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Chief Nancy

Anne Crawford "Nancy" Allen Holst
The Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Department

By Anne D. Holst


Chief Nancy Allen entered the fire business in 1931, not as a “spark” seeking the thrill of chasing fires, but for the serious purpose of preventing waste and destruction caused every spring and autumn by forest fires which swept over Cedar Hill, her family’s estate at Cowesett, about 10 miles south of Providence.

“Chief Nancy,” as she was known to the fire-fighting fraternity, drove the heavy fore engine herself, its screaming siren clearing a path to all fires in her district and stood shoulder to shoulder with her men through long hours of heart-breaking toil in choking smoke-filled atmospheres.

She bought a second-hand truck and, with the help of friends and neighbors whom she organized into a company of volunteers, she stripped it to the chassis and installed a complete up-to-date outfit of fire equipment capable of handling both forest and dwelling house blazes.

The finished fire engine, which equaled municipally owned apparatus both in smart appearance and mechanical performance, carried more than a thousand feet of fire hose and two motor driven pumps.  One of the pumps was portable to be carried deep into the woods to fight the fire on its own grounds rather than wait for the flames to reach a road or open space where the engine could be parked.  A complete assortment of shovels, brooms, buckets, pump cans, extinguishers and other light equipment guaranteed the usefulness of the engine at any fire.  Knowing the tremendous hazards that even modern fire departments, of the day, often encountered at night fires from lack of illumination, she equipped her truck with a 110-volt generator that supplied current through 500 feet of cable to a battery of three portable 200-watt floodlights.

The headquarters of the Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Company is located in a tiny white shed, a scant 50 yards from the chief’s home.  Built to copy an old-fashioned country engine house, the building has a hose-tower rising above one corner and a regular brass alarm bell suspended outside.

Chief Nancy is known as the 1st Woman Fire Chief in the World.  During the time she served in forestry and fire fighting she was credited with saving dozens of lives.  The Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Department Experiment Station tested forest fire fighting techniques and equipment and produced several articles.  During the late 1930s and early 1940s, she worked for the Rhode Island Forest Fire Service as the Southern Rhode Island Forest Fire Warden.

The Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Department went out of service on October 26, 1957, as recorded on the chalkboard kept in the engine house.  The 1928 Dodge-Graham fire truck was parked in its’ usual spot in the engine house, and the doors were closed.  Almost fifty years later, on October 15, 2005, the truck was started again, with the assistance of the members of the Rhode Island Antique Fire Apparatus Society (RIAFAS).

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