Saturday, January 28, 2017

William A. Foster, Boise Fireman and Long-Time Fire Chief [otd 01/28]

Chief Foster.
Boise Fire Department.
Boise Fire Chief William A. Foster was born on January 28, 1870, in Grinnell, Iowa. The family relocated to the high plains of northwestern Kansas when William was about fifteen years old. Then, in 1890, he moved to Idaho. He worked as a teamster hauling lumber for a time and then went into the freight business for himself.

After that, Foster spent five years representing a lumber company before moving out of state for a couple years. He returned to Boise in 1899-1900.

For awhile after 1894, Foster had served as a member of the Boise City volunteer fire brigade. That organization had been formed in 1876, although records also point to an earlier volunteer unit. He returned to that duty after his brief hiatus out of state.

In late 1901, the city decided to fund a fully paid Fire Department. The new Department took over the following summer [blog, June 2]. It started with part-time leadership, a core of firemen, and a body of firefighters who were paid by the calls they answered. Early accounts state that Foster became part of the new, professional Department in 1903. That was the same year the Department got a full-time Chief.

Foster advanced steadily through the ranks, learning new skills as the department upgraded its equipment. Aside from the normal increases in population, and city acreage, these improvements were required because Boise was also growing UP – with its first “skyscraper” (six stories) in 1910 [blog, Jan 9]. In 1912, Foster was promoted to Assistant Chief, having been promoted to Captain some years earlier.

The Department added more equipment over the next several years, and motorized some of the horse-drawn rigs. Foster was promoted to the Chief’s position in 1917. Within a couple years or so, the Department employed nearly forty men, serving in four fire stations scattered throughout the city.
Chief’s car, 1912. Foster on left – then Assistant Chief.
Boise State University.

Idaho was then much more of a "farm state" than it is even today. Unfortunately, America's agricultural economy suffered greatly between the two World Wars, even before the Great Depression. (Much of the problem is blamed on excessive expansion to meet demand during World War I.) Naturally, Boise felt the pain along with the state.

As a result, Foster presided over a period when budgets were especially tight. Firefighters had to accept pay cuts, and crew numbers were pared to the bone. One entire fire station was closed in 1924. Yet fires still happened, and over the years the city, grudgingly perhaps, paid for a few new pumpers and ladder trucks.

During the Thirties, the Department began to give more attention to fire prevention. They initiated educational programs and sent fire inspectors out to advise property owners about particular problem spots. In 1938, the city created a formal office of Fire Inspector.

Chief Foster led the Department through all these profound changes until his retirement in 1939. He passed away in March 1958.
                                                                                 
References: [Hawley]
“The Department’s History,” Boise Fire Department, CityofBoise.org (1999-2010).
“Foster 60th Anniversary,” Idaho Statesman (Oct 2, 1952).
Arthur Hart, Fighting Fire on the Frontier, Boise Fire Department Association (1976).

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