Chief Nancy

The story of the first woman to join the IAFC

"There is nothing masculine about Anne Crawford Allen. A comely social-registerite, she lives and entertains graciously on a fine 2,500-acre estate just 12 miles out of Providence, R.I.," reported the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 20, 1939. "And yet Miss Allen's career is a tomboy's dream of success," the article continued. "For she's the only active, honest-to-goodness female fire chief in the United States. No honorary head, but a courageous smoke eater, who has actually saved human life through her own bravery."1

Born into a wealthy family on June 22, 1908, in Warwick, Rhode Island, Anne "Nancy" Crawford Allen was the great-great-granddaughter of Zachariah Allen, an American textile manufacturer, scientist, lawyer, writer, inventor, civil leader, and founder of the Manufacturers' Mutual Fire Insurance Company, now known as FM Global.

Allen began fighting forest fires at age eighteen when fires threatened her family's estate during the spring and autumn. Over the next five years, she noticed that these fires were becoming more frequent and increasing in size. So, in 1931, Allen decided to finance and organize the Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Department in Warwick.2

The site chosen for the new firehouse was a mere fifty yards from her family's three-and-a-half-story granite Victorian mansion. Fifteen men quickly volunteered as firefighters, unanimously electing Allen as fire chief. Interest in the new fire department was so great that an honorary division soon formed with two hundred members led by Rhode Island governor Theodore Francis Green.3

"Chief Nancy," as she was known, bought a second-hand 1928 Dodge-Graham truck. With volunteer help, she stripped it to its chassis and then supervised its conversion into a fire engine. She further equipped it with brooms, shovels, buckets, pump cans, extinguishers, and a first-aid kit. For nighttime firefighting, she added a 110-volt generator with five hundred feet of cable to generate power for three portable two-hundred-watt floodlights.5 Ready for seemingly any event, the Cedar Hill company fought forest fires all over the state.6 She also designed the firehouse in which the truck was garaged.

Allen joined the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1936, the first woman to do so. The IAFC later said that there was "very little sensation" from the men because of the public's preoccupation with the Great Depression. She attended her first IAFC conference with little fanfare in Spokane, Washington, in 1940. There were other women on the organization's rolls, but they were listed as associate members, usually meaning that they served on public commissions, not on the front lines.

The August 1939 Philadelphia Inquirer profile noted that, at first, people didn't take Chief Nancy and her fire company seriously, not until May 24, 1936, when she and the Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Department, along with seven other companies, responded to a brush fire that would eventually burn fifteen acres. Fanned by strong westerly winds, the fire threatened a dynamite shed, a tuberculosis hospital, and a brewery in nearby Hillsgrove.8 The chief-in-charge of the fire told her, "We've got a bad blaze on our hands. Get in there with your men and fight." 9 As Cedar Hill went into action, as many as seven firefighters from other companies were cut off by flames and smoke and became trapped.10

Days after the incident, Allen described the rescue in an interview for the Women at Work newspaper series distributed nationally by the Associated Press: "There were two fire companies, and the boys were knocked around a bit. Two of them were knocked out. When I brought them to, one said that the chief and six men of the Greenwood fire department were trapped in the blazing woods. I drove in and found the chief. He passed out in my car. When I got out, I applied artificial respiration."11

State police were unable to locate the other men. Newspaper reports offer conflicting accounts of what happened next. Articles published two or three years later said that after learning of the trapped men, Allen—a licensed pilot—drove to the nearby airport and took up her own airplane to conduct an aerial search. She soon spotted the men. However, lacking air-to-ground radio communication, she was unable to call in their location and had to improvise. She zoomed up and down near the firefighters' location until those on the ground recognized her strange aerial antics as indicating their position. State police then drove through the fire and rescued the men. Articles published just after the incident, however, said Allen either telephoned the airport or drove there to dispatch a pilot, and he was the one who carried out the aerobatics.12

Whether Allen flew this fire or not, it takes nothing away from what she did on the ground that day—saving a half-dozen or so men—or from her aerial accomplishments on other occasions. She had started taking flying lessons in 1926 and ten years later joined the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots. She was likely the first woman to fly over a forest fire, doing so in her own Fairchild cabin monoplane, which she donated to the fire department. In at least one incident, she directed firefighting efforts from the air without the aid of a radio. In 1937, she saw a house directly in the path of a fire. She swooped her airplane over the house to attract firefighters' attention on the ground, who then made their way there and saved it.13 If that weren't enough, it was widely reported that Allen was also a deep-sea diver who was prepared to rescue someone trapped beneath the ice.14

Chief Nancy 2

In September 1938, immediately after the deadly Great New England Hurricane, Allen and her crew were called into action. The fire truck she had designed was dispatched to provide lights at the Providence telephone office, whose backup batteries had run down. She then lent the telephone company a generator from her home so that telephone lines could remain operational. As part of the recovery efforts, she flew over ponds and lakes to spot dead bodies. To signal boat crews, she recalled forty years later, "I'd just come down over and hang a good zoom on the exact spot, and they'd know where I was.”15

The hurricane had blown down approximately eighty-five million board feet of timber in Rhode Island alone and more than two billion in the region.16 The U.S. Forest Service asked Allen to fly foresters over thousands of affected acres to help them assess the damage, likely making her the first female pilot to fly for the agency by nearly forty years.17 One expert was Monterey Holst, a second-generation forester from the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon. A spark ignited between the two, and Chief Nancy and Forester Monterey were married in 1940.18 Newspapers across the country carried the story, complete with a photo of Allen, wearing her white fire chief's hat and a wedding gown, leaving the wedding ceremony in her fire truck (pictured in cover photo above).

In addition to her role as local fire chief, Allen worked for the Rhode Island Forest Fire Service as the southern Rhode Island forest fire warden, the first woman in the state to serve in such a capacity. She later became deputy state fire marshal and developed Rhode Island's first forest fire control plan, which addressed the aftermath of the 1938 hurricane.

Under Allen's leadership, in 1940, she and Holst created the Cedar Hill Forest Fire Experiment Station, where they tested new firefighting techniques and apparatus. They developed a forest firefighting tool called the Holst, a folding hand tool combining an ax and an adze hoe that could be dropped from an airplane to ground crews.

As the state fire warden, Nancy Allen Holst was the first woman to publish an article in Fire Control Notes (now Fire Management Today). The quarterly was "devoted to the technique of forest fire controls by the U.S. Forest Service." Her articles varied from general news, such as "Competitive Events for Forest Fire Fighters" in 1940 and "Forest Fire Prevention Lessons—Juvenile Size" in 1954, to ones about equipment, including "Repairing Linen Fire Hose" and "Holst Tool" in 1942, and "Rear-step Push Button for Enclosed Cab Fire Trucks" in 1956. Additionally, the New England Association of Fire Chiefs published two of her articles, "Forest Fire Weather" and "The Airplane Angle of Firefighting.”19

The Cedar Hill Volunteer Fire Department officially went out of service on October 26, 1957. On July 29, 1997, Nancy Allen Holst died at age 89, having outlived her husband by twenty-three years.

As a child, Allen was known to have chased fire trucks that passed by their second home in East Providence, Rhode Island.  She believed her interest in becoming a firefighter may have come from her great-great-grandfather Zachariah Allen since neither her father nor two brothers had any interest in fighting fire. "They would not walk 100 yards to see a fire," she told a journalist in 1937. "I'd go 100 miles." 20

In 2004, Chief Nancy's home was opened to the public (by appointment only) as the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum, where Nancy and Monterey's daughter Anne Holst still resides. The firehouse stands next to the family mansion, housing Chief Nancy's fire truck, now restored. In 2005, the Rhode Island Antique Fire Apparatus Society started using it occasionally in local parades. The estate was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

 

 Carol Henson worked for twenty-nine years in fire management for the U.S. Forest Service before retiring as a fire management specialist. She recent closed a wildfire consulting business, Geo Elements, LLC, to focus on writing a history of women in wildland firefighting.

Chief Nancy 3 truck

Footnotes:

1. “Why a Socialite Became First Woman Fire Chief,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1939.

2. “Runs Her Own Fire Department,” American Weekly: The Tennessean, December 4, 1938.

3. “Woman Directs Firefighters from Either Ground or Air,” Santa Cruz (California) Evening News, September 7, 1939.

4. “Directs Fire from Ground or Air,” Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times, September 13, 1939.

5. “Woman Chief Rescues Five Trapped at Fire,” Boston Globe, May 25, 1936.

6. Jane Hutton, “The Hurricane of 1938: An Oral History Told by Nancy Allen Holst, Forest Fire Warden and Pilot Part I: The Devastating Damage She Witnessed,” http://smallstatebighistory.com/the-hurricane-of-1938-an-oral-history-told-by-nancy-allen-holst-forest-fire-warden-and-pilot-part-i-the-devastating-damage-he-witnessed. This is a partial transcript of an interview conducted by Hutton in 1977.

7. Ann Swing Kelly, International Association of Fire Chiefs: Commemorative History (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishers, 2000), 63–64.

8. “Women Fire Chief Rescues Five Firemen,” Brooklyn Times Union, May 25, 1936.

9. “Why a Socialite Became Fire Chief.”

10. “Woman Chief Rescues Five Trapped at Fire,” Boston Globe. There’s no consensus in the various newspaper reports on how many men she saved that day. It ranges from five to seven.

11. “Woman Fire Chief Aids in Rescue of Five,” Women at Work, No. 1 (series), Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, May 26, 1936.

12. According to the reporter of “Why a Socialite Became First Woman Fire Chief,” Allen flew over this fire. But it seems that these later reports conflated the story about her flight that saved the house in 1937 and her flying this fire. The Associated Press’s “Women at Work” series article, which was carried in newspapers at different times and with different headlines, quotes her as saying that she phoned the state airport to get a pilot aloft to search for the men. See, for example, “Girl Fire Chief Runs to Rescue of Firemen,” The Sandusky (Ohio) Register, January 26, 1937, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/3568215/allen-nancy-fire/. The New York Times ran an Associated Press wire report in its May 26, 1936, edition that she drove to the airport, and Ralph H. Bourdon piloted the plane. “Woman Saves Seven Men: Brings Plane to Guide Rescuers to Forest Fire Victims.”

13. “Woman Directs Fire Force on Ground or from Plane,” Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle Gazette, September 7, 1939.

14. “Feminine Fire Chief Is Deep Sea Diver, Too,” Baltimore Evening Sun, March 12, 1937, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/43474640/acah-evening-sun-12-mar-1937/.

15. Hutton, “Hurricane of 1938.”

16. Earl S. Peirce, “Salvage Programs Following the 1938 Hurricane,” ed. Amelia R. Fry (Berkeley: University of California, Regional Oral History Office, 1968), np. According to Peirce, across New England’s six states, 2.1 billion board feet of merchantable timber was either uprooted or damaged in some way.

17. Mary Barr is considered the first woman pilot in the Forest Service; she was put on staff in 1974 after working on contract for a few years. Gerald Moore, “When Western Forests Start to Burn, a Low-Flying Woman Pilot Takes the Perilous Lead,” People Magazine, September 15, 1975, https://people.com/archive/when-western-forests-start-to-burn-a-low-flying-woman-pilot-takes-the-perilous-lead-vol-4-no-11/.

18. “Ex-Resident of Sams Valley Weds Only Woman Fire Chief,” Medford (Oregon) Mail Tribune, May 16, 1940.

19. She published some articles under her maiden name of Anne C. Allen and some using her married name, Holst.

20. “Girl Fire Chief Runs to Rescue of Firemen,” Women at Work, No. 1 (series), Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel, March 14, 1937.

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