For as long as we’ve had settlements and communities, firefighters have been at work to protect residents in times of emergency. While at first, citizens and neighbors volunteered to help douse a blaze when needed, formal fire departments with paid employees were developed and the commitment to serve has only grown. Through generations, fire departments, and the equipment they use, have undergone an evolution. 89.1 WEMU’S Jorge Avellan explored that history, as you can, when he visited the Michigan Firehouse Museum in Ypsilanti as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
As you walk in to the Depot Town museum, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. Your eyes shift from one place to another as old and new red firetrucks capture your attention and imagination. I’m joined by Jon Ichesco, a retired Ypsilanti Fire Department chief.
“The red and white truck is from Escanaba, Saline Fire Department…this one is Grand Rapids. We have some from Kalamazoo,” said Ichesco.
We then come across a 1916 Triple Combination Pumper truck. That means it has a water pump, a chemical tank, and an output hose bed. The 102-year old truck was well built and designed to last. In fact, this one was used for 44 years in Battle Creek. Its dark cherry-wood color gives it an extra vintage look. But, a crank near the driver seat gives you a clue as to how old this truck really is.
“Everything on the old equipment required physical work. Think about doing this for four or five minutes. This hand cranking. This manual steering and manual breaks,” added Ichesco.
That vintage 1916 model isn’t even the oldest truck at the 26,000 square-foot museum. In an older section of the facility, is an original, 1898, two-story firehouse and a hand-drawn wooden wagon measuring 15 feet long. Ichesco describes it.
“We have wooden ladders, hand tools, leather buckets that they used for bucket brigades, some ropes. Some lanterns because a lot of the signals given were with lanterns. When you needed water or when you didn’t,” said Ichesco.
A desire to preserve and make these treasures available to the public led Ann Arborites Howard and Norma Weaver to found the museum in 1998. It was established in honor of Norma’s father, Henry Clement, who served as an Ann Arbor firefighter. Many of the 6,000 annual visitors stop by because they are searching for a greater connection.
“And when we have visitors who stop in and say that they have family members who worked for the Detroit fire department we pull this book out and see if we can find their family members.”
Maura Overland is the curator at the Michigan Firehouse Museum. She holds up a Detroit Firefighters pictorial history book that contains hundreds of photos of those that worked for the department between 1865 and 2005. Visitor Laurie Ray is looking for her father, Gary Siuru. He retired as a fire chief in the late 1990’s after working with the department for over 30 years.
Laurie: There he is right there.
Jorge: How do you feel seeing that photo of your dad?
Laurie: It’s awesome. To see it here in a museum is really breathtaking. My dad loved his job. He saved so many people, worked super hard. One of the biggest things that I remember is him coming home at 7 AM and smelling the fire, that way I knew he was alive. Working for the City of Detroit, they work hard. They worked all night long and he’d come home and sleep.
Jorge: Does it look like him?
Laurie: Definitely. Almost every Detroit firefighter had a mustache. I don’t know if you notice them, a lot of them…that was the trend I guess.
There are over 3,600 items to view at the museum. That includes helmets and equipment firefighters have used throughout the decades. Overland says among the rarest items in the collection are fire grenades that date back to the 18th Century.
“Those are really early extinguishers, they’re made of glass. They were designed to be thrown at the base of the fire, the glass would break and the chemicals inside would put the fire out. So, it’s sort of an interesting example of an early fire extinguisher. Sometimes they are very ornate, they kind of look like glass decanters or bottles. So that sometimes surprises people,” said Overland.
Since the fire grenades were toxic, they are no longer used today. As you continue to walk through the museum, it’s easy to see how the firetrucks have changed over the years. While standing next to a Scio Township truck, former Ypsilanti Fire Chief Jon Ichesco says, if you look close enough, some of the changes aren’t as dramatic as you might think.
“This is a truck out of the 1990’s. If you see the seat and the cab, there is a lot of creature comfort but basically you have a frame and some wheels and some power. And even though there are more controls and gauges, that pump is pretty much the same. So we just haul more stuff around and we think we need it and sometimes never use it,” said Ichesco.
Something that most likely will never go out of style is the siren and every time you hear it, it serves as a reminder of just how brave and vitally important our firefighters are. You too can celebrate their work with a visit to the Michigan Firehouse Museum in Ypsilanti as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org