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Exempt Firemen

There was another branch of the Fire Department in the olden days that few persons know much about. That was the Exempt Firemen, an organization unto itself.

The Volunteers were the men who gave their services as firemen without compensation from the city from 1849 to 1866. In 1866 the Volunteers went out of service, being replaced by a paid department.

On March 25, 1853, the State Legislature passed an act exempting members of the Fire Department throughout the State from military service and from jury duty, and later members of the department who availed themselves of this exemption formed an exempt organization whose specific purpose was to provide for the widows and orphans of firemen who might lose their lives in the line of duty.  Later an Exempt Fire Company was formed which was exclusively a social organization.

In the 1862 annual Chief's Engineer's Report (Municipal Reports, page 154), dated July 28th, David Scannell stated regarding the Exempt Fire Company, “This is a Company organized by an Act of the Legislature, and composed entirely of men who have served out their full time. Although the law provides for a house and engine for the Company, yet your honorable body have refused to furnish the same.  I earnestly hope that some action will be taken to provide them with such as according to law they have a right to demand.”


Exempt Firehouse Sitting Room

On May 12, 1863, the Exempts were given the old house of the Manhattan Engine Company, No. 2, on the south side of Jackson Street, east of Kearny. The Manhattan Company had moved to O'Farrell Street above Dupont, now Grant. The membership of the Exempts then totaled 272, and was comprised of many notable and prominent public men.

When Montgomery Street was cut through, the Exempt Firehouse on Jackson Street was destroyed, whereupon application was made for use of the old Monumental Engine House on Brenham Place, opposite Portsmouth Square. This was obtained and used until the great fire of 1906 (when it was destroyed.)

When the department was reorganized in 1866 and its members were paid and forced to live in the firehouses, the Volunteers went out of existence, but it was provided by the city that all persons who had been volunteers up to that date might become Exempts. All who cared to do this, however, had to exercise the right within one year.

The Exempts continued to keep alive the traditions of the Volunteers after 1866, rendering yeoman duty and always ready to volunteer for any service. Their only reward was the thanks of the people of the city. They had certainly earned it.

The Fire Department long before 1866 had come to be looked upon as the savior of the city, as in truth it really was. Early in the city's history there had been no insurance companies or agencies, and as a result business men were totally without security except that furnished by these gallant men who risked everything and even gave their lives that the city might build to greatness.


On March 7, 1866, the Exempt Fire Company was duly incorporated. It then had 1226 members. There could be no recruiting under the law, and when each succeeding member passed on, his vacated place was left unfilled, for there were no eligibles. Today all are dead.

After the Exempts moved into the Brenham Place house they set about making a permanent and fitting home. Here the members passed pleasant days and nights, here they loved to linger, either in the doorway facing the plaza or in the large lounging room, fighting again in reminiscence the battles of the past.

Here the listener might hear of the days when the old machine was "man's first love." He might hear also how the sound of the fire bell was sweet music to the old volunteer, who so loved his engine that he would sit on the curbstone and weep if she were badly beaten in a race.

Here, too, Fire Chief Dave Scannell,  who had been one of the chief engineers with George H. HossefrossFrank Whitney and others, used to drop in on his old comrades and tell tales of the old days. Scannell could relate how he ran to fires in New York with Protection No. 5, way back in the '30s. His description of the scenes on the old Bowery when an alarm was sounded from the Third district was something to hear.

Others might tell upon the genius of Frank Chanfrau, the actor, in the character of Mose. They could remember the first performance of Chanfrau in the New York Olympia Theater in February of 1848, and also the original from whose activities the stage character of Mose had come.

How the audience had roared its approval when Chanfrau, in a red shirt, his trousers tucked into boots and carrying a loud checkered coat and wearing a plug hat bordered with crepe made his appearance. Chanfrau, with a stub of cigar pointing from his mouth to his nose, would imitate Mose: "Ah ain't agoin' to run wid dat masheen no more," and pull the cigar from his mouth, spitting with exaggerated elegance.

Then another member would perhaps dilate on the liberality of Pennsylvania Company, No. 12, on Jackson Street near Kearny, the members of which, in true San Francisco spirit, sent $5000 to Philadelphia for the best machine that could be made. And later, fearing this amount would not be enough sent an additional $2000. The engine manufacturing company, not knowing what all the money was for, wrote to ask. The reply was: "Melt up the extra and stick the gold and silver on the engine anywhere and make her shine." Which was done.

By: Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief, S. F. F. D. (1939)

Exempt Fire Company – “Retired” department members

1862 Officers
Geo. H. HOSSEFROSS, President
Wm. S. O'BRIEN, Vice President
Geo. J. HOBE, Secretary
John S. ELLIS, Treasurer
Wm. W. HANEY, Executive Committee
M. E. FITZLIBBON, Executive Committee
Wm. F. CANHAM, Executive Committee
1864 Officers
President – vacant
John Short, St. – vice president
George J. Hopp – Secretary
James H. Cutter – Treasurer
Number of Members – 207

1866 Officers
William McKibbin – President
M. F. Fitz Gibbon – Vice-President
William Martin – Secretary
James H. Cutter - Treasurer
Number of Members - 382

San Francisco Exempts Visit Stockton

In September, 1892, the Exempts of San Francisco, eighty in number, paid the Stockton Fire Department a visit.  They brought with them a light double-deck engine and the First Cavalry Band. The entire Stockton department marched to the steamer to receive the visitors and escort them to the Protection house where their engine was housed, then to the engine house for breakfast.  Then followed a parade through the streets, the Stockton firemen 100 strong, manning the ropes of the old Weber steam fire engine. During the afternoon the Exempts were shown around the city. That evening they were tendered a banquet at the Yosemite House, John P. Doyle, the chairman, introduced James H. Budd, president of the Stockton board of delegates, who in a few words introduced the mayor of Stockton, W. R. Clark, who extended the greeting of the city to the Exempts. Old fire songs were sung by several of the San Francisco firemen, including the old timers, "The Engine House on Hill," and "When We Ran With the Old Machine," the banquet ending with "He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

There was no exempt firemen's organization in Stockton until 1895. Long before this time there were hundreds of exempts in Stockton, the law declaring every fireman an exempt after five years' continuous service. Many of the exempts remained as members of their company, but the most of them retired, The Webers honored their exempts July 4, 1870, by presenting them with a beautiful silk banner. The exempts assembled November 2, 1895, and incorporated by electing John T. Doyle, president, and Nicholas Vizelich, James Ford, John T. Field and Henry Rohrbacker, directors. The following signed the roll as charter members, Ben F. Kolberg, Joseph Klack, John T. Doyle, Henry L. Culkin, R. S. Ellsworth, R. E. Murray, W. B. Wollam, Michael Brisco, Henry Robinson, Charles E. Venilli, Henry Rohrbacker, James M. Brown, Henry Ford, Eli Confer, Charles M. Aaron, C. P. Wolf, J. C. Zignego, E. F. Weber, Wm. Dorcey, J. F. Field, L. J. Gerlach, Gus Gianelli, Jack Hampton, Charles Hamilton, and Michael Gough. The members obtained from San Francisco an old hand engine, at a cost of $150. Upon each side of the box was the name Broderick No. 1. It was so named after the death of D. C. Broderick, who was the foreman of the company at that time. The Exempts endeavored to preserve all of the historic associations of the department, such as fire hats, belts, hat fronts, badges, banners and pictures presented to them by the firemen of other cities, but they received no encouragement from the city council or private citizens. One set of four pictures given to them in February, 1867, by Chief Engineer David Scannell of San Francisco, are very valuable at the present time, as they show four different fire scenes in the days of the hand fire engines. Even the Exempts are passing and today a few only are left.

History of San Joaquin County, California with Biographical Sketches - Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, CA - 1923

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