Firefighters Museum honors history of Denton's BravestBy Taryn Walker
Denton Live July-Dec 2012
Sunlight floods in through the garage-style windows of Fire Station No. 1, hitting row upon row of shiny hose nozzles. It’s been almost a year since retired firefighter Blake McConnell was here at the museum he helped start. He stops to show off one of his most prized acquisitions – a firefighter’s breathing apparatus from the 1800s. Staring into the steel bars and cracked glass that make up the haunting face, he smiles, remembering how he found it on eBay. Originally from Australia, it is the museum’s oldest piece.
In a corner, next to the flashy silver protective suit of a modern firefighter, sits the museum’s most recent addition. It’s a rusted piece of steel from one of the World Trade Center’s two towers destroyed in New York City during the 9/11 attacks. Six bolts protrude from the side of the small, corroded beam with white numbers scrawled down the sides. For Battalion Chief Brad Lahart, the piece – which took a year to acquire – is a symbol of what fire departments battle for every day across the nation: to save lives.
Though there’s no sign outside, visitors often stop by Fire Station No. 1 downtown to peruse memorabilia inside the Denton Firefighters Museum. Blake, a firefighter in Denton for 37 years, started the collection by putting a few items in a small trophy case in 2005. Now, the museum is a room for hands-on learning by kids and a reminder for adults of the valor these men display year after year on the job. The items show just how much the job has changed over the years, from the days of horse-drawn fire pumps and bucket brigades to today’s modern fire trucks with water cannons. They range from the serious (a glass case with melted helmets and paintchipped bugles used like megaphones in old firefighting days) to the light-hearted (a giant photo of a 1995 fire prevention show featuring two burly firefighters, one adorned in a grass hula skirt).
Blake started with the Denton Fire Department in 1974 as a student while studying industrial arts at the University of North Texas. His stepfather was a firefighter, too. He aced the test and never thought much about the dangers on the job, he claims. Asked about injuries, he looks down at his callused hands. “Couple little burns, one on my neck, hand. The gloves we wore were plastic,” he says, nodding to an orange glove nearby in the museum.
Clothing worn by firefighters has changed dramatically, in fact, as the museum’s exhibits make clear. In the 1970s, firefighting uniforms were minimal and light. Because of his height, Blake recalls wearing a dingy mustard coat that hardly fell past his knees, exposing ragged rayon pants.
A man of few words, he describes what happened when the pant fabric was exposed to fire: “It melts.” Boots in those days were vinyl and thin, better made for trenching through muddy puddles on a rainy day than firefighting. Finally, he says, they would pull on those plastic neon orange gloves, conscious that they were suitable for little more than handling laundry bleach. “When you pick up something that’s hot, it’ll melt the plastic,” he says matter-of-factly.
It’s these unique items that best tell the story of the men and women who fight fires. “Fire department museums, a lot of them have fire trucks in them,” says Blake. Not Denton’s. Instead, there are ventilation masks and helmets, collections of sprinkler heads and hose nozzles. “I’ve never really seen a display of all of the gear anywhere else,” he says. Mannequins in the museum show off the faded mustard coats, dusty black boots, helmets, gadgets and gizmos of firefighters throughout the years – from the 1800s to current-day gear. (“Those are pretty expensive,” Blake says with a chuckle, pointing at the mannequins. “They were about $1,900 each.”)
Hanging high on the wall above Blake is a large sepia-toned photo of an overturned fire engine dating from 1976. Blake’s unit was headed out to a grass fire and he was sitting behind the driver when a car clipped them at an intersection, causing the truck to hit a wall and flip. “Well, I don’t remember much. I looked down and saw concrete and thought ‘schwoooo,’ then I blacked out,” Blake says. Two firefighters standing on the truck near him were thrown and seriously hurt; Blake’s legswere under the truck but his captain pulled him out. He emerged without a scratch. It was the department’s worst accident ever.
Present-day firefighter William Tackett, a paramedic, walks through the museum several times a week, often giving tours. With a small child at home, he’s conscious about teaching safety rules to the children. (They sneak a few pointers in for the adults, too.) “A lot of people don’t realize with our work schedule, we spend a third of our lives here, which means, we spend a third of our lives away from our family,” he notes. “At night we don’t get to put our kids to bed.” Leaving the station, visitors have a better appreciation for a firefighter’s job, says William. While parents love getting pictures of their kids on the fire trucks, the kids go for the collection of toy fire trucks donated by a Fort Worth collector.
For the future of the Denton Firefighters Museum, Brad Lahart wants to do more fire prevention education, perhaps digitally. To honor retirees, he plans to expand the museum’s wall of helmet shields, some dating back to the department’s founders in the 1800s. “The retirees will have a helmet shield that’s placed up there once they retire, with their name on it,” he says. One of the latest shields nailed to the wall is for Blake McConnell, the man who started it all.
[just the facts]
What: Denton Firefighters Museum
Where: 332 E. Hickory St.
Hours: Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday
More info: Call (940) 349-8840 to schedule a personal tour.
Photos by Taryn Walker