.

“The first thing you’d do was empty the house,” she said. “Of course, not everything came back.”

Fire societies were formed to protect fire victims from thieves, Volk said. Members were unanimously elected.

“Members were taken to the houses of all the other members and shown where the valuables were kept,” Volk said. “Each one had to have two fire buckets, a big canvas bag to carry items in, and a bed wrench to take apart the four-posters, because the bed hangings were usually the most expensive items in a house. The society had one man stationed at the door; you had to give the password, so strangers couldn’t get in.”

At one time, there were six such societies in Portsmouth. Two survive and continue to meet — the Federal Fire Society, founded in 1789, and the Mechanic Fire Society, which dates to 1811.

“The fire societies were drinking and dining societies,” Rux said.

They still are, Volk said, pointing to the snuff box that the Mechanic Fire Society has passed around since 1821, and the Federal Fire Society’s 1876 punch bowl, which will be on display for the Athenaeum exhibit.

Other exhibit items include an elaborate menu from an 1890 Mechanic Fire Society dinner presided over by famed brewer Frank Jones, society songbooks, a number of leather fire buckets, a map showing the areas of the 1802, 1806 and 1813 fires, a segment of one of the first wooden water pipes laid in the city in 1797 and a furniture brand, used to mark furniture so it could be returned to the owner after a fire.

Why did the societies keep meeting, years after they had stopped fighting fires?

“They were still having a good time,” Volk said.

Peter Lamb, a member of Portsmouth’s Federal Fire Society, will join Leon Arsenault, 92, of Freeport, Maine, in describing the process of making a leather fire bucket on March 14 at 7 p.m. at the Athenaeum.

“The ancient art of making a ‘cuir bouilli’ or wet molded leather fire bucket has been nearly lost,” said Lamb, who described Arsenault as “one of the last remaining bucket makers.”

Co-curators Volk and Rux will give a gallery talk on April 20 at 11 a.m. at the Athenaeum.

Historian Richard Candee will discuss the Brick Act, passed after the 1813 fire, and its impact on the center city. Starting at 2 p.m. on May 11, he will talk about the Brick Act and lead a walk starting at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, 6-8 Market Square.

These events are free, but reservations are required. Call 603-431-2538.

Exhibit hours are 1 to 4 p.m., Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays through May 25. An opening reception will be held Friday, Feb. 1, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Athenaeum, 6-8 Market Square.

Rux, who is curator of the Portsmouth Historical Society, will talk about the Portsmouth fire of 1813 on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. in the opening lecture of the 2013 program series, “Great Fires: Conflagrations that Reshaped New England.” General admission is $10. Reservations are required for the lectures, which are in the Athenaeum’s Research Library.

On March 20 at 7 p.m., Tracy Messer and Charles Strickland will give the second lecture in the series and show their documentary film on the Great Marlow Fire of 1941. Admission is $10 for the 7 p.m. Third in the series is the Isles of Shoals Fires, presented April 17 at 7 p.m. by Ann Beattie and Melissa Saggerer.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum is a nonprofit membership museum and library founded in 1817. For more information, call 603-431-2538 or go to