From the Office of Historic Alexandria
ALEXANDRIA, VA – The Friendship Firehouse Festival is Saturday, August 5. Join us on the 100 block of South Alfred Street from 9 am to 2 pm and celebrate Friendship’s 249th year. Learn about fire safety today and yesterday, and see Alexandria Fire Department equipment up close.
There will be booths by the Alexandria Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, music performances, displays by community organizations, vendor booths, and food and beverage sales. Join in water play and please-touch artifact activities. Children will receive free toy Friendship firefighting helmets. The Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association and the Office of Historic Alexandria are presenting this family event.
The Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774, was the first fire company in Alexandria. The Friendship Firehouse is a museum open to the public with the company’s restored 1858 hose-reel carriage on exhibit. Local craftsman Robert F. Prettyman made this ornate apparatus. It is painted midnight blue with white decorative piping and has gilded shields flanking each side of the reel and a brass lantern and bells.
Today, the Friendship Fire Company lives on as the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association, dedicated to preserving the past and supporting the future of firefighting in Alexandria.
Friendship went from a handful of early volunteers to hundreds of members and from a small engine shed at the corner of King and Royal Streets to the sturdy firehouse on St. Asaph Street. The building, constructed in 1855, housed the fire apparatus and hose, and the second floor served as a meeting hall.
Friendship volunteers fought fires, of course, but also met to induct new members, elect officers, and plan events like visits to other cities and local parades. New prospects paid one dollar to join and one dollar in annual dues. The funds allowed the company to buy equipment and keep the firehouse and vehicles in good working order. Recruits signed an oath of allegiance to the Friendship Fire Company against all others in the city (rivalries between fire companies were serious business). Finally, members supplied their own uniforms and two leather buckets at each fire.
Firefighting duties ended after the Civil War, but the company carried on. At first, Friendship was an independent auxiliary to the city’s first paid city department, formed in 1866. But unable to keep up with the latest technology, the company shifted to boosterism. Members in old-style uniforms paraded on special occasions.
Interest in local and national history grew between the 1875 centennial and the 1899 anniversary of George Washington’s death. Alexandria and nearby Mount Vernon became tourist destinations. By 1904, Friendship shifted focus again, this time to preservation. The new Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association “was determined to repair and improve the company’s house.” The association undertook repairs and renovations, including swapping packed earth for brick floors on the first level. In 1921, it opened the firehouse doors to the public, hoping it would be, as an Alexandria Gazette headline proclaimed, a “Mecca for hundreds of tourists visiting this city.”
The association operated the firehouse as a historic site until 1988 when it was gifted to the City of Alexandria. Today, it functions as one of the many museums under the Office of Historic Alexandria.
Membership in the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association has changed as well. Gone are the loyalty oath, uniforms, and obligatory fire buckets. The old hose-reel carriage is still in the sturdy firehouse but as a museum object rather than a parade piece. Annual dues now fund the many Association activities, from museum conservation efforts to yearly scholarship awards for firefighters and their families.
As in the past, the association has events like the annual Firehouse Festival and a special breakfast event that kicks off every President’s Day in Alexandria. Recent keynote speakers have included Dr. Douglas Bradburn, the president and CEO of Mount Vernon, and retired US Navy Captain Eugene McDaniel. The association also helps support the Alexandria Fire Department, from providing meals at fire stations during the pandemic to participating in the annual Firefighters Memorial Service every October.