During the night of April 26, 1874, fire broke out in the livery stables of LeGrand Morris’ Exchange Hotel in Monticello, NY. Village residents were roused from their beds to form a bucket brigade to battle the blaze, but were unable to keep it from spreading to, and destroying, the hotel itself. A number of other businesses, including George Hindley’s saloon, Kent’s Barber Shop, Billing’s Flour and Feed Store, and the printing plant of the George M. Beebe’s Republican Watchman newspaper, were also consumed.
Largely because of that fire, the third major blaze in three years to rock the small village of about 900 residents, Monticello organized its first fire department less than a year later.
On March 8, 1875, the village organized the department, with 82 charter members. Two days later, the fledgling department made history when it created the position of duster for Harvey Griffin, making him the first African American volunteer fireman in Sullivan County.
Griffin, known throughout the village as Black Harvey – there were but a handful of African Americans living in all of the county at the time, and not another in the village – was a porter at the Mansion House hotel owned by Solomon Royce, and also lived there. Following the destruction of the Exchange Hotel in that 1874 fire, LeGrand Morris purchased the Mansion House from Royce, but the considerable changes he made to the hostelry did not include relieving Griffin of his duties or his place of residence.
Among Griffin’s responsibilities was tending the expansive garden that supplied the hotel’s dining room with produce. This fertile plot of land was rented by Morris from the Hamilton estate, on the site where the Bennett House now sits on what is today known as Hamilton Avenue.
Griffin suffered from tuberculosis, and although the disease would eventually claim him, he never let it affect his demeanor. Edward F. Curley, in his 1930 book Old Monticello, recalls that the affable Griffin was a familiar sight in the village.
“How many of the old residents remember Black Harvey, the colored porter of this hotel?” Curley inquired in a segment about the Mansion House. “Harvey Griffin was his proper name. He was the only colored person in Monticello in those days, and was respected and cultivated by the residents. Harvey contracted pulmonary trouble, but was always in a happy mood in spite of his ailments, and when his friends would ask him, how are you getting on Harvey, he would reply: ‘The ‘sumption has got me, and my days are drawing to an end..’ That day came and poor Harvey, mourned by a host of friends, passed on.”
Despite his health problems, Griffin was an active and valued member of the department, answering fire calls and marching in parades. Curley writes that he was provided with a special uniform for such occasions.
“Included in this outfit was an immense feather duster, having a handle about seven feet long. It was Harvey’s duty to carry this duster in an upright position at the head of the company, of which he was a member, at any demonstration in which the department took part, and on which occasions Harvey was a proud man.”
On one particular Fourth of July, the department was slated to march in the traditional parade, but Harvey was unable to get the day off from work at the Mansion House, which typically hosted a large crowd for dinner following the holiday festivities. A contingent of firemen was dispatched to pay a visit to LeGrand Morris, and to convince him to allow Griffin to march with them. After much prodding, Morris relented and Harvey took up his customary position at the head of the company. This episode was deemed noteworthy enough to be mentioned in the department’s minutes.
Harvey Griffin remained a member of the Monticello Fire Department until his death in 1882. At some point thereafter, his legacy faded and he was largely a forgotten man for over a century. Then, in 1998, Monticello firefighter Carl Houman came across an obscure reference to him and began to compile information about his life. Through his research, Houman determined that Griffin was the first African American to serve as a volunteer fireman in Sullivan County, and was unable to find any evidence of an earlier African American volunteer anywhere in New York State.
Largely through Houman’s efforts, the department created a plaque in Griffin’s memory and dedicated it on February 15, 1998.
As late as 1930, there were still fewer than 100 African Americans in all of Sullivan County. That number began to swell as the resort industry here grew, surpassing 1,000 in the 1950s, and exceeding 4,000 by 1980.
Photo: An early photo of the Monticello Mansion House, where Harvey Griffin lived much of his adult life.