Poor, Poor "Uncle Billy"
I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.
—Chief Edward F. Croker (1863-1951), FDNY
The wait for the next fireman’s death “in the line of duty” would take a relative fraction of time. Barely a a decade would pass. The victim had certainly taken his lumps over the years, dodging several work-related injuries along the way. Sadly, his last accident would prove fatal. He would be killed on March 20th, 1910, just steps in front of his own firehouse, a week before his 66th birthday.
Two of the first three firefighting casualties in Frederick County history involved members of the Junior Fire Company #2. The third name listed on Mount Olivet’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial of Frederick County is that of William Basil Davis. Davis was born in Frederick on March 29, 1844—four years after the death of Fireman William F. Charlton. He was the son of Nathan Davis and Elizabeth Delashmutt, operators of a farm located south of Frederick City. Unlike Charlton, Davis had been married for 38 years. His wife Virginia Frances Staley (1845-1926) joined her husband’s family in operating the farm after their marriage in 1872. The couple had four children, two boys (John and James) and two girls Elizabeth and Mamie).
Mr. Davis led the proud life of a farmer, before trading in “country life” for “city life” and serving the community in various fashions. He was appointed a member of Frederick City’s police force and served from 1898-1901 under Mayor William F. Chilton. The family lived in a rented row house located at 56 E. Fourth Street.
William Davis, and son, John became volunteer members of the Junior Steam Fire Company as well. In 1900, Davis was elected assistant foreman. He was beloved by his fellow company members, and affectionately earned the nickname “Uncle Billy.” Davis would eventually hold the title of Keeper of the Engine House. His advanced age dictated a role more suited to his physical abilities. The 59-year-old became the driver of the Juniors’ engine in 1903—a paid position. At this time, horses were introduced into the Juniors’ operation to improve response time in pulling the engine. In prior years, the firemen themselves pulled and pushed their engines to various fires in, and around, Frederick.
Representatives of the company had visited Baltimore on a fact-finding mission to improve firefighting methods. They came back with ideas that resulted in the remodeling of their engine house, located within the first block of N. Market Street for the entire duration of William B. Davis’ life. The company’s name was changed to the Junior Steam Fire Engine Company #2.
Two grey horses were put into service, one named “Dan,” the other “Billy." William Davis worked day and night shifts with his employment. He proudly took part in driving these horses and the company’s 1876 Silsby Steamer. In his inaugural year on the job, he took part in parading up and down Market Street as the Maryland State Firemen’s Convention was held in Frederick (1903). Large arches were erected across the street and in front of the three engine houses of downtown at that time (Juniors, Uniteds and Independents).
In August of 1904, the Juniors purchased a new piece of equipment. It was a combination chemical and hose wagon, manufactured by the American LaFrance Fire Engine Company of Elmira, NY. It was described as “maroon and black in color, and capable of holding 35 gallons of chemicals, 200 feet of chemical hose, and 1000 feet of water hose. The apparatus weighed 3,600 pounds and cost $2,000.” Another horse named “Frank” was brought on staff to help the company.
William Davis happily drove the original Juniors tandem of “draft,” or better named “backdraft,” horses. However, one can’t say that Davis’ career was devoid of drama. There seems to be a history of the driver’s name making the pages of the local paper from time to time. In November, 1904, Davis’ face was badly cut and bruised resulting in an eye swelling shut. This was the result of being thrown forward when of his horses stumbled. Just over a year later, William B. Davis received an unwanted holiday present in December, 1905. This was the gift of mashed toes when one of the horses stepped on the driver’s foot quite hard. Months later in April of 1906, the unlucky fireman made news again when he accidentally burned his hands quite badly while charging the lighter of the engine. Supposedly chemicals in a bottle exploded.
In 1908, William Davis was put in charge of another new piece of equipment. Also purchased from the American LaFrance Company of Elmira, a Combination Metropolitan Steam Engine was bought for $4,500 to replace the aging Silsby unit that Davis had tugged for five years. A few pictures exists of Mr. Davis at the helm in the carriage seat of the new Steamer unit. The weight of the vehicle eventually led to the forced retirement of one of the horse corps because of disability. This occurred in December of 1909. The change called for a replacement horse in the Juniors’ stable. Unfortunately, the new animal led to the final appearance of William B. Davis’ name in the Frederick News—his obituary
1910 and the Ides of March came and went. However, should have been aware of Sunday, March 20th instead. A fire had broken out in the storeroom of Clinton Main of W. Patrick Street. This occurred around 3:30am with most of Frederick sleeping. William Davis got the horses hitched up to the steam engine and began to start the departure process from the fire house. Tragically, the rogue horse became excited due to a fire alarm, and Mr. Davis would not make it with his steam engine to N. Market Street, just a few yards out the garage door—although the horses and engine would. The grisly accident was shared in the pages of the Frederick News and the Baltimore Sun over the next few days.
Prompted by the death of William B. Davis, a meeting was held to make major decisions that would have long-term positive effects on the Junior Steam Fire Engine Company, No. 2. Among these was decision to end the era of using horses. They would be sold to a fire department in Washington, D. C. Ironically, one of the horses involved in Davis' demise was killed in an accident while on duty in the nations' capital. The Juniors voted to purchase a Christie tractor to attach to the front of the 1908 LaFrance steam fire engine. This vehicle pushed and pulled the steamer into and out of the engine bay of the company's headquarters. Also at this time, a decision to sell the original engine house was made, and the building of a new fire house commenced near the corner of 6th and Market streets.
This new Juniors Company home opened in December 1913, and both fallen comrades, William Charlton and William B. Davis, were fondly remembered for their unselfish commitment to their duties, the Junior Company, and the Frederick, Maryland community. Their memory lives on here at Mount Olivet through respective grave monuments and the Frederick County Fallen Firefighter Memorial. Just this week, Mount Olivet played host to the funerals of two funerals for Frederick County fireman. I’d like to think that the spirits of the two Williams were amongst the throng saluting their departed brothers.
A few scenes from a modern day funeral at Mount Olivet of a Frederick County firefighter, more than a century after that of William B. Davis in 1910. This service took place on June 22, 2017 and honored Capt. Andrew "Andy" Pryce (1975-2017) formerly of the Walkersville Fire Company and Frederick County Fire/Rescue Services.
6/24/2017 07:53:07 pm
Our great grandfather.
Lois Noffsinger Spurrier
7/13/2017 12:33:21 pm
GREAT GRANDFATHER ONCE LIVED ON THE THOMAS FARM NEAR MY FARM ON MANOR WOODS RD
2/1/2018 09:45:12 pm
We may be living in a digitized world, but we should also learn how to look back on those days that we think worth knowing. These are the real heroes because they have sacrificed their own lives just for the sake of other people. We may not know them personally because they died before we were born, but it's never going to make so much effort to honor what they did. I hope that everyone's will have time to read this tragic but inspiring article!
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