August 2, 2010

Racine secrets: Fire dogs rest along Root River bank

By Randolph D. Brandt

They were just dogs, but they were special dogs (as if any dog, to any dog owner, could be anything less than special).

They were Dalmatians, the black-and-white spotted dogs that traditionally ran alongside horse-drawn fire apparatus, originally to help keep the horses in line.

There was something about Dalmatians that calmed horses, kept them cool when the action got hot. So, naturally, they became the ubiquitous fire dogs associated with fire departments.

For some reason shadowed in the distant past, Dalmatians became associated with horses, working dogs that helped herd horses, much as other breeds became canine nursemaids to sheep.

Dalmatians are strong, muscular dogs, able to run long distances without tiring. They could match the endurance of, say, a horse. Thus, during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when travel usually depended upon horsepower, Dalmatians came into their own. They became “coach dogs,” taking up a position to the side and slightly to the rear of harnessed horses to run with them, helping guide them wherever they were supposed to go.

Unlike horses, which are often spooked by such distractions as clanging bells and other commotion, these determined dogs seemed unmindful of distraction, fully capable of pacing their equine charges toward locations where they were needed most – the scene of a blazing building, for example.

Thus, around firehouses, the dogs earned their keep.

When they died, they earned something else. Here in Racine, they earned a decent burial next to Fire House No. 5, at 300 Fourth St., adjacent to the then-Fourth Street bridge, near Fourth and Wisconsin Avenue.

Firemen kept Dalmatians around firehouses long after fire equipment went from real horsepower to the horsepower measurement of internal combustion engines in gasoline- and diesel-powered fire trucks. They were good watchdogs, but, more than that they were good friends. Lifelong friends.

When life ended, they were collected from the different firehouses in the city and returned to Fire House No. 5, a pretty, quiet spot along the bank of the river.

There, they were interred, down the hill a little ways, under a tree, in a plot once outlined by old railroad ties, some stone and bricks.

Old Fire House No. 5 is gone, long dilapidated, then torn down in an expansion for the Journal Times’ distribution center, but its “R.F.D. 5” fa├žade remains tastefully incorporated into the decorative fence along the west side of Wisconsin Avenue, a lasting reminder of the historic firehouse that stood on the corner for 100 years.

Unknown to almost everyone, beneath the southwest corner of the parking lot, near a fittingly contemplative bench, next to the retaining wall … sleeping dogs lie.

 Racine Fire House No. 5
Randolph D. Brandt is the retired editor of the Journal Times.

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