‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ opens at Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum

Posted by | August 19, 2014

Please welcome guest authors Deborah Montanti and Anne G’Fellers-Mason. Montanti is the Executive Director of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Anne G’Fellers-Mason serves as the organization’s Special Projects Coordinator.


The Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and Archives collects artifacts, documents, and photographs to help tell the stories of the land and people who constituted Tennessee’s oldest town. Founded in 1983, the gallery space opened in the Jonesborough Visitor’s Center under the care of town government. A friends organization soon formed to help grow the archives and create the exhibits that would be on display to the public.

Original exhibits dealt with life on the frontier, cloth weaving, blacksmithing, the lost State of Franklin, and much more. In 2001, the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia was formed. At that time, the Town of Jonesborough turned the care of the museum over to the Heritage Alliance and the friends group dissolved.

Hand-painted detail on the water pumper.

Hand-painted detail on the water pumper from the ‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ exhibit.

The Heritage Alliance is dedicated to the preservation of the architectural, historical, and cultural heritage of our region and to providing educational experiences related to history and heritage for a wide range of audiences. As a pivotal part of this mission, the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum plays a large role in school programming and educational tours of the town.

The Heritage Alliance works hard to change out exhibits and update the displayed information and the ways in which it is presented. The museum was originally designed with built-in cases, platforms, and an extensive series of ramps and elevated exhibits in the center of the space. The construction was sturdy and meant to last indefinitely, but as time and technology moved on, updates became necessary.

The first remodel the Heritage Alliance did was to pull the center ramps and elevated exhibits out of the museum. This allowed for a more open space with less congestion. The open area also affords space to bring in traveling exhibits and provides room to display larger artifacts like the threshing machine, the cream separator, and the nineteenth century hand cranked washing machine.

Rotating exhibits in the center have included information on farm machinery, domestic practices, and the 1913 Washington County Courthouse. Currently in the process of remodeling the remainder of the museum, the Heritage Alliance is only two people, so progress is slow and ever ongoing. Thankfully, a wonderful corps of dedicated volunteers help every step of the way.

Detail of the 'Fire: An Urban Menace' exhibit.

‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ exhibit: first hand engine from 1888 (l), fire extinguisher on wheels (center), water pumper (r).

Today, the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum features the clock that kept time in the 1847 Courthouse. Current exhibits showcase information on the history of education in Washington County, Jonesborough’s connection to the Appalachian Trail, Victorian style home interiors, Federal style home interiors, and much more. There’s also a rotating veterans exhibit that changes every 6 months in order to honor as many Washington County veterans as possible. As a part of the ongoing changes, the newest permanent exhibit is Fire: An Urban Menace. The latest exhibit tells Jonesborough’s history with fire and fire prevention.

On New Year’s Eve 1873, the town of Jonesborough closed out an already difficult year on a final, disastrous note. At 5:00 clock that evening, a massive fire spread through town, wiping out many of the buildings on West Main Street. This was only one of several fires that wracked Main Street Jonesborough during the late 1800s.

Townspeople organized bucket brigades to combat the blazes, but they were woefully ineffective in curbing fire early. Finally, after the fire of 1887, the third devastating fire in three decades, the citizens of Jonesborough decided to raise money to purchase fire-fighting equipment. In 1888, the town purchased a ladder truck made in a local wagon shop and a small hand engine. The equipment did not stop fires from occurring, of course, but it did prevent the rapid spread and helped to preserve Jonesborough’s historic buildings for generations to come.

Jonesborough’s first hand engine, a small water pumper, and a “Fire Extinguisher on Wheels” from the 1930s are all on display as part of the Fire: An Urban Menace exhibit in the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum. The fire-fighting equipment has been on display before, but this is the first time the three pieces have had a permanent exhibit home of their own. Before, the large pieces had to be moved to make space for traveling and rotating exhibits.

View of the 'Fire: An Urban Menace' exhibit.

Water pumper from ‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ exhibit.

Due to limited storage at the museum itself, the equipment usually had to be transported by truck to another town. The constant moving threatened irreparable damage to the historic items, and it was in their best interest to find a permanent solution. Under the stewardship of the Heritage Alliance, the layout of the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum has changed over the years, allowing for greater turnover in exhibits. Updating the museum is a slow and steady process, and it would not be possible without the help of wonderful volunteers and the support of the Town of Jonesborough.

In early 2013, display cases in one corner of the museum, cases that had been built into that space in the 1980s, were pulled out to make room for the fire-fighting equipment. The engine, pumper, and extinguisher were moved, for a final time, from their place of storage and returned to the museum. The Heritage Alliance is blessed to have a dedicated corps of volunteers, including a master builder and craftsman who worked to construct the platforms the fire-fighting equipment now rests upon. He also constructed the display case for Jonesborough’s 1939 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

Founded in 1867 by Daniel A. Sanborn, the Sanborn Company sent teams to cities across the country to analyze their buildings for various fire risks. Their detailed maps specified the design of every building, including the placement of windows and doors. They also listed the population of the city, the city’s fire preparedness, names of streets, and the placement of geographical features such as rivers and creeks. Jonesborough paid for their first Sanborn Fire Insurance Map in 1888.

The Sanborn Company continued to map Jonesborough off and on until 1939. The maps start with just Main Street and the immediate area surrounding Jonesborough’s central hub, but later maps, such as the 1939 map, branch out to include many of the outlying streets and areas. The Sanborn Maps have been invaluable to the preservation and restoration of Jonesborough.

Guy Ellis Sabin
1853 – 1888

Excerpt from a letter by Mrs. S.J. Rhea
as printed in Mr. Sabin’s obituary.

“Dear Cousin – You probably have heard by telegram of the death of Mr. Guy Sabin. I know your heart is here and you are mourning the sad intelligence . . .

Between two and three o’clock this Wednesday morning the courthouse bell rang and the sky was lurid with a great fire. In the spring Mr. Sabin had organized a Fire Company and bought an engine, and when the bell rang, he arose, and told his boys to lie still and be good boys, until Papa came back.

As Mr. Sabin was always leader in every good effort to benefit his neighbors, he ascended the ridge of an adjoining house to protect it, and fell to the ground, breaking his neck and dying instantly.”

When Jonesborough was designated a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, the maps provided information on how the buildings once looked and also on buildings that had been demolished along the way. The Heritage Alliance continues to refer to the Sanborn Maps for school programs, town tours, and ongoing preservation efforts in town.

The Fire: An Urban Menace exhibit highlights the importance of the Sanborn Maps and the fire-fighting equipment to the Town of Jonesborough. In a most fitting manner, the Jonesborough Fire Department helped lift the equipment, which, with iron wheels, is anything but light, onto their platforms. The fire department helped preserve the buildings in the late 1800s, and they continue to help preserve Jonesborough’s history to this day.

Visitors to the museum can see the equipment, including the exquisite hand-painted detail on the water pumper. Additional panels provide information on the ladder truck, poetic coverage of the great fire of 1873 as printed in Jonesborough’s local newspaper, and the gallant story of Fire Chief Guy Sabin, who gave his life to save the town he loved.

Jonesborough’s fire-fighting equipment was pivotal to the salvation of the town, and it is only fitting that the equipment now has a place of honor and a safe haven of its own where it can be appreciated and studied. When you visit the “Storytelling Capital of the World,” make sure you stop by the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and view the hand engine, pumper, and extinguisher in their well-deserved retirement. Jonesborough is a town full of stories, and there are many to be told in Fire: An Urban Menace.

For more information on the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and Archives and the Heritage Alliance, visit our website and like us on Facebook! When you visit town, also be sure to check out the Chester Inn Museum, a State Owned Historic Site Operated by the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The operation of the Chester Inn is partially funded under an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Historical Commission. Our sister museums are always excited to have guests!

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