Virginia Fire Department Readies Museum Collection

By STEVE HARDY, The News & Advance | April 9, 2014

From the outside, the drafty warehouse doesn’t look like a museum, but when the firefighters roll back the door, the light is reflected in glinting chrome, warm brass and deep red paint.

This is a home for classics. But the vehicles in the warehouse aren’t muscle cars.

They’re fire trucks – a whole fleet with equipment dating back to the 19th century. Some of the gear in the ad-hoc gallery is believed to predate the Civil War.

A horse-drawn ladder truck and a steam pumper purchased in 1871 stand alongside more modern gear, like the 1943 Seagrave Pumper.

Currently, the collection is closed to the public, housed at an undisclosed address for security. But a group of firefighters are working to build a permanent display and share the relics with the community.

“The history, to me, is very important. If you lose the history, you lose a part of the department itself,” said retired firefighter Rod Smith, who restores the old equipment and serves as president of the Lynchburg Fire Department Museum Inc.

In a way, the history of the fire department gives a glimpse into the larger history of the city itself.

Walking the warehouse floor, Smith pointed out the 1887 ladder truck that once saved Confederate Gen. Jubal Early from a collapsed building.

The ’43 pumper had to have its chrome painted over during the blackouts of World War II. In 1955, the same truck responded to a catastrophic fire that tore down Main Street.

The collection includes more than just vehicles. A decades-old first aid kit, with little more than aspirin, alcohol, bandages and sodium bicarbonate, shows how far medicine has advanced.

A life net – once used to catch people jumping from burning buildings – leans against the warehouse wall. Modern ladder trucks have made them obsolete, firefighters said.

Nozzles, hoses, turnout gear, a battering ram and some spotlights from years’ past fill out the collection.

There’s even a bugle from 1873, back when the chief would saddle up and ride ahead of the steamer, trumpeting for locals to clear the way.

The most ancient of the relics are likely the leather hand buckets once used to carry water to a fire. Based on their design, Smith estimates they are more than 150 years old.

He first became involved in the department’s restoration efforts in 1996. The fire department shop was being cleaned out, and several crates of old equipment were sent to city workers who realized the firefighters might want to preserve some of the items. Smith was called in to sort through the old gear.

“I said, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m seeing this stuff,”‘ Smith said.

He began studying and documenting the equipment, often using old photos to match artifacts to the eras in which they were used.

Smith also began working on the vehicles, which had been stored at sites around the city, including fire stations and the armory.

He spent an estimated four or five years working on the ’43 pumper, refurbishing the engine, upholstery and exterior. He and other volunteers also outfitted it with ladders, hoses and other equipment to restore it to service condition.

His current project is a rusty ’41 ladder truck. Smith has recently begun work on that vehicle, starting with the tillerman’s seat. The old truck is so long, it required a second driver – the tillerman – to sit in the back and independently steer the rear wheels to navigate sharp turns around the Hill City.

“I remember tilling this truck,” Smith said.

Lynchburg Fire Chief Brad Ferguson serves as an adviser for the Lynchburg Fire Museum and has praised the volunteers who have dedicated so many hours to restoring the department’s antiques.

“They’ve put in a lot of time and effort,” he said.

Though there are still several items in need of restoration, firefighters have begun working toward their goal of eventually displaying their collection for the public.

Several banded together last year as the Lynchburg Fire Department Museum Inc. and have applied for recognition as a nonprofit organization.

They have also begun fundraising – selling patches and coins with the old fire department logo – and have approached drafting students at Central Virginia Community College to investigate what a future museum might look like.

“We take pride in this stuff,” Smith said.

Though firefighters have not made any specific plans to open a public site, they are eager to share their relics with the community.

“We’ve got a long history,” Ferguson said.

“I think it’s important to preserve that history, to remember where you came from, to honor the past.”

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