The Village of Hilton, New York is located in northwestern Monroe County. It is part of the Town of Parma. The nearest large city is Rochester, 20 miles away.
The pioneer settler of the community was Jonathan Underwood, who arrived in 1805. Known for many years as Unionville, the village was incorporated in 1885 as North Parma. The name was changed to Hilton in 1896 in honor of the service of Reverend Charles Hilton, pastor of the Freewill Baptist Church.
The village was mainly a farming community until the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad was built through Unionville in 1876. The agrarian community, which was surrounded by orchards and known for many years as the “apple capital of Monroe County”, was now provided with fast and convenient shipping for its abundant produce. The population of the village increased along with manufacturing and commercial interests. Milling and fruit processing were the main industries while numerous stores and businesses were formed by local residents. The village grew and prospered through the years and the community has felt, and continues to feel, great pride for its local institutions including churches, businesses, schools and its fire department.
According to the 2000 census, the population of the village in that year was 5,856 persons.
Hilton and fire in the 19th century
The Parma area was first settled by pioneers in the 1790’s. Hilton was first settled in 1805. The first fire in the area was recorded around that time. These were the days before volunteer or paid fire companies were organized. Communities were on their own in fighting fires such as this. Neighbors working with limited equipment and water supplies were often unable to do more than watch as the flames destroyed their homes, barns and businesses. Most structures were of wooden frame construction. Barns were filled with hay, and were especially prone to becoming inflamed. The heat and light sources of the day were wood, coal, candles and kerosene, all occasionally sources of devastating fire.
The threat of loss of life due to fire was great. In the 19th century each villager was required to keep at least one fire bucket filled with water at the ready at all times, as bucket brigades were the only way to respond to an emergency. Even in neighboring Rochester, the 1817 regulations required property owners to keep fireplaces and chimneys in good repair and to supply their residential properties with fire buckets.
In 1877 the First Baptist Church building, on the northwest corner of Main and Hovey Streets was destroyed by fire despite the courdgeous efforts of the townspeople. It was becoming apparent that a better method of fighting fires was needed.
Organizing Hilton’s volunteers
Originally known as Unionville, the village of North Parma was incorporated in 1885 (the name was changed to Hilton in 1896). After the incorporation, village leaders decided to devise a better system than bucket brigades for fire protection.
Therefore, the North Parma Fire Co. was organized in 1888 and was officially incorporated on October 31, 1889. Equipment, purchased by the village the previous year, included leather buckets, ladders, hoses and a hand-pump engine.
In May of 1895 the North Parma Fire Co. faced its first major blaze at the Wright Block at the corner of East and South Avenues (later site of the Flatiron Building). The fire apparatus of the company proved to be insufficient to extinguish the flames. The fire spread and destroyed or damaged nearby buildings and homes. Citizens refused to give money to what they perceived as an ineffective fire protection company. People lost interest and the fire company became inactive.
In 1897 village leader John E. Cooper sought to re-establish the unorganized, if not non-existent, fire department. Cooper organized the Hilton Fire Department into three fire companies: E.M. Upton Engine Co., Rescue Hook & Ladder Co. and Barnes Hose Co. Cooper also became the first fire chief, serving in this position from 1897-1899, 1903, 1904 and 1907-1910.
The new department used the old apparatus from the North Parma Fire Co. and they also began purchasing new equipment, including uniforms. The department also started having fire drills so that the fire fighters, all of whom were volunteers, could practice with their equipment. In 1923 the three separate companies were organized into one. The Hilton Fire Department was incorporated in 1928.
When studying the types of fire equipment in use throughout the years, consider how the advances of technology changed the way in which fire fighters could fight fires. In the beginning fire fighters relied on bucket brigades. The importance of getting water and equipment to a fire as quickly as possible made technology like water supply systems, motorized trucks and other inventions especially welcome to Hilton’s fire fighters. Of course, all this technology would cost money and new fire engines and equipment would need to be stored somewhere!
Hand pumpers and creeks
Without a water supply system, early fire fighters relied largely on natural water sources, such as lakes, ponds, rivers and creeks, to provide enough water to quench a fire. Getting the water to the scene of a fire required the muscle power of many men using hand pumpers.
The fire department becomes modernized
In 1915, fire hydrants were installed in the Village, providing a reliable water supply to fight fires. In 1923, the department received its first motorized fire truck, a new Pierce-Arrow. Since then, the department has purchased a series of increasingly modern vehicles on an as-needed basis. The need to store the equipment led to the building of fire halls.
Building fire halls: the five locations
The development of fire halls shows the growth of the department, as is seen in the following timeline.
1888 – The barn of Mrs. William Pickett was rented for $12 per year as a place to store the department’s equipment. Louise Curtis also provided some storage space around 1891.
1892 – The village bought the old schoolhouse that was built in 1853 on West Avenue and moved it to 62 East Avenue where it was used as the village hall. It also housed the jail and the fire department’s apparatus.
1912 – A combined village and fire hall was built at 12 East Avenue. This building was destroyed in the 1965 Main Street Fire and was razed shortly thereafter.
1957 – A new fire hall was built for the Hilton Fire Department with the help of the membership on South Avenue
2009- The newest and most modern hall was built and opened in May 2009. It is located at 120 Old Hojack Lane and functions as a fire house and community crisis/emergency center.
Raising the money
As a volunteer organization, the Hilton Fire Department has always searched for ways to reach out to the public for financial support. This picture is from the 1901 Field Day, which may have been the first fund-raiser for the department. Field Day was expanded into a three-day carnival in 1930, and became the Firemen’s Fair in 1950. In more recent years it was renamed the Hilton Firemen’s Carnival and it became a four-day event.
Although the village unfortunately suffered many losses from more than its fair share of fires throughout the years, the citizens never again lost faith in their fire department. Hilton residents still support the department through fundraisers, parades and the carnival.
The Hilton Fire Department was the first fire department in Monroe County to sponsor a volunteer ambulance service, in 1936.
In 2017 the Hilton Fire Department permanently suspended operations of the volunteer ambulance service and moved to contracting Greece Volunteer Ambulance (GVA) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This decision, though painful for the dedicated members of the ambulance corp, was ultimately made in order to better serve the community of Hilton.
According to Don Stilson in his book on the fire department, in 1950 Cora Cox became the first Hilton fire dispatcher when the local telephone office closed and she and her son Frank were asked to continue the fire alarm service from their home on South Ave . Radio equipment was installed in the home. Fire calls were received at the Cox home and immediately the Hilton Fire Department was alerted. Then Cord (“Grammy”) would notify the Fire Bureau in Rochester that Hilton is answering a call and to stand-by in case additional help was needed. After Mrs. Cox passed away in 1964, a series of dedicated dispatchers took her place.
The Ladies Auxiliary of the Hilton Fire Department was organized in 1925. The charter members of the group took over officially what had previously been an informal way of providing food and drink at the scene of fires.
In addition to bringing snacks and coffee at an incident scene, the Ladies Auxiliary has also served Hilton Volunteers meals after fires. They also interact with neighboring F.D Auxiliary. In order to support this work and other projects, the Ladies Auxiliary has held many fund-raising events over the years. They have also marched with the fire fighters during parades.
In May, 1973 the Hilton Fire Department Explorer Post #911 of the Boy Scouts of America was formed. The Fire Department sponsors this organization of young people to teach them Firematics and methods of fire safety, preparing them to become future firefighters. They are crucial support for the welfare of firefighters at major incident scenes. The young people range in age 14 to 21 years. Explorers meet every Wednesday night at 7pm.