Sherwood Brockwell Biography

On Tuesday, August 16, 1955, at the sixty-eighth annual convention of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association, a portrait of the late, longtime state fire marshal Sherwood Brockwell was unveiled by his granddaughter, Mary Louise Joslin, daughter of Louise Brockwell Joslin and A. L. Joslin of Danville, VA. The portrait was presented to the NCSFA by Mr. Ed A. Johnson, treasurer of the association, and was accepted by the President Cosmo L. Cox. The portrait would be placed in the office of the Insurance Commissioner of the State of North Carolina.

Brockwell passed away on June 2, 1953, at the age of 67. His obituary is included at the bottom of this posting.

Portrait Presentation

The printed proceedings of the convention include the remarks of the portrait committee and a biography of Brockwell by Chief Cox:

of the late Sherwood Brockwell
Mr. Ed A. Johnson, Treasurer

We have assembled here this morning in Memory of those who have answered the last alarm.

The late Sherwood Brockwell who became interested in the fire service in his home town when he was quite young, attended his first meeting of the North Carolina. State Firemen’s Association in the year of 1902. He served the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association and served it well for more than 50 years. He was a loyal friend to the firemen of North Carolina. He had a great part in making the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association the great organization it is today. He inaugurated the North Carolina Fire College and Drill School. He associated himself with others in bringing to life the Fraternal Insurance Fund of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association and many other deeds too numerable to mention. At the convention meeting in Durham last year (1954) a committee was appointed to employ a competent artist to paint a picture of Sherwood Brockwell, to be placed in the State Insurance Building in Raleigh. The committee employed Charles Clement Tucker of Charlotte to paint this picture, and we now present the picture to you Mr. President and this convention assembled as a memorial to the late Sherwood Brockwell.

Ed A. Johnson, Chairman
Curtis H. Fhnagan
Donald S. Charles

Mr. Cosmo L. Cox, President

It has been said, that in the case of men who have proved themselves great by deeds, so, by deeds, not words, should we honor them, and we all know that it is impossible to weigh in words the worth of one who left to hope the uncertainty of success, but instead confidently trusted in his own deeds that he day by day faced the plain duty of the hour, and in doing so won a unique place for himself in the state, the nation, and also in our hearts, a place worthy of cur highest praise.

In speaking to you today of this man, Sherwood Brockwell, I feel that I cannot express in words what surpasses in my mind or what I cherish in my heart. It is especially difficult for me to observe due moderation when I speak of his deeds, for, reviewing his rapid advance to honor in public life we ,are astounded, and in scrutinizing his life and devotion to duty we realize that such high praise as suits the occasion may seem to the few among you who never knew him, an exaggeration. If there are those among you, it will profit you to hear of this great fireman, Sherwood Brockwell, and it is. with honor that I undertake to address this great association of firemen, an association which has so many established reminders, so much manifest proof of the role ·played in its development by Sherwood Brockwell. Before us now, in the form of this life-like portrait is another tangible reminder of one who deemed it his right and privilege to toil gladly, with courage and recognition of duty for the fire service of the State. 

In his role as pioneer and leader in fire protection, we know that the leading journals and associations acknowledged the nation-wide priority of North Carolina in establishing state-operated training for firemen, if the fact that six other states had not called on North Carolina’s own Fire Marshal to inaugurate similar programs were not already sufficient proof of the fact. This is just one of his deeds, either could fill many books, and he was not one to regard words as incompatible with deeds. As a speaker he won National renown. One of his early adventures in public speaking was an address before the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs on the subject: “Woman’s Part in Fire Prevention.” It resulted in the formation of a North Carolina Women’s Bureau of Fire Prevention, and their program was carried to the nation as the demand for a million copies for distribution in pamphlet .form had to be met at once. From this one address women’s bureaus sprang up in Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and many other states. Sherwood Brockwell also excelled with the pen. His contributions tc professional journals were many and varied, and his work as a member of the building code committee of the exits committee of the National Fire Protection Association won for him an honorary membership in the National Institute of Architects.

How did Sherwood Brockwell, a man whose name has become a symbol of inspiring leadership to firemen of the State, region and nation begin fighting fires? In 1896, as a small boy, he would help hitch the mules of the Raleigh steam fire engine, light the fire box when they were under way, and forage coal to feed it when they were at the scene of the fire. He was still a firefighter when he died. His life was built around firefighting always, just as it was in imagination, as a small boy, and his activities spread out to cover the whole State which he loved so well, and his influence came to be felt throughout the nation.

In 1897 he heard an address by James D. McNeill to the firemen of Raleigh which sealed his determination to become a fireman. In 1902 the Rescue Fire Engine Company made him a special member, the next year they made him a regular member and a member of the North Carolina Firemen’s Association. With this company he participated in tournaments held by the association and helped set several records which have never been broken, and, since thy were made with horse-drawn equipment, probably never will be. The genius for organization and leadership which was his special gift came out in those tournaments and his promotion was rapid. In 1908 he was made foreman of his company, the next year assistant chief, and three years later chief of the Raleigh Fire Department [and to lead and help transform the volunteer department into a full-paid fire department].

The three years from 1912 to 1914 marked the significant turning point in his career. Directly he was elected Fire Chief of Raleigh [in 1912]. He entered the New York Fire Department for a period of training in advanced firefighting methods, for observation of a highly organized and efficient system in action, and incidentally, for his first taste of the dazzling glory that comes to a fireman when he makes a spectacular rescue, and home towners were alike dazzled at the photographs appearing in the New York papers of their native son being made a hero in the big city. Later in the year, to familiarize himself with automotive equipment which he foresaw would rapidly became universal, he [spend some time working] in the factory [of American LaFrance] which was building the first motor apparatus to be used in Raleigh. He returned with the equipment to Raleigh to organize and train a paid department, the youngest paid Fire Chief in the United States.

At the beginning of 1913, immediately following the organization of the Raleigh Fire Department he was promoting fire drills in the Raleigh Schools, an idea new to the state, and within two months he saw his program vindicated as 219 children drilled quietly from the second floor of a frame building, burning and filled with smoke, without a single injury. [Murphey Graded School at 423 N. Person Street, was experienced a furnace fire on February 14, 1913. There were 415 schoolchildren in the building when the 10:20 a.m. blaze was reported from Box 14.]

The next year saw his program for a better organized and better trained  Raleigh F ire Department and for safety in schools taken up by the state. An address on “Fire Prevention As An Integral Part of The Fire Service” which he made to the North Carolina Mayor’s Association, and its endorsement by the Mayors and other officials present so impressed Colonel James R. Young, State Insurance Commissioner, that he decided to put it into practice, at once and had the young Fire Chief appointed Deputy Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal for the State of North Carolina, a position which he held until his death. [With Brockwell resigning as Chief of the Raleigh Fire Department.]

Ont August 1, 1914, the day of his appointment as State Fire Marshal, he announced a statewide training program, and within two months local departments were enrolling in the course he set up. He pushed his training program and his campaign for safer school buildings and school fire drills together, and in 1919 his program for  the schools was drafted into law by the General Assembly. In 1927, as a culmination of ten years effort, a statewide simultaneous fire drill of 750,000 school children and teachers, the largest ever held to that date, was conducted under his direction. In 1929 his training program came to its logical culmination with the first of the State-Wide Fire Colleges and Drill Schools at Asheville. [The event was sponsored by the NCSFA, was held again in 1930 in Wilmington, and subsequently approved by NCSFA members as a permanent annual event.]

During all this time he was plugging at his task from another approach, the elimination of fire-hazards in public buildings. The schools had been taken care of in 1919; in 1923 the General Assembly passed a law requiring standard exits for all theaters, which law radically changed theater construction; in 1925 Governor McLean, in budget memos 36 and 137, ordered that all permanent buildings erected by the State of North Carolina, including the State Educational Buildings, be [built] of fire resistive construction.

This was as far as he could go without general legislation. In 1931, he organized the North Carolina Building Code Council with Professor W. G. Geile of State College. The building code which they prepared has been used by North Carolina. cities and counties. In 1941 it was enacted into law by the General Assembly and is now the State Building Code.

National recognition, like State recognition, seems almost to have come of itself. In 1913, the year after his work in the automobile factory, he was appointed a member of the first joint committee of Life Underwriters and Fire Chiefs to test the efficiency of motor equipment for city use. In 1921, as a part of his work for safety in the schools, he introduced the idea of segregating furnace and fuel room areas in school buildings at the convention of the National Fire Protection Association. It gained the immediate approval of the association and of the National Board d Fire Underwriters.

By 1925 he had worked out a method of protecting ceilings in the furnaces and fuel rooms of old school buildings. First applied to an old. building in Hamlet, it was adopted by the Fire Underwriters, who promoted its use and gave Sherwood Brockwell the credit for its development. In 1930 he was made a member of the Educational Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and was designated to assist in preparing a “Fire Chiefs’ Handbook”.

In 1936 he was made secretary of the North Carolina Fire Chiefs’ Association, and from 1937 on, by legislative enactment, the Chief of the North Carolina Volunteer Fire Department; in 1929 and again in 1930 he was unanimously elected president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association; in 1926 he served as secretary and in 1935 as president of the Fire Marshals’ Association of North America. With a list of honorary positions of impressive size, he considered his honorary membership in Firemens’ Associations of five states to be one of his most prized honors.

Sherwood Brockwell’s career was in full swing at the time of America’s entry into World War II, and this marked a second turning point. As he himself said of his training at the Edgewood Arsenal Chemical Warfare School, after- forty years of firefighting, he had to go back to school again to learn how to fight a new kind of fire. After leaving the Edgewood School in Maryland he began carrying its message to different parts of the state, and he was in such demand in neighboring states that it was impossible to fill the requests that poured into his office. He was made a member of the State Defense Council, coordinator of Fire Department Mobilization, and when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor he was already organized and going.

On December 10, following the fateful day of December 7th, he organized all the firefighting forces of North Carolina for Civilian Defense and joined the part-time staff of the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina in a training program for both citizens and officials throughout the State. If I have seemed to dwell at too great length on some of the deeds of Sherwood Brockwell in his too short span of life it is because, in the end, his deeds showed this man’s real excellence. Whether, in telling of his life, it has been for some of you present a first glimpse of what one great man did in ,a lifetime, or, for those of us who knew and loved him, a final confirmation, we can all learn a lesson from him, that it was by courage and the recognition of duty, and the shunning of dishonor that he won for himself and his state the honor and praise that knows no age.

This fine portrait which you firemen of North Carolina have presented to the State wi1l hang in mute testimony as one of the tangible honors which you yourself have rendered to the memory of Sherwood Brockwell. A far greater tribute to him and to your State will be the continued giving , on your part, of the same quality of devotion which he gave tc his State, an equal devotion to and a maintenance of the highest standards in firefighting throughout your state and the pursuit of your most noble efforts in carrying out, not by deceitful diplomacy, but by courageous efficiency, the t rust which he exercised in its most varied forms of activity with the greatest love and devotion–the trust of making the glorious State of North. Carolina a safe place for its noble people to live and prosper, safe from all hazards of fire. This will be your contribution to the memory of Sherwood Brockwell, and your own gain and good fortune.


On Tuesday, June 2, 1953, State Fire Marshal Sherwood Brockwell died at the age of 67. He had been ill for nearly five years, following a serious operation, though had continued working nearly to the end of his life. He died at 1:15 a.m. at his home on West Hargett Street. He was the State Fire Marshal, having served for 39 years. He was appointed on August 1, 1914, by Col. James D. Young, then Commissioner of Insurance. Brockwell was the nation’s oldest fire marshal.

He was born on October 12, 1885, and started fighting fires when he was 10 years old. He lived in uptown Raleigh, next door to the fire chief. By 1896, he was following the fire wagons when the alarms sounded. “I went to fires and helped some” he told people in his later years.

Brockwell attended State College, graduating in 1903 with a degree in mechanical engineering. While in school, he played sports for four years, participating in football, baseball, basketball, and wrestling. While still in school, he became a special member of the Rescue Steam Fire Engine Company in 1902. He was too young to become a regular member, which he became on January 1903. That was eight months before he turned 18, then the minimum age for membership. He also became a member of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association.

He served for many years in the Rescue Company, including as Foreman. He helped set several “world’s records” with the Rescue Company in state firemen’s tournaments. Brockwell became Chief of the Raleigh Fire Department on June 7, 1912, becoming the city’s first full-time fire chief. He helped organize the Raleigh’s first fully paid fire department. At that time, he was the nation’s youngest paid fire chief.

Two years later, he resigned to become the first North Carolina State Fire Marshall. Two days after his appointment, he initiated a statewide firefighter training program. This was the first of its kind in the country. The program led to the development of the State Fire College, which was started in 1929. Brockwell later helped organize fire colleges in Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and South Dakota. As Fire Marshal, he helped write both the North Carolina Hotel Fire Law and the state building code.

During his career, he served as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, as chairman of the Fire Marshals Section of the National Fire Protection Association, as president of the Fire Marshals Association of North America, as president of the Southeastern Fire Chiefs Association, and as secretary of the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs. He was also an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

Brockwell was survived by his wife, Mildred Bagwell Brockwell; four children, Sherwood Brockwell Jr. (Southern Pines), Kenlon Brockwell (Charlotte), Mrs. Langdon Joslin (Danville, VA), and Miss Mary Brockwell (Rye, NY); two brothers, Philip and Robert (both Raleigh); sister Mrs. Katherine Covalt (Raleigh); and four grandchildren.

Funeral services were held on Wednesday, June 3, at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Where was Brockwell buried? What does his grave look like today? To be determined. Source: News & Observer, June 3, 1953

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