By the time of the Revolutionary War, cities and towns across the colonies had begun to form and train fire companies to protect their homes and communities from the ever-present danger of fire. Prior to the formation of these volunteer companies, villages and towns depended on untrained, willing civilian assistance whenever a forest or structural fire broke out.
According to local historian Win Everett, in the early spring of 1833, a fire began to ravage the woods surrounding the sparsely settled area between West Dedham and South Dedham. All available men from both villages were summoned to help. Despite their efforts, the flames spread through old native trees and meadows from around today’s Clapboardtree Street toward Tiot center. It leveled a huge swathe of land and reportedly reached almost to the current Railroad Avenue destroying several houses in its path. The conflagration’s smoke and flames were surely visible from the hilltop in the Parish cemetery.
Shortly thereafter, on April 22, 1833, Dedham selectmen established South Dedham’s first fire company – Washington No. 7. The fire house was located near the center of the village, approximately where Cushing Hall of St. Catherine’s School now stands.
Benjamin D. Morse (lot 54) and Charles E. Morse (lot 103) were among the first group of Tiot-men to sign up. By 1838, they had been joined by Jarvis Fairbanks (lot 104), Benjamin Fairbanks (lot 115), and Moses Guild (lot 53), among others.
Harrison Rhoades (c. 1832-1907) (lot 25) was born about the time of the 1833 fire; eventually he too joined the fire company. He became a “suction horseman” for the company in South Dedham and Norwood. In that capacity, Rhoades had to know where every available water supply was. In the event of a fire, Rhoades would direct firefighters to the nearest cistern, well, or brook so that the fire hose could be inserted and water pumped out to fight the blaze. He is credited with building several large fire-reservoirs to supply water, reservoirs which reportedly stood long after the town had a water system built in 1886. Rhoades died of pneumonia on February 19, 1907 at the age of 75.
The bell that hung in the Washington No. 7 station – and which was loudly rung on July 4, 1868 in defiance of orders from Dedham – now hangs silent inside the town hall’s tower among the carillon bells.