A fire in a mechanic’s garage sparked a conflagration that burned the resort town of Tallulah Falls to the ground on a December night in 1921. The village had no fire department. Neither did any other town in Rabun County. If your house caught fire, it helped to have friendly neighbors, because that was the only available help.
As early as 1912, the Clayton Tribune chastised the city council for not establishing a fire department. “We think it high time for our town councilmen to organize their firefighting department, though we know they are the busiest men in town, but if a fire breaks out in our city, we guess they would be somewhat busier than they are, unorganized and nothing doing.”
Despite the newspaper’s prodding, nothing was done about establishing a fire fighting force until the early 1920s when a volunteer fire department was organized. The department’s original “fire truck” was a hand-pulled hose cart. Two wagon wheels were connected by an axel that held a reel of heavy hose. The cart was pulled to fires by two volunteers. State-of-the-art fire-fighting equipment it was not.
Hose Cart Rolled Past Fire
In a 2001 interview in the Clayton Tribune, Jadie Cannon, one of the city’s early volunteer fire fighters, recalled a fire at the Hamby Hotel. He said he and a fellow volunteer pulled the hose cart from its shed under the Rock House at Main and Savannah streets and headed down the hill toward the hotel. “That cart was a heavy thing. We got to going so fast, I didn’t know if we were pulling the cart or if it was pushing us…We ran right past the fire because we couldn’t stop that thing. We had to wait until it started up the next grade before we could turn it around and go back to the fire.”
Most buildings in Clayton were constructed of wood, providing ample fuel for fires. Once wood buildings caught fire, they often were destroyed before volunteers arrived with the hose cart.
Volunteers sometimes would get the hose cart to a fire only to find there was no hydrant nearby, in which case they only could watch the building burn.
The water supply for Clayton came from two storage tanks on the slope of Black Rock Mountain. The gravity flow from the elevated tanks was said to provide adequate water pressure. The only problem with this arrangement was that the water tanks were supplied by mountain springs. During periods of little or no rain, low water levels in the tanks resulted in minimal water and pressure for home use…or fighting fires.
Gunshots at Night and Dinner Bells
Clayton’s early fire warning system consisted of gunshots and a dinner bell. A night policeman on patrol (think, “9 o’clock and all is well”) would fire his pistol to alert fire fighters. Unfortunately, this system was open to abuse. The Clayton Tribune wrote in a 1931 editorial: “On last Thursday night, following a serious fire of the night before, someone, with the idea of having a little fun, came to town…either firing a pistol or ‘popping their switch’ (horn) on their car, sounding like a pistol, along with the yell, ‘Fire, Fire, Fire.’ A number of people in town hearing the noise, alert to the fact that a fire was very dangerous because of low water (in the town’s water tanks), rushed over that way, only to find that there wasn’t anything at all to it, and were more or less on the bad end of a serious joke.”
In addition to firing pistols at night, the dinner bell on the front porch of the Blue Ridge Hotel on Main Street doubled as a fire gong. Jadie Cannon recalled, “They would ring that thing, and you could hear it for miles around at night. The fellows would come running.”
First Fire Engine in 1941
It was big news in 1941 when Clayton got its first fire engine as well as a firehouse siren. The Clayton Tribune extolled, “The Mayor and Council have kept up their reputation of keeping the City of Clayton right up with other cities of this kind and last Tuesday night bought a modern LaFrance fire truck that will pump 500 gallons of water per minute…The machinery will be mounted on a Ford chassis and equipped with all the modern fire-fighting equipment. This is the same kind of truck that the city of Atlanta and other large cities have in operation…the pumper truck can put water on any building in the city.”
The newspaper went on to proclaim, “This is one of the most forward movements the city has taken lately and it is believed that the reduction in fire rates will soon pay for the outlay beside the satisfaction of knowing that we have some protection against fires which have been rather destructive in the city.” Clayton purchased a second fire engine in 1954 for $14,000. It was not until the 1970s that other towns and communities in Rabun County established their own fire departments. The last fire department was organized in Tiger in 1993. The county’s 13 volunteer fire departments are operated under Rabun County Fire Services.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in February 2023.