OK. I admit it.
It was a day at the museum but hey, nobody ever made a movie with the catchy title: “Day at the Museum.”
Regardless, we had a great day recently when we visited the Buffalo Fire Historical Museum on William St. near Ogden St. on the city’s eastern border with the Town of Cheektowaga.
I was there once before, a very long time ago, but had forgotten just how rich the museum is with placeholders of our heritage. And the best part was, I went with friends.
I dragged along my best friend Chief Denny Allen, my 21-year old niece Christina who is a new firefighter with neighboring Lake Erie Beach; and Kyle, the 9-year old son of another best friend – Chief John Latimore. I’ll tell you about Kyle another day but for now, Kyle is a real kid with a great imagination who represents everything good about the neighborhood we grew up in. He’s a real stitch and fun to have around. That’s why I was glad he accepted our invitation to join us on this most excellent adventure.
We arrived at the museum and were crowded in the main entrance with the 40 or so other folks who apparently had the same idea we did – of spending a cold January day inside a nice warm museum.
Once inside we were warmly greeted by several of the retired firefighters who act as curators and tour guides every Saturday from 10am-4pm. It was good to see Chief (Ret.) Norm Weber of the Town Line Fire Department who I’d worked closely with in the past.
We were offered the opportunity to join a tour already in progress but I asked to speak with Bunky, a retired Buffalo firefighter who maintains the museum’s permanent display at the fire academy where I work. Bunky came out of the back room, pleasantly surprised to finally see me there after much prodding on his part.
From there we embarked on a private tour that included the much lauded Christmas display of fire service related Santas and Christmas related firehouses. The special seasonal exhibit is erected in early November and removed after January 31.
Chock full of thousands of photos and original fire service pieces, the museum’s objects and images tell the story of the Buffalo Fire Department from its early 1800’s roots as a collection of volunteer fire companies, some working and others just on paper; to the scattering of fire companies in downtown Buffalo during the 1901 Pan-American Exposition; all the way through to the modern firefighting force it is today.
You could cut through the deep sense of tradition with a knife as our heads just about spun off our shoulders trying to take it all in, looking up and looking all around in an effort to see everything that hung in the air and on the walls.
We even got a special behind-the-scene tour of the museum’s workshop and the seemingly thousands of artifacts that hadn’t even made it to the public side of the historical society’s showplace. There I was re-acquainted with an old friend: Retired Lt. Don Jones, who worked at the Buffalo Fire Training Bureau when I first came to the Erie County Fire Academy. Don is now one of the masters of chronicling the department’s past.
I was especially fascinated by a large printer’s soapstone block used to duplicate certificates of membership in the fire department’s original benevolent association. As I “grow in age” (notice I didn’t say ‘mature’), I’ve become increasingly enamored with antique certificates and their elaborate scrolling and artwork. This was a very unique piece to see up close and I pondered the process as to how it was applied to make the beautiful documents.
Suddenly, the sound of a street box clanging out its call-to-arms lured us to the main room of the museum.
A series of five beautifully refinished wood panel doors, resurrected from Engine 15’s quarters, unfold to show life size photos of the horses that may have once bolted out into the street with hand pumped or steam powered fire engines. Restored antique fire apparatus of the same vintage flank the realistic firehouse set-up complete with a “manned” alarm office.
Around the corner from the 1920s Ahrens-Fox pumper is Fire Box 29, known as the “Hoodoo Box,” which was associated with several large fires, and mysterious incidents throughout the department’s history. A working street box, pull the lever and its finely machined gears click out the response assignment in its special Morse code back to the alarm office. Adjacent to that is the original collection of box alarm assignments numerically sorted in a large card file.
Enter Patrick “Patty” Coghlan, a fireman’s fireman, even in retirement. The other retirees had built him up as the Great Carnac of box alarm assignments. Give him a box number and he’ll tell you the intersection where the box was located. Give him an intersection and he can spout off the associated box number. We certainly weren’t disappointed by his demonstration of deep department knowledge.
Pat went on to share the stories of the three fire boats once employed by the city, including Engine 23 which boasted of some very nice land-side quarters for its crew.
I finally got to meet Pat’s daughter Margaret, who is one of the museum’s caretakers and loves to spend time working alongside her dad. She’s also active in the Fire Bell Club of fire buffs who regularly benefit the museum’s mission. She has invited me to their annual dinner for several years but I always seem to be out of town when the occasion falls on the calendar. I hope to make it there this fall.
We were like kids in a candy store – and Kyle was too. He loved the interactive display that featured the back end of an old tiller truck. Sit on the cracked leather seat and steer your way through a DVD driven video of a real ladder truck winding its way through the streets of Buffalo, enroute to a working fire or other emergency.
The old tiller cab was complete with flashing lights and a foot pedal horn that alerted the virtual chassis driver when to stop, go or back-up. The video provided the requisite wailing siren sounds.
Like everything else in the museum, it was enough to capture the imagination of even the most seasoned firefighter, or wannabe firefighter, and bring us all back to a time when we heard sirens and ran to the curb to watch the apparatus race by.
I can’t wait to get back there- and bring more friends. We already have a boys-day-out plan in the works.
The four of us culminated our adventure with lunch at Hot Dog Heaven at the corner of William St. and Harlem Rd. Kyle and I shared a hot fudge sundae. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’ve always wanted to host a meeting of our leaders at a fire museum. What better a place to chart the future of the fire service – than in an environment that envelopes us in our proud history?
We’re fortunate to have not one, but three fire museums in our county. The Firemen’s Memorial Exhibit Center in West Seneca offers a great collection of items detailing the proud history of the volunteer fire service in Western New York and features a special 343 flag display in honor of our brother firefighters lost on 9/11/2001.
The Greater Lancaster Museum of Fire Fighting can be found at 6 West Main St., Lancaster, N.Y. It is open from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays; and 12 to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
Some folks say that the fire service is hundreds of years of tradition, unimpeded by progress. Our local fire museums represent hundreds of years of progress revealed through thousands of examples of the proud traditions that make the fire service great.
I encourage you to visit any or all of these – or find a museum near you.
Drop me a line if you do. I just might join you.