Last fall, I had the privilege of covering the Forest Park Fire Department’s coat drive. It was a heart-warming event (body-warming too), with firefighters and their families going all out to make needy kids and their parents feel welcome. I never dreamed the event would provide a connection to my own family history.
One of the firefighters told me they had found the department’s old horse harness apparatus. It was discovered in a room at the top of the firehouse. He showed me the machinery and an advertisement they had found with it.
I was blown away. The ad, dated June 9, 1908, contained an endorsement issue by my great-grandfather, Chicago Fire Marshal James Horan. “Big Jim,” as he was called, extolled the virtues of James A. Kennedy, who held the patent for “Kennedy’s Automatic Harness Holder and Hanger.”
The swinging harness was not just used for fire department horses. Police patrols and ambulances were also equipped with them. Big Jim estimated that the Chicago Fire Department had 500 sets of Kennedy’s harnesses in service.
I don’t know if my great-grandfather was paid for his endorsement, but he certainly believed in the product. Prior to Kennedy’s invention, fire department horses had to endure being in harness all day, ready for the engine company to push out to a fire. It took a toll on the animals and Big Jim was a horse lover and humanitarian in every sense.
When he took over the department in 1906, he immediately launched a program to build new firehouses. A handball enthusiast, he installed courts in these firehouses to keep his men in shape. He also provided the men with more comfortable beds. His most significant improvement, though, was to add an extra man to each company, so that firefighters finally had a day off.
Then he turned his attention to his hard-working horses. They had to haul heavy loads and withstand intense heat. During one massive fire, horses had to drag fire engines over railroad tracks, to reach the Chicago River to siphon water. To make the horses more comfortable at the firehouse, Big Jim had the swinging harness installed.
This harness was suspended from the ceiling and dropped down when the alarm sounded. It could be quickly fastened and allowed for a faster pushout, critical for catching a fire in its early stages. As the inventor said, buyers will receive the “satisfaction of seeing your horses and harness in trim and the saving on both will more than repay you for the expense.”
Forest Park’s horse-drawn days are long gone, but the fire department has photographs of horses hauling a fire engine. The fire department’s historian, Miguel Casanova, also found a section of flooring that was ribbed to make it easier for the horses to gain traction. He showed me where the harness had been found, in the hayloft atop the hose tower. There was a skinny wooden ladder leading to the loft, which I declined to climb.
Miguel has no such fear of heights. He is dedicated to uncovering the department’s history. He collects artifacts, like the badges the department wore through the decades. He also records interviews with retired firefighters. His latest discovery was a safe filled with fire department documents from the distant past.
However, information on the horse-drawn days is sketchy at best. The old timers remember the horses were named “Tom and Jerry” but not much else. Miguel will continue to dig, though, because he loves history.
I applaud his efforts. And I’m grateful that I went to a coat drive and came away with a family keepsake.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.