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Finding Minnesota: Firefighter’s Hall & Museum

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – People’s fascination with firefighting has only grown since the first fire station in Minneapolis was built more than 100 years ago.

And on 22nd Avenue Northeast, just a few blocks west of Central, is a building that once housed a small manufacturing plant. Step inside and you quickly discover a rich history of how the city has fought fire.

In 2004, the building was turned into a museum, thanks to the generous gift of a former Minneapolis fire captain, Bill Daniels. Along with his wife Bonnie, the Daniel’s trust left the department $1 million to establish a place for retirees to gather. But the true mission became one of preserving the stories and artifacts of how the city’s fire service has evolved.

“The fire station actually became a neighborhood focal point,” said Joe Waters, a museum volunteer and trustee.

He recently gave a group of kids a tour of what life in a fire station was, and in many ways, still is like.

With red helmets and wide eyes, the children lived the life of a firefighter – sliding down the brass pole and wrestling the tiller wheel of a long ladder truck.

Since its creation nine years ago, the Firefighter’s Hall and Museum has entertained and informed. While it was initially envisioned as a meeting place, its mission now is to be a repository for history.

It’s a collection of long wood ladders and shiny red trucks — from the first steam pumper, pulled by horses, to the rigs firefighters that rode out in the weather. Visitors also discover that, yes, there really was a fire engine called the REO Speed Wagon.

“You go back as early as 40 years ago and some departments were still riding in an open cab fire trucks,” Waters said.

The walls are lined with firefighter’s tools of trade — axes, pry bars, breathing gear, and old buckets. Displayed near the main door is a case lined with colorful water-filled glass grenades. Before soda extinguishers, those were the best device available.

“We got it all,” Waters said. “We get donations all the time.”

An old leather helmet came from the first Minneapolis fire station back in 1879. Photographs on the walls show how firefighters loved their big mustaches. Theory is they were useful in helping filter out smoke in the days before face masks.

“In the olden days, they took pride in making sure their shoes were clean, that their uniform spic and span, and everything was tip-top,” Waters said.

Long before there were cell phones or even 911, there were cast iron fire boxes on every other street corner. To report an emergency, a person could simply flip a switch. That would would send a signal to the fire station to notify firefighters.

A more recent exhibit at Firefighter’s Hall is called 81 minutes;  and it has accounts of the I-35W bridge collapse as captured by the brave souls who came to the rescue.

“That’s exactly what they did,” Waters said. “They just said, ‘We’ve got a job to do, let’s go!'”

The museum balances preserving the past with teaching the present.

“You know, every Saturday when people come in here and say, This is really great…I’m just like, yea, I just want to work that much harder to really promote the museum,” Waters said.

The Firefighter’s Hall and Museum is open every Saturday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. or by special appointment.

For more information: www.firehallmuseum.org

If you have an idea for Finding Minnesota, submit one here. 

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