John Nibarger, left, and his son Brendon Nibarger are two members of the Bath-area Quansigamog Fireman’s Muster. The first muster ever held in Bath was 170 years ago. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BATH — On Independence Day 1849 – 170 years ago and 73 years after the Declaration of Independence – five handtubs used to fight fires were gathered in Bath to see which of their crews could shoot a stream of water the farthest.

This first-ever Fireman’s Muster in the country became a time-honored tradition that spread throughout other states in the decades to come. But the latest contest will be held back in Bath where it all began, during the city’s annual Heritage Days celebration.

The high-energy gathering for crews and audience alike – which returned to Heritage Days in 2008 after a 12-year absence and has been held every year since – will take place at the north end of Front Street Saturday, July 6, from noon-3 p.m.

The muster is dear to the hearts of the Nibarger family of Woolwich, longtime members of the Quansigamog team named for its 1853 Hunneman handtub, which was built in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and transferred to Bath in 1948.

“We store it, we use it, we maintain it, rebuild it,” John Nibarger said in an interview alongside wife, Carol, and son, Brendon, June 26.

He and Brendon are among the stalwart crew members who grab hold of handles on each side of that venerable machine, pumping with fury several times during the course of 15 minutes to build up enough pressure – about 80-90 pounds – to cascade the water more than 200 feet. A foreman atop the handtub looks for ideal wind conditions and decides when to release the water.

The extension of train service to Bath in 1849 prompted the inaugural muster, John said: “They got five handtubs together for a competition to kind of celebrate that, and that’s what started it.”

He is this year’s president of the New England States Veterans Fireman’s League, which formed in 1890 and established rules for musters. Carol is the league’s secretary and treasurer.

Quansigamog competes about six times annually against about 10 other league teams; it will take part this October in a fundraiser for the Woolwich Fire Department.

The Fireman’s Muster is an intense event that can involve up to 40 stalwart people. Contributed

Maine’s only team, Quansigamog operates two antique hand tubs: the machine of that name, and the Senator Baxter. “Quansigamog” is what Native Americans called Hopkinton at the time the English settled it, according to Brendon.

Now 60 and 35, John and Brendon have participated together for about 15 years. Their team’s longest stream is 241 feet, and Quansigamog took home the league trophy in 2016 and last year.

“The people and the camaraderie, friendships that you make not only from our local teams but out-of-state people” have maintained John’s interest, he said. “There are a couple hundred people involved, easily.”

“A lot of history there; stories you hear,” Brendon added.

“I always say that we are an interactive living history of firefighting,” John noted. “… It’s extreme; it wasn’t done that way when you’d fight fires.”

There’s really no training for such an intense activity, the men said. “Brute strength and ignorance” is what it takes, John chuckled. During the 15-minute period, “you pump five or six times, and you use muscles like you thought you never had, like swimming; you use every muscle in your body.”

So overwhelming is the pumping process, which runs about 30-45 seconds each time, that many crew members will turn around and vomit, “because they’re so tensed up,” he said.

“They give it everything they have; it’s crazy,” Carol observed.

Participants, about 15-20 crowded onto each side, are warned to keep their heads away from the rapidly-moving metal handles during the pumping process. And by all means, if they lose their grip, not to try to get back on.

“We’ve seen head injuries, and chin injuries; all kinds of stuff,” Carol said.

One person at the Yarmouth Clam Festival was struck in the head and John, who was on the opposite side of the tub, had blood on his shoes, she noted.

Some will witness a muster and want to take part. But there are many who shy away when they see what the activity entails. “A lot of people say, ‘no way,'” Brendon remarked.

Some science goes into the process, along with fair winds, timing, the size of the crew and the power of the machine.

“It’s competitive, but it’s friendly competitive,” Carol said.

Despite this being the 170th anniversary of the muster, nothing particularly special is planned; just the same old grit.

“We’re just going to kick ass and take the trophy,” John said.

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