The History of Joliet – Chapter 21

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The city had a volunteer fire department, which formed bucket brigades that often arrived too late to save a structure.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

With the rapid growth in Joliet after the Civil War, new homes and businesses were being constructed all over the city. But there was an old enemy to face:


John Dean PAIGE was appointed to battle the fires in Joliet.

Wood burning stoves and fireplaces, which often created emergency situations, were essential in the cold Illinois weather. The city had a volunteer fire department, which formed bucket brigades that often arrived too late to save a structure.

In 1865, the city bought two hand-operated pumpers that could be pulled by men or horses. Two years later, the city bought its first steamer. This steam engine on wheels propelled a piston pump that built up water pressure.

There was a lookout tower on the roof of the fire house on Bluff Street. A watchman in the tower was kept on duty to spot smoke. If he spotted smoke, he hammered a big brass gong calling for volunteers.

The volunteers would bring their own horses to the station to haul the steamer and a pumper to the fire. The city didn’t own its own fire horses.

But everything changed in 1877 when PAIGE was appointed as the city’s fire marshal at a salary of $200 a year. The new fire chief’s job was to create a full time fire department.

PAIGE, who was known by his initials J.D., was already a successful businessman with a bottling business located along Merchants Row on Bluff street. He bottled fruit flavored water under pressure using carbonic acid gas to make soda pop.

He had showed up in Joliet as a 20year-old from Jefferson County, Wis. in 1857. PAIGE had walked all the way here, arriving with one single dollar left in his pocket.

“Although the young city of Joliet was scarcely older than himself, it gave him the glad hand, took him to its heart, put him to work, and as was his proud boast, he kept at it ever afterward,” wrote Adele Fay WILLIAMS, a newspaper historian.

With city alderman approval after being appointed fire chief, PAIGE changed the fire department from volunteer to paid. He hired 21 firefighters, which gave each of the two fire engines nine men with three assigned to hook and ladders.

A new fire alarm system was installed with seven boxes in the city. There were two big 16-inch gongs installed at the two engine houses. And PAIGE bought city fire horses that were trained and kept in harness ready at each fire house.

But the new paid fire department lost in the first fire it fought on May 11, 1877. A frame house on Webster Street burned down. The firemen couldn’t find enough water from a nearby pond.

But with better training and planning, that all changed. In 1878, one year after the department went full time, Joliet’s firefighters took a first place award in Chicago at the National Fireman’s Tournament. They were faster in putting out fires in burning buildings than any department at the tournament.

The prizes they brought home from Chicago included three cash awards totaling $525 and an elaborate silver set.

George H. WOODRUFF, a local historian, wrote in his 1878 county history book, “In a word, the fire department, under Chief PAIGE, is as perfect as in any of the large cities.”

Through the years, J.D. PAIGE also served as mayor, police chief, township supervisor and township assessor. One story told about him when he was police chief happened on Collins Street, which was known as Whiskey Row because of the saloons.

One night while he was patrolling Whiskey Row, he ran into a gang of toughs. They disarmed him, removed his clothing and put him inside a piano, which was nailed shut. Fortunately, he was found by a couple of his officers.

PAIGE had learned the bottling business when he first arrived in Joliet. His first job here was working for the John HICKEY bottling works on Pine Street.

He saved his money and bought that business in 1861. That’s when he returned to Wisconsin and married his sweetheart, Ruth Angel VAIL. They raised their eight children in Joliet.

PAIGE eventually opened bottling businesses in Braidwood, Grand Rapids, Mich. and Marshalltown, Iowa. Although he is believed to have been the first to bottle soda pop, he never patented the process.

He was also involved in bringing the first telephones to Joliet.

Although he wore many hats in Joliet, J.D. PAIGE is best known for being the city’s first fire chief. He built the first professional fire department in the city. In 1916, PAIGE died at the age of 79.

Published August 18, 2001