Visitors to the exhibit Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World may be surprised to see an early 19th Century Pennsylvania fire pumper from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection. Franklin helped to establish the first Philadelphia volunteer fire company in 1735, which became a model for other cities, so the pumper certainly has a rightful place in the exhibit. But how did the pumper get here in the first place?
The answer lies with the Waterous Company of Minnesota. In 1886, Fred and Frank Waterous moved their father’s fire engine manufacturing company from Winnipeg to South St. Paul. The company introduced the first fire pump powered by a gasoline engine in 1898. Waterous continues to produce pumps and other firefighting equipment to this day.
Even with its reputation for innovation, Waterous honored the industry’s past. The company assembled a collection of historic vehicles and equipment, consisting both of significant Waterous products and more general apparatus. The Philadelphia-style pumper was a part of that assembly, and in 1966 the company transferred ownership of the lot to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Philadelphia-style pumpers, named for the city in which they were introduced, are characterized by “double-decker” configurations. The design allows four rows of firefighters – two on each end – to work the hand-powered pumping mechanism. Our example is a product of the Merrick & Agnew Company of Philadelphia, built around 1835. The pumper served the Friendship Fire Company of Danville, Pennsylvania.
The Benjamin Franklin exhibit gave us the perfect opportunity to put the pumper on display. Our conservators cleaned the wood, polished the brass, replicated missing components, and generally restored some of the luster to this intriguing artifact. We’re pleased to be able to share it with the public once again.
Matt Anderson, Objects Curator