By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

In the days before computers, smartphones and the Internet, people had to resort to other means to gather information. They used phone books, dictionaries, libraries, encyclopedias and maps!

In doing research for his history of our county courthouse, the late Walter Buckingham discovered a series of maps at the state archives. Walter was our county historian for many years and loved nothing better than sitting down with a bunch of old books on Tennessee history.

He found maps that were published by the Sanborn Insurance Company out of New York City. The maps were used by insurance companies to determine rates to charge businesses and individuals for their fire insurance.

Woodmore and Biggers were general merchandise dealers in the early 1900s in Hartsville, as shown by this rare letterhead. It was one of the many businesses destroyed in a fire in 1904 that also consumed our county courthouse.

Fire has always been a concern for people, but in the past it was even more so because so many people heated with open fireplaces, used oil lamps or candles, and small towns like Hartsville didn’t have fire departments!

The company drew maps of every town of any size in every state – and Hartsville was one!

Because towns change as buildings are built or, unfortunately, burn down, the company updated its maps regularly.

Which is why the maps are so valuable to researchers, because they can show city streets and residential areas as they looked over 100 years ago. In fact, the first maps for Hartsville date to 1893 and they run up to the 1930s.

Each map also notes whether the towns have a fire department, if so what equipment it has, and if the town has fire hydrants and what pressure the water department provides to those hydrants!

All of that was important to an insurance company and to the residents of a town.

One reason the people of Hartsville needed their rates to go down was that the town had suffered a series of disastrous fires that had driven up their rates.

The first bad fire hit the downtown business district in May 1900. On the fifth of that month, a fire originated in an upstairs room of a series of business buildings on the north side of Main Street. The fire spread and destroyed the entire block of buildings, but it got worse.

There were no fire codes in Hartsville in 1900. There were no fire walls between adjoining buildings. There was no fire department. There weren’t even any fire alarms!

In that fire, the old Bank of Hartsville burned, as did the dry goods store of Hale and Son, the grocery of G. D. Byrne, the tin shop of J. W. Dayton and our county courthouse!

This was our first courthouse and it sat across the street from its present location.

The block was rebuilt, but again there were no codes or restrictions against wood construction or buildings with wooden shingle roofs – both of which can cause fires to spread due to their easy combustion.

The courthouse was rebuilt on the same foundation as the previous one, and in 1902 there was another fire!

This fire burned the opposite side of the street, consuming every building between Church Street and River Street! It burned the old Locke Hotel and seven or eight businesses!

Then the unthinkable happened.

In August 1904, a fire started in the livery stables of Robertson and Hall on Main Street. This fire quickly spread as there was no fire department, just citizens grabbing buckets and heading down to the creek to fill them and pass them up a hastily formed fire brigade to try and douse the flames.

This was our county’s worst fire. It completely burned both sides of Main Street between River Street and Church Street, including the recently rebuilt county courthouse, and all of the business on River Street and several residences.

With two courthouses lost to fires that had started down the street and spread, a new courthouse (and the one we still use today) was built on the other side of the street on a city block to itself. Also, ordinances were passed that prevented wooden buildings downtown!

Our entire downtown dates from the 1904 fire when everything had to be rebuilt. It is, as a result, a little time capsule for the turn of the century!

But it would take more fires before Hartsville got a fire department!

A reminder that the Trousdale County Historical Society will meet this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the County Archives building. Our program will be on the Century Farms Program and two recent additions to our county’s list. Meetings are open to the public.