Madison Fire Company Banner | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Madison Fire Company Banner

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Madison Fire Company Banner | Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison Fire Company No. 2 silk banner, 1857.
(Museum object #1951.288)

EnlargeMadison Fire Company Banner

Madison Fire Company banner, 1857

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1951.288

EnlargeLithograph by Louis Kurz

Madison Fire Company No. 2 lithograph by Louis Kurz, 1862-1863

This lithography by Louis Kurz shows Madison Fire Company No. 2 in the 100 block of State Street, 1862-1863. A fireman to the left of center carries the banner featured above. View the original source document: WHI 1872

EnlargeFrederick C. Moessner

Frederick C. Moessner, 1856-1859

Daguerreotype of Frederick C. Moessner in his fire uniform, 1856-1859. A German-born baker, Moessner was one of the original signers of Madison Fire Company No. 2's constitution. View the original source document: WHI 40841

EnlargeBefore conservation

Fire banner before conservation, 1857

Before the conservation of the back of the fire banner with the German "Wir Eilen um zu Retten" ("We Hurry to the Rescue"). Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1951.288

EnlargeFire banner after conservation

Fire banner after conservation, 1951

After the conservation of the fire banner. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1951.288

One year after Madison Fire Company No. 2 formed, the ladies of its relief association presented it with this silk banner. One side had been embroidered in gold thread with the company's name and the year 1857, the other side with "Wir Eilen um zu Retten," German for "We hurry to the rescue." The members of the company cherished the banner, which they considered a "sacred relic," using it primarily for parades and other social functions. In 1917, sixty years after it was made and long after the Company had disbanded, the four surviving members donated the banner along with trumpets, helmets, and record books to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

When Madison incorporated as a city in the spring of 1856, it had just experienced its first two major downtown fires. In his inaugural address Madison's first mayor, Jairus C. Fairchild, proclaimed that the city needed to be better prepared to fight such blazes. Within months, the City Council voted to buy two hand-pumped fire engines as well as land on Webster and State Streets for two fire companies, the Challenge Engine Company No. 1 (later Mendota Company No. 1) and Madison Fire Company No. 2. These companies, which were private and volunteer, organized along ethnic lines. Irish and "Yankee" men served in the Challenge Company, while Germans formed the Madison Company.

Prominent German residents organized Madison Fire Company No. 2 on June 23, 1856 with 61 of them signing the constitution a month later. Besides fighting fires, the company also served as a social and business organization for Madison's German community.

The original company existed for ten years. In 1866 a new mayor, Elisha W. Keyes, wanted Madison's fire companies to have the latest equipment — steam engines — and urged the City Council to replace the older ones. Against the advice of Fire Chief William Holt, the City Council decided to purchase a small, second-hand engine. A new company, E.W. Keyes Steam Engine Company No. 1, was created to run it. Both older companies complained that the new engine would make their hand-pumped engines obsolete. Madison Fire No. 2 refused to share the spotlight with the new engine and decided to disband on December 8, 1866. Many of its members moved to the Keyes Engine Company. Other remaining members formed the Relief Association, Madison No. 2, a primarily social and charitable organization that took no new members after the early 1870s.

Madison Fire Company No. 2 returned its hand-pumped engine to the city, which handed it over to another group of firemen who, rather confusingly, also called themselves Madison Fire Company No. 2. The latter version disbanded in 1870, when the city purchased a second steam engine (this time a large new one), and reformed as the Andrew Proudfit Engine Company No. 2. A few years later the city sold the hand-pumped engine to Sauk City.

After the Relief Association, which had maintained ownership of the silk banner, donated it in 1917, the banner remained relatively untouched in storage for almost ninety years. It had been tightly wound around a pole and when it was finally unrolled in 2003 the exposed 8-10 inches of fabric had badly deteriorated. At this time Fire Fighters Local 311 decided to step in and help "rescue" this banner and another from Madison Fire Company No. 2 dated 1869 by organizing fundraising efforts to conserve the banners.

Textile conservators began by separating the front of the banners from the back and removing the fringe. After vacuuming the flag, conservators soaked it in a bath of warm filtered water and anionic detergent. Once dry, the conservators pinned the flags to a board, and repaired the tears with "band-aids," actually strips of Beva 371 flocked organza (a lightweight, textured silk), that they heat set directly onto the fabric. Where there were fabric losses and holes, the conservators backed the flag with organza dyed to match. Finally the conservators placed the flags in custom-built, two-sided frames.

[Source: "Capital City Courage: A History of the Madison Fire Department, 1856-1991," (Madison, WI: M.F.D. History Book Committee, 1992).]


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Posted on July 27, 2006