By Frederick J. Bowlen,
Battalion Chief San Francisco Fire Department 1938
Next to the dog and elephant, the horse ranks in sagacity and intelligence. History teems with instances well attested of their superiority in all animal faculties of perception that are not engrossed by creation's lord—man. Indeed, there are records besides those of Holy Writ where man has succumbed to the horse and ass in fore-knowledge of danger and obedience.
Horses that were sent from distant parts of the city to the stables to be shod sometimes distrusted the strange place and would break away and make their way directly back to their own firehouse. You couldn't lose them or confuse them either.
Others would never lie down and for years were known to sleep standing up and always alert and ready for the "gong." One such horse was not known to lie down for fifteen years—fifteen years on his feet, that old chap. However, he was given periodic rests and "time out" in the paddock at the Department stables, where he would roll and stretch at full length in the soft sand, seeming to thoroughly enjoy his well earned recreation.
The Department officials realized the value of rest to the well-being of the horses and accommodations were provided at the stables for tired or overworked horses. In a number of instances that I can recall horses sent there for well earned vacations really seemed to be bored with continual inactivity and appeared to be expectantly awaiting the sound of the fire "gong." Some of these loyal beasts of burden were actually known to steal away in the night and make their way back to their respective stations.
And, as in all rules, there follows the proverbial exception in the form of one horse that decided upon the time for his rest when the guard rope at the door was accidentally let down. He went out of the firehouse at night and made his way to the Department stables where he calmly lay down for the rest which he felt he needed or possibly had earned. His action was sustained. Horses have exceedingly good memories. In the darkest nights they will find their way homeward if they have but once passed over the road; they will recognize their old masters after a pause of many years and those that were in the Fire Department would suddenly become inspired at the sight of Fire Department array and rush to join the ranks, remembering not only their old uniforms, but their own places in the company.
The funniest of all are the three incidents I can remember of the efforts of three old firehorses to return to active duty in their specialized profession after having been sold into less attractive bondage.
One of these, a big gray horse that had turned white with the years, had been sold to a rag man. One day he was plodding along disconsolately to the droning accompaniment of his master's song, "Ra-a-gs, bo-o-tt-les, sa-a-acks—" when he suddenly snapped into real action at the sound of an engine and hose wagon. In a split second that old horse had answered the call and both he and the rag man were on their way to the fire and there was no holding him.
With a momentary restoration of youth, power and speed, the good old firehorse had responded to the summons he knew so well, and had never yet disregarded, even though rags flew in all directions and pedestrians narrowly escaped injury from flying bottles. His ashen-faced driver clung desperately to the reins while he was being whisked around corners and up and down hills, all his sacks waving like flags about him as they fell to the ground. When they finally reached the scene of the fire, the horse stopped and stood at attention awaiting action or orders. He had done his part.
Another veteran firehorse had been bought at auction by a wholesale vegetable man. This self-esteemed and still lively firehorse was pulling a wagon load of vegetables down one of the streets when he heard the fire engines turn out. With decorum, obedience and vegetables thrown to the winds, the old timer responded with all that was in him. There was a fire—that was enough! He was on his way with the driver while the vegetables were on their way in many different directions.
Of all the nicknames ever given a firehorse I think the name Bollocky Hop took the prize. This was a long range bay horse quartered at Engine Company No. 9; at 320 Main Street, near Harrison. Across the street from this engine house was the Sailor's Home which was surrounded by a large green lawn.
Bollocky Hop was one of the horses who soon learned that by kicking the iron post alongside his stall, he could release the "let-go" chain in front and thereby wander about the house. Many times he played this prank and would steal quietly out of the engine house and across the street to feed on the green lawn of the sailor's home. About two o'clock one morning an alarm was received and when the boys went to hitch up the team one of the horses was missing. He was across the street nibbling on the green lawn. When the men would go after him he would willingly return to quarters.
He was finally sold at auction after many years of fire service to a sausage manufacturer who used him with his delivery wagon about town. This delivery wagon was standing in front of a store at Post and Fillmore Streets one day and the teamster had just taken a basket of sausages into the store and left the rear door of the wagon open while he was inside.
Truck Company No. 5, whose quarters were at 1819 Post Street near Webster, responded to an alarm from Post and Baker Streets and passed the sausage wagon and the old firehorse at Fillmore Street. In an instant the old horse was galloping alongside the swiftly moving fire apparatus with strings of sausages flying out the rear end of the wagon into the street.
At the scene of the fire, the firemen recognized old Bollocky Hop and returned him to his owner none the worse for his experience. The owner of the sausage wagon took the matter good naturedly and said he could get plenty of good sausage meat at any time, but he doubted if he could ever get another horse as good as old Bollocky Hop.
Many interesting anecdotes might be recited which place the retentive powers of the horse in a highly pleasing and creditable light.
On To Chapter VII
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