A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from May 01, 2005
Fire Buff
The word "buff" now can mean a "movie buff" or a "sports buff," but it all began with the "fire buff" in New York City. "Buff" is short for "buffalo."

(Oxford English Dictionary)
buff, n.
'An enthusiast about going to fires' (Webster 1934); so called from the buff uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City in former times. Hence gen., an enthusiast or specialist. Chiefly N. Amer. colloq.
1903 N.Y. Sun 4 Feb. IV. 2/1 The Buffs are men and boys whose love of fires, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic.
1907 A. M. DOWNES Fire Fighters & Pets xiii. 159 The 'buff' is a private citizen who is a follower, friend, and devoted admirer of the firemen.
1931 LAVINE Third Degree vi. 62 A dentist, known to many cops as a police buff (a person who likes to associate with members of the department and in exchange for having the run of the station house does various courtesies for the police).

26 June 1909, Stevens Point (WI) Daily Journal, pg. 3, col. 4:
"The funniest kind of an alarm that I ever saw in a fire station was a pie plate alarm," remarked the dean of the fire "buffs" to the others who were seated around waiting to hear an alarm "hit in" at the engine house across the way.

5 March 1910, New York Times, pg. 16:
Firemen from all over the city, from the Battery to the Bronx, came or sent flowers yesterday to the funeral of John Walls, the fire "buff."
When Johnny was not "buffing" he worked as an electrician for the Edison Company in Brooklyn.

16 February 1915, New York Times, pg. 9:
Simon Brentano, head of the firm of Brentano's, booksellers and publishers at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street, since 1877, and, according to Fire Commissioner Adamson, the oldest "buff" associated with the New York Fire Department, died yesterday morning at his home, 34 Reynolds Terrace, Orange, in his fifty-sixth year.
Fire Commissioner Adamson on learning of Mr. Brentano's death paid a high tribute to the old "buff."

"Simon Brentano was our oldest fire buff," he said. "There are a dozen of these left, but Mr. Brentano had been following the firemen longer than any of the others. A buff is a man who is enthusiastically interested in everything connected with the Fire Department, and who goes to every fire he can possibly reach, particularly the big ones. Mr. Brentano had been doing this for forty years, and he was known personally to all the older firemen and officers, and as a young man he used to run with the old Volunteer Fire Department. He was an intimate friend of all the Fire Chiefs and a particular friend of Chief Hugh Bonner. Mr. Brentano was a scientific student of fire fighting and spent a great deal of money developing devices to help the firemen, such as methods to prevent the hydrants from freezing, hose hoists, and distributing nozzles. He was a sincere friend of the department and will be greatly missed.

"Few understand the help that the buffs give the department. They are always ready, night or day, to do everything in their power to assist the firemen, and Mr. Brentano was foremost in this work. The whole department mourns the passing of its oldest buff."

28 February 1915, New York Times, pg. SM21:

Well-to-Do Men Who Run
to All of the Big Fires
With Boyish Enthusiasm
Counting Mr. Brentano, the number of New York City's fire Buffs - that peculiar group of well-to-do men who run to all the big fires with the enthusiasm of a small boy - stood at ten.
A Buff is a man, mentally normal in every other way, who would rather go to a fire at any hour of the day or night than do anything else in the world. He takes it ver yseriously; to him it is more than a hobby; it is a duty that comes before everything else, except possibly the welfare of his own family.
Col. "Peggy" Thurston, as his admirers call him, is President of the order, as befits the oldest Buff in point of service. It was the general belief until his death that Mr. Brentano had the distinction of being the oldest Buff, but it was discovered that he did not begin running to fires until 1874, whereas Col. Thurston dates his services from 1868, only three years after the department passed from the old volunteer system to a paid organization. Nect in length of service comes Howard Phelps, who was made a Buff in 1874.
The most interesting figure of the Buff group is Col. Thurston. Although over 60 he is as spry as any smoke-eater in the department, and he has a record for bravery that any one of them might envy.

5 April 1925, New York Times, pg. SM10:

Every Blaze Is a Battle to This Odd Clan of
New York Millionaires and Street Boys
The very word "Buff" was cradled in active service. In the old days when there was no paid department in New York and volunteers fought the city's fires - very distinguished volunteers they were, too, for the leading members of social and business life considered it an honor to run with the engine - the rivalry between companies sometimes burned more hotly than the fires. So hotly did they rage that the firemen often fought each other instead of fighting the fire.

How the Name Originated

Assault and battery was only one of the more obvious methods which an up-and-coming company would use to get "first water" or "wash" its rival. Another method was to have one of two of its members sleep in the company quarters to toll the apparatus out with the least possible delay should an alarm of fire be received at night. These men used to sleep on buffalo robes and got the names of "buffaloes." But buffaloes was too long for quick action and soon it was shortened to "buffs." The most ardent volunteers were the "buffs" of volunteer days; and "buffs" they are today.

29 January 1956, New York Times, magazine section, pg. 30:
Fire Buffs
BUFF, according to H. L. Mencken's "The American Language," is "said to be from buffalo and to have been suggested by the fact that the wealthy young men who belonged to the early volunteer fire companies commonly wore buffalo skins in winter." According to Mr. Cavanagh, who claims about forty years of research in this field, these volunteers, about 100 years ago, used to hail one another at a fire as "buffalo." The term shrank to buff.
(...)(Pg. 32 - ed.)
No matter what happens to fire buffs, the term buff has been spreading to other fields, to include a man who shows extraordinary interest in a fields outside his business or profession. Thus, there are jazz buffs, Civil War buffs, baseball buffs, theatre buffs. Eventually there may be buff buffs.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityWorkers/People • Sunday, May 01, 2005 • Permalink

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