In its earliest days, Alexandria fanned the flames of progress in many areas of society. No place is this more evident than what is now called the Friendship Firehouse Museum.
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Story by Dawn Klavon | Photography by Zoophoria Photography
Back in Alexandria’s infancy, fire was a constant danger, especially because residents of the wood-structured town used fire for heating, cooking and lighting. The risk of fire was significant, and extinguishing a fire was arduous at best—buckets of water were carried from a well, a town pump or from the Potomac River. Hidden among the cobblestone streets and historic charm of Old Town stands the Friendship Firehouse, a local museum that has witnessed centuries of history and held the hearts of its community.
The Friendship Firehouse, established in 1774, is a living testament to the enduring spirit of camaraderie and the crucial role of volunteer firefighters in shaping the early American landscape. Known as the first volunteer fire company in Alexandria, the current firehouse—built in 1855—is now a remarkable museum open to the public.
“This was a very first piece of volunteerism in the city,” says Mary Bramley, Development Officer for the Office of Historic Alexandria. “That, to me, is one of the best things about it—the fact there were these people that came together to protect the city and they were doing it for so many years.”\
A BEACON OF BROTHERHOOD
At the heart of the Friendship Firehouse's story is its role as a gathering place for the community's volunteer firefighters. Established even before the United States officially became a nation, the Friendship Firehouse became a beacon of brotherhood. Volunteer firefighters, often called "the Friendship Fire Company," were instrumental in safeguarding the historic town of Alexandria from devastating fires, forming deep bonds as they worked tirelessly to protect their beloved city.
“For many years, it was all volunteer. Usually, the whole community would respond—it really was a community effort.”
-Kristin Lloyd, Curator, Office of Historic Alexandria
As was common in that era, the Friendship Fire Company’s members were white men who volunteered their efforts. Women played a role in the firehouse’s philanthropic arm, as they spearheaded fundraising efforts. The Friendship Firehouse website states that at one fundraising fair in June 1855, the Alexandria Gazette noted, "Preparations are being made by several ladies and their friends for holding a Fair for the purpose of raising funds for building an Engine House for the Friendship Fire Company." Their efforts were successful. "The gross receipts from the Fair ... will fully enable [the company] to consummate its wishes as regards its engine house."
PRESERVING THE PAST
In the early 20th century, as technology advanced, the role of volunteer firefighters began to diminish. However, the Friendship Firehouse stayed relevant by repurposing itself as a museum dedicated to preserving the heritage of firefighting and celebrating the history of the Friendship Fire Company.
“Supporting the community has always been an important part of its history,” said Lloyd. “While Friendship was important to fighting fires … [the members] were also involved in, shall we say for lack of a better term, boosterism. They would participate in parades and such just to show commitment and rally around the community.”
Today, visitors to the Friendship Firehouse can explore a treasure trove of artifacts, including antique fire engines, equipment and uniforms. The museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the challenges and triumphs of firefighting in the 18th and 19th centuries, serving as an educational resource for the community. The museum's historic firefighting vehicles can be viewed, as well as the Rodgers Suction Engine (1851) and the Prettyman Hose Carriage (1858).
The Friendship Firehouse doesn't just celebrate history; it actively engages with the community. The firehouse hosts a variety of events and programs throughout the year, bringing residents and visitors together to celebrate Alexandria's heritage and foster a sense of unity. From educational programs for local schoolchildren to annual events like the Friendship Firehouse Festival held each August, this historic site continues to strengthen the bonds of friendship and unity within the city of Alexandria.
“Back then, the commitment to the community was stopping fires, but now the commitment to the community is different because it’s no longer a functioning firehouse; but the people that are involved with it are still giving back in other ways,” says Bramley.
The Friendship Firehouse Museum is not just a place to view relics of the past; it's a living testament to the enduring values of courage, camaraderie and community. It reminds us that, while technology may have evolved, there is great value in working together to protect our communities.
PLAN A VISIT
Plan to visit the museum, located at 107 S. Alfred Street in Old Town. It is typically open one Saturday per month, but in December 2023, it is open on both December 2 and December 30, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The experience includes a visit to the Engine Room, which houses vintage hand-drawn fire engines, authentic leather water buckets, a hose-reel, axes, early rubber hoses and firefighting technology exhibits.
"There are two mid-19th century pieces of firefighting equipment... that sort of tangible connection really provides some wonderful continuity."
The crown jewel of the museum’s collection is the suction engine, purchased by the Friendship Firehouse in 1851. Back in the day, bucket brigades would form with two lines of people using water from a river or well to extinguish the fire. The number of men necessary to put out a fire was many. Then came the invention of the suction engine, which provided water through a hose in a more effective manner. The Friendship Firehouse’s suction engine is the flagship of the museum and offers a tangible example of early American firefighting techniques.
“One thing that I think is very special about Friendship is that there are two mid-19th century pieces of firefighting equipment in our collection … and were used fighting fires in our community,” Lloyd says. “That sort of tangible connection really provides some wonderful continuity.”
The Friendship Firehouse was first built in 1774, then the current structure was built in 1851, remodeled in 1871 and restored in 1992. Over the years, the museum raised funding for important restoration projects. At present, the Friendship Firehouse hopes to restore the Rodgers suction hand engine so future generations can learn about firefighting techniques and how they have evolved since the 1800s. Donations can be given on the City of Alexandria’s website.
A LASTING LEGACY
Alexandria’s Friendship Firehouse stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of camaraderie and community that has defined this historic town for centuries. From its humble beginnings as a gathering place for volunteer firefighters to its current role as a museum and community hub, the Friendship Firehouse continues to preserve the past while fostering connections in the present.
“I’ve done some digging back into the Friendship Firehouse festivals and you just see how excited everybody is,” says Bramley. “You get to see how it looked and worked—that’s so neat about it— at Friendship Firehouse, here are the actual tools they were using.”