The mystery of the noon whistle in Troy, Alabama

Published 7:27 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

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In 1980, Jean Rausch was a staff writer for the Troy Messenger and wrote many interesting articles about the people, places and unique features of Pike County.       

If you really want to investigate  a mystery, try to find out when a noon whistle first blew in Troy.

Dianne Smith

Dianne Smith

It may have been before Troy was a city.  It certainly seems to be beyond the memory of the city’s senior citizens.

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Today, it blows from the city Fire Department.  At one time, it seems to have originated from the old courthouse, although there is some disagreement there.

Certainly, in years past, a noon whistle was blown at the Troy Crate and Veneer Company, Whaley Lumber Company, Standard Chemical Company, Henderson, Black and Greene and the sawmills around town.

According to the best memories, all of them had steam whistles which blew at 5 a.m. to wake the employees so they could get ready for work at 6, at noon so they could stop and eat lunch and a 6 p.m. to tell them their work day was ended.

The tradition of blowing the fire whistle at noon began with Ernest T. Freeman, who was superintendent of the city Light and Water Department for 40 years, starting in about 1900.

Freeman suggested the city blow the fire whistle at noon each day as a test to make sure it was still working.  His son, George Miles Freeman, recalled that the old Fire Department was located in the same building with the Light and Water Department on the corner of College and Oak Streets, where the Auction Barn is now.

When George Freeman was in high school, he slept at the fire department, sharing duties with Joe Gunter, and drove the big American-LaFrance fire truck when a fire was reported during the night.  Gunter blew the noon whistle back then.

“Not many people could drive in those days,” Freeman recalled.  The year was about 1916.

The driver, from time to time, pushed pedals at his feet, which rang a gong to let the townspeople know the fire wagon was on its way.

Of course, in those days, Probate Judge Ben Reeves commented,  they might not have a fire for a month or so.  That was the reason, when they got the new whistle, they decided to blow it at noon each day to be sure it wouldn’t stick in an emergency.

The new whistle was first installed at the firehouse on College and Oak.  Later, the station was moved to the corner of Oak and Walnut, where the back lawn of the First United Methodist Church is now.  J. L. Massey, who was the fire chief from 1962-1969, said the fire siren used now is at least the third one.

Although he grew up in the Hephzibah community, which was then a rural area Massey also remembers those fire horses, and the steam pumper used to pump the water for a fire.

While the horses were being harnessed, he recalled, the firemen would fire up that boiler from a fire laid and ready underneath it.  By the time they reached the fire, he said, the thin metal boiler was hot and steaming to produce the energy to pump the water onto the fire.

The only time he recalled the fire siren being blown other than at fires and at noon each day, Massey said, was when World war II ended.  Although, he said, he thought it had been blown at other very special occasions.

A. B. Tillery, present Troy fire chief, said he can’t remember when there wasn’t a noon whistle in Troy.  There have been times, though, he said, when every man would be out on a fire and there would be no one at the station to blow the noon whistle.

Most of the time, though, you can set your watch by it.  As noon rolls around, some firemen at the Troy station is going to reach out his hand and push the button that signals the hour.

Merrill Faircloth estimated that the fire siren was installed about the same time the new truck arrived.  Before that, he recalled, a bell rang to signal a fire.

“It was a big bell,” he said, “and you could hear it at least a mile.  It called the volunteers to the fire department, and most of the volunteers worked downtown.”

The early Troy volunteer fire company was called the Charles Henderson Fire Company.  It’s first fire vehicle was a four-wheel cart with a pump, pulled by the firemen to the site of the fire.   Obviously, they couldn’t go too far.  A fire away from the downtown area was destined to burn itself out.

Later, though, the fire department acquired a horse-drawn “hose wagon” and two white horses,  Faircloth remembered.

Bill Murphree remembered the names of the horses, “Dan” and “Prince.”  He said “they were beautiful, well-trained horses.  I guess they were put to pasture when the motor-driven fire truck arrived.

At first, Murphree said, Troy citizens were not so sure the fire truck was an improvement.  “After they got the motor-driven engine,” he said, “the fire alarm would go off and they’d have to start the truck with a cold engine.  Sometimes, they couldn’t get it up the hill.”

Every boy in Troy, however, must have loved those fire horses, and must have watched the way that they were put into harnesses when the fire alarm rang.

At the sound of that giant bell, Dan and prince would move with precision from their stalls into their places under the hanging harness, suspended from the ceiling of the fire house.  The harness would be dropped on them and the hame strings would be tied. It was all over in a moment and they were ready and pawing to the fire.

Faircloth recalled how smoothly those horses rode, pulling the wagon with what seemed no effort, their big shoulder muscles bunched, their manes flying, their heads high.

All of these articles can be found in previous editions of The Troy Messenger.  Stay tuned for more.  Dianne Smith is the President of the Pike County Historical, Genealogical and Preservation Society.