The sound of a fire engine coming to the rescue in Fort Worth was a bit different a century ago. Instead of wailing sirens and blaring horns coming from a giant red truck, residents heard the clip-clop of hooves as horse-drawn carriages responded to requests for aid.
These carriages were housed in fire stations made to accommodate the equine members of the department. To this day, one such building, Fire Station 12, sits empty along Prospect Avenue on the city’s Northside.
The Fort Worth Firefighters Museum Committee has big plans for the fire station, but it needs city approval. The committee, primarily made up of retired firefighters, has been working for several years to raise funds for the creation of a firefighter’s museum in the station.
What better place for a museum, they ask, than a fire station that is itself a part of the city’s history?
“It’ll give them an idea of where the fire department came from, how it started, and how it’s progressed up to where it is,” said Royce Shields, vice chair of Fort Worth Firefighters Museum Committee.
But the project has hit a roadblock. While some cities, like Dallas, lease out old fire stations to retired firefighter associations, Fort Worth city management would instead prefer the committee to buy the building outright, Shields said. Right now, the committee doesn’t have the funding to do so. The city manager’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even if the committee raises enough money to buy the station, it will have another $1 million expense getting the century old station up to code. Shields is hopeful the might of local retired firefighters can help make a dent.
“We’ve got quite a few retired firefighters and active firefighters in different areas that they work in, plumbers, electricians, and we’ve had a lot of people volunteer their trade if we furnish the materials,” Shields said.
A history 150 years in the making
The Fort Worth Fire Department began, like many across the nation, as a volunteer brigade.
The year was 1873, and shoddy wooden construction and fire hazards like wood stoves meant fires would spring up with alarming regularity throughout Fort Worth, which had a population of 500. The 60-member volunteer group, known as Hook-and-Ladder Company #1, was made up of merchants and other business leaders looking to protect their assets.
Today, the Fort Worth Fire Department has swelled to more than 1,000 staff members. To keep the history of that growth alive, Shields and other retired firefighters have started collecting artifacts from the past, including old fire apparatuses; hand-pulled fire extinguishers; fire alarm stations from before 911 existed; and even the old horseshoe of Dewey, who firefighters described as a white horse who spent his days pulling fire carriages in the early 1900s.
Those artifacts are stashed throughout Tarrant County; Shields keeps some of the smaller items in a storage unit he’s rented, while larger pieces, like the historic fire trucks, are parked on faraway ranch land.
Recently, the Fort Worth Fire Department dedicated a portion of the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex’s lobby to holding some of the artifacts. They’re arranged within glass cases and along the walls in the leftmost corner of the building.
One of Shields’ favorite artifacts was on its way out of regular use as he began working for the fire department. Before the advent of the 911 emergency call system, firefighters relied on fire alarm stations, which were set up across city blocks and sent an electrical signal to fire stations when the alarm was pulled.
“These were located in the communities, where they only had a short distance to travel,” Shields said. “When I came to work, we were right at the end of it, and it was a thing for kids to pull when they got out of school.”
Alton Bostick, another retired firefighter helping with the museum effort, toured museums across the state to come up with ideas for Fort Worth’s firefighter museum. Many museums, especially those located in national parks and on historical sites, show short films to help explain the history they hold.
“I think that a place where you can show a little short documentary film, even if you have a limited space to do it, would be helpful,” he said.
For Bostick, the project is deeply personal. His family has a long history of serving the Fort Worth Fire Department; his father and two uncles served before him, and Bostick served alongside two cousins and a brother-in-law during his time as a firefighter.
His brother-in-law has two sons in the department, he said.
Bostick can recall the first time it dawned on him that his father was a firefighter, when he was about 5 years old and he got to go inside a fire truck and hand crank the siren. He wants to give other kids the opportunity to experience hopping inside a truck, and the museum committee hopes to do just that by partnering with local school districts to provide educational tours.
Other fire museums operate across North Texas
Several cities in North Texas already have established firefighter museums. Denton, Dallas and McKinney each have fire museums with weekly hours.
Dallas’ museum has been open for more than 50 years, and is manned by both retired and active duty firefighters. In 2009, the city entered into a 30-year lease of a historic fire station with the museum board.
According to the Dallas museum’s website, it is able to operate through firefighter donations and admission fees; of the nearly 2,000 firefighters in the department, about 65% contribute monthly to the museum.
The museum committee is working with International Association of Fire Fighters 440, the union representing Fort Worth firefighters, to propose a similar funding mechanism.
Under the department’s collective bargaining agreement, union members consent to biweekly payroll deductions, which go to IAFF 440. The city must be given 30 days notice of any changes to the deduction amount.
Shields is in discussions with IAFF 440 president Michael Glynn on a payroll deduction intended to help raise money for the purchase of Station 12. The extra payroll deductions would be voluntary.
Denton’s fire museum is newer, opening in 2005. It operates out of the historic Central Fire Station, where visitors can either sign up for guided tours or explore the museum on their own.
McKinney’s fire museum operates out of the Wysong Central Fire Station, which was built in 2006. The building is multipurpose, hosting both active truck bays and a single museum bay. The museum was founded by retired Battalion Chief Darrell Groves.
A state fire museum also operates out of Beaumont, which first opened in 1984.
Station 12’s proximity to current tourist attractions like the Stockyards will be a big benefit in attracting visitors, Bostick said.
“I wanted it to be a museum that when the people who came and visited went back home, they would say to their neighbor, ‘You’ve got to go down and see this museum. You will love it and your children will never forget it,’” he said. “To me I cannot see a single downside to it and I think it’ll add to Fort Worth being a destination city.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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