Wandering Billy

A Tale of Two Firehouses

The glory days — and blazes — of Fire Station No. 5

By Billy Eye

“A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.” — Benjamin Franklin

A couple of months ago, I was meandering down South Mendenhall when I came across the detritus of a life one might expect to find after someone passes away — mounds of clothing, bed sheets, tableware, coat hangers, curtains, appliances — all crowding the sidewalk. Over the next few weeks, I watched as that home on the corner of Walker and Mendenhall underwent a facelift for the next tenant.

This old house has a storied background, having served as the second home to Greensboro Fire Station 5 beginning in 1919, erected to house one of the city’s new, motorized fire trucks first put into service in 1913.

Fire Station 5 moved to a new, much larger facility at 1618 West Friendly Avenue in 1964 (now home to 1618 Seafood Grille and Leon’s Style Salon). That’s when the place at 442 Mendenhall became UNCG’s first men’s dorm. Or so rumor has it.

I’d always wondered, however, if that were actually true. I could find no evidence of it, so I contacted the University’s archivist Erin Lawrimore who told me: “That’s a bit of a trick question, because while a number of the male students in 1964 did live in the former firehouse at Mendenhall and Walker, it wasn’t considered a dorm. It was private housing and considered ‘off campus.’ But because that was where the men students were living, people have referred to it as the first men’s dorm. Technically, the first men’s dormitory on campus was Phillips Residence Hall, which was completed in 1967.”

That this former firehouse is a single-floor, three-bedroom residence should give you some idea how few men attended UNCG’s first class in 1964 after it made the transition from Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

A bit of fire department lore: Greensboro’s first major blaze occurred in 1849, wiping out our entire business district, which was being established around the corner of Market and Elm. That incident spurred officials to purchase a hand-drawn pumping engine equipped with two cisterns of water.

In 1871, our all-volunteer department was equipped with its first hook-and-ladder truck, one that had to be dragged into action by the very men charged with putting out the fires. That proved insufficient when, only a year later, flames once again tore through the middle of town, wiping out the courthouse, a hotel, a bank, some law offices and W.C. Porter’s drugstore. Porter rebuilt his drugstore and it was there that a teenage William Sydney Porter (aka O.Henry) worked.

The city built its first official firehouse in 1888 at 109 West Gaston, now Friendly Avenue, to shelter a newly purchased horse-drawn steam engine nicknamed the General Greene.

Fire Station 5, originally West End Hose Company No. 1, was established near the corner of Mendenhall and Spring Garden around 1897 to serve the developing College Hill neighborhood. By that time, Greensboro possessed a small fleet of horse-drawn hook-and-ladder trucks, so firefighters no longer had to exhaust themselves pulling their rigs behind them.

The city was proud of their equine teams. According to a 1984 history of the Greensboro Fire Department, “One horse in particular seems to have stood the test of time and is still remembered. ‘Prince’ was the most photographed and talked about horse of the times. It was reported in the Raleigh Post in 1901 that the horse was given liquor after each fire call. The money was contributed by men who hung around the station. It was stated that he drank the ‘very best rye that was available . . . one pint at a time’.”

After the company moved a block north in 1919, to that aforementioned house on Walker and Mendenhall, the original Firehouse 5 was converted into a car repair shop and remained so into the 1960s when it was known as Ben’s Garage before becoming the second location of Monnett Carpets in the 1970s.

In 1979, The Browsery used bookstore opened on the bottom floor, an ideal complement to Schoolkids Records next door. Ben Matthews, proprietor of The Browsery, remained in business at 547 Mendenhall until the late 1990s. It’s been a convenience store since the turn of this century with the upstairs serving as a residential loft that’s been the site of some awesome parties over the decades.

Our first professional (paid) firefighters took up residence at 319 North Greene in 1926, in a six-bay firehouse designed by Charles C. Hartmann with a dramatic Italianate exterior featuring gray granite window trims and columns. That magnificent building still stands, attached at the hip to the Marriott Hotel downtown.

One modern day Guilford County firefighter, Brian Dunphy, has a terrific idea — convert that palace, long unused, into a museum dedicated to the Greensboro Fire Department, long considered one of the finest in the nation.


Looking for a unique, out of the way place to take friends and family visiting for the holidays, a casual, cozy spot to enjoy some sui generis–infused cocktails along with amazing, yet inexpensive, light meals? Check out Freeman’s Pub and Grub on Spring Garden and Elam, located in a one-time grocery store of the same name from the 1920s. Eye never fails to have an enjoyable time there, whether for lunch, dinner, or a little afternoon delight.

On the other side of town, Gibb’s Hundred Brewing Company has brought much-needed excitement back to State Street with a huge selection of beers, some of the finest brewed right there on site, attracting a lively crowd. Some fantastic entertainers have performed there including one of my favorite bands, Grand Ole Uproar.  OH

Billy Eye is O.G. — Old Greensboro.

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