The oldest continuously-operating volunteer fire department is celebrating a birthday on Saturday, and it’s located right here in South Jersey.
The Relief Fire Company was founded in 1752 in Bridgetown, which is known as Mount Holly today.
To many firefighters in the company, it’s a point of pride that the volunteer firefighting tradition has been preserved for more than 250 years.
“It’s neat to see back then and even today, tough as it is, we still have people who want to volunteer and dedicate their lives to protect lives and property in their community,” said part-time fire inspector Carl Shaw.
Founded before the Revolutionary War, the unit was initially called the Britannia Fire Company in deference to England. But after America gained independence, officials changed the name first to the Mount Holly Fire Company, before finally settling on the name Relief Fire Company.
It was one of many fire departments that cropped up in mid-18th century America.
“Up and down the East Coast, all your major cities — Boston, New York, Philly, Charleston, Baltimore — they all had fire companies. And who was the founder? Benjamin Franklin,” said Shaw.
There was no municipal plumbing in Relief’s early days, so firefighters hung leather buckets filled with water outside their homes in case they needed to douse a blaze.
Today volunteerism remains at the heart of Relief’s mission, but Shaw says it can be a difficult tradition to preserve.
“When you volunteer your time and effort to save somebody’s life or their property — to me that’s everything,” he said.
“But with today’s economics, it’s very hard. The training alone for these students to go through to be a volunteer firefighter — you’re talking well over 120 hours. And that’s just basic firefighting.”
According to Shaw, the country’s second-oldest volunteer fire company in continuous service is Haddon Fire Company, in nearby Haddonfield.