RACINE — Steve Jones calls himself a firehouse historian. It’s an apt title for the self-identifying “fire buff.”
His dad was a fire lieutenant in Racine, Jones often has the police/fire scanner playing at home, he met his wife and got his job (working for Racine Unified School District) through the Racine Fire Bells, and now he’s the archivist for the Firehouse 3 Museum, 700 Sixth St.
A brigade of citizens make up the Racine Fire Bells, volunteers who support local fire departments most prominently by providing water and supplies during major blazes. Jones says they are called upon between 80 and 90 times per year.
The group also operates the Firehouse 3 Museum, which will reopen to the public during Party on the Pavement, Sept. 22, after a yearlong renovation.
Why fire history matters
Off the top of his head, Jones knows the date of the worst fire in Racine’s history (May 5, 1882), when Firehouse 3 was actually built (1881), when the first female joined the Racine Fire Department (mid-1980s), the year horses were last used by the Racine Fire Department (1918), and the date (November 25, 1968) that award-winning Journal Times photos were taken of white firemen unsuccessfully trying to save the lives of two black toddlers amidst a national climate of racial tensions — those photos are soberingly displayed above the fire engine and steamer (used to create pressure to pump water into hoses, a function now carried out by motors in a firetruck) that serve as the museum’s centerpieces on the first floor.
The most impactful exhibit in the museum is undoubtedly the memorial to fallen firefighters on the refurbished second floor in the former officer’s room.
Inside a glass display case, there’s a partially melted helmet and pair of boots that once belonged to Jon Hogle, one of the two firefighters who died just before Christmas in 1980 in a restaurant fire suspected to have been caused by insurance money-seeking arsonists. Two men were charged but never convicted; Jones’ father was a fire investigator on the case.
Above the display case are photographs and the names of nine local firefighters who died while on the job, dating back to the 1930s.
“It’s graphic, but it’s important for people to see the sacrifice that firefighters make,” Jones said. “I do think it’s necessary to show this. This time of year, we’re going to have budget talks and … I’ve never seen a homeowner running around his burning house complaining his taxes are too high.”
Among the other artifacts, there are fire-extinguishing grenades (glass bulbs filled with carbon tetrachloride, a chemical that was later realized to be “more dangerous than the fire,” Jones said), examples of oxygen tank technology throughout history, photographs of fire chief’s vehicles dating back to a horse and buggy, a traditional fireman’s locker, bucket brigade relics, and an old-fashioned trampoline to catch people jumping out of windows and off of buildings.
For Jones, having an understanding of Racine’s fire history is more important than “just knowing stuff.” It’s not just education.
He wants to share the knowledge stored in the museum with the public so that they can become better informed when it comes to forming opinions and voting in regards to public services.
“I like all this stuff, but it’s not fun unless I get to share it with people,” he said. “There’s something to share here for future generations ... It’s tougher to get people to volunteer (to be firefighters) … Hopefully we’ll get a core of young people to carry on the tradition after I’m not around anymore.”
Why the museum was refurbished
The City of Racine still owns the Firehouse 3 building, but the Fire Bells pay “something like $1 a year” to have the right to operate the museum as a tourist attraction, Jones said.
The Fire Bells took over the building in 1977 after the city’s attempt to refurbish the museum as a bicentennial project “lost steam,” according to Jones.
More recently, there weren’t many information-providing placards that complemented the exhibits, and the plaster and paint had been showing signs of wear; the second floor hadn’t been painted in more than 40 years.
That’s why, earlier this year, Jones and his wife, Judy (who acts as the museum’s curator) stepped up to bring a fresh look, new artifacts and a refreshed perspective to the Firehouse 3 Museum.
“I’ve redone all the exhibits,” Jones said. “My big thing is all this information has to be researched, written and posted.”
For their efforts in preserving and displaying history, Jones said that both he and his wife have been made honorary captains by the Racine Fire Department.
“It’s an honorary thing, but just to know that they recognize the importance of this is pretty awesome,” Jones said. “There’s prevention, there’s history ... We can do some good.”
“I like all this stuff, but it’s not fun unless I get to share it with people ... It’s tougher to get people to volunteer (to be firefighters) … Hopefully we’ll get a core of young people to carry on the tradition after I’m not around anymore.” <&textAlign: right>Steve Jones, Firehouse 3 Museum archivist and historian