Old Forms of Power

This description of volunteer firemen associations is intriguing.

“They were essentially fraternal orders . . . They had also been political organizations since the 1830s”
~ Leonard L. Richards (See more at end of post.)

American society and politics used to be dominated by such associations. I’ve written about some of them before. They were powerful organizations that were at times forces for good and at other times merely forces of local power.

I wonder how much of that world has survived into present-day. Many of those kinds of associations have disappeared. But I know that at least a few, like Kiwanis, have grown and gone international.

More specifically, I was wondering about the volunteer firemen associations. There are still many volunteer firemen in small towns and rural areas.

For example, in nearby West Branch, IA, they use volunteers. It is a small town, but it isn’t as poor as most small towns in the area, because a section of the town is part of well-funded county. They had enough money to build a quite expensive fire station, partly used as a clubhouse, and added an extension for an inside wash area, mostly used to wash their personal vehicles.

From what I understand, the West Branch volunteer firemen have a lot of power and influence in that town, such as getting funds directed their way, even as the sidewalks are crumbling. Also, I’ve been told that the volunteer firemen form a multi-generational legacy of volunteers, which makes one wonder about the process for getting approved as a member.

These are the remaining old families that still hold much sway. The last fire chief, Dick Stoolman, only stepped down because of a promise that his son, Kevin Stoolman, would take over. To quote his exact words, “I wouldn’t give it up unless he got it.” Old School nepotism, how quaintly charming.

It’s not as if holding power in a town of a couple of thousand is all that significant in the big scheme of things. But it is interesting as an example of how old forms of power can persist.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 458-466

Both were old New York firemen, Broderick as a member of Howard Engine Company No. 34 and Kohler as an assistant engineer of the New York Volunteer Fire Department and a member of Protection Engine No. 5. In New York, as well as other eastern cities, volunteer fire companies did more than fight fires. They were also the premier social clubs in working-class neighborhoods. They were essentially fraternal orders with their own badges, mottoes, and initiation procedures. They tried to outdo one another in staging prizefights, dogfights, dances, parades, and an occasional formal ball. They had also been political organizations since the 1830s, initially used by elite politicians to get out the vote, but now used as a voice for men like themselves. Out of their ranks would come six mayors of the city.39

For Broderick, as well as many others, service as a fireman had been a stepping-stone to a political career. Shortly after he joined the Howard Company, one of the oldest in New York, he had been elected foreman, even though he was not yet old enough to vote.

Kindle Locations 547-555

Simultaneously, and more important to Broderick, he became a force in San Francisco politics. Money never mattered much to him. He was a bachelor with no kin. His personal expenses were modest. He just wanted enough money so that he didn’t have to worry about it. But political power was a different matter. The more he had, the better. Here again he had the help of Stevenson, along with some of Stevenson’s disbanded New York Volunteers. Together, they introduced a modification of the Tammany system into San Francisco.

The system, as they fashioned it, depended heavily on volunteer fire companies. Fires were common in San Francisco, far more so than in New York, and they were far more dangerous, as they wiped out not just a building or two but buildings, shacks, and tents in all directions. So firemen in San Francisco were heroes with plenty of work to do. Broderick did more than his share and in one fire, in particular, distinguished himself by his bravery. But he never regarded his company and others as just firefighters. He made sure that they functioned also as political clubs, getting out the vote on Election Day and providing a training ground for up-and-coming politicians.

3 thoughts on “Old Forms of Power

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s