Get a group of young children together and ask them what they want to be when they grow up and inevitably at least one will say a “firefighter.” Attend an event and its the fire engine all the kids want to climb on. Even adults cheer as the bright red truck with the siren goes by in a parade.
But what is the fascination about being a firefighter?
“It’s their courage, their dedication,” said Jeff Blum, who is the board president of the area’s only fire house museum, Engine House No. 5. “I went on a 24-hour ride with the Grand Rapids firefighters and they got a call to a neighborhood that I was looking around going this isn’t safe and when are the police going to get here.
“As I sat there, these guys were already out of the truck, running into the house without any regards to anything else. It’s that dedication that is amazing.”
It with some of the same dedication that Blum and the volunteers at Engine House No. 5, located at 6610 Lake Michigan Dr., Allendale, share the history of firefighting. The 6,000 square-foot building contains displays from the various nozzles to communication equipment along with a photo displays of the history of the first 11 stations and major fires in Grand Rapids.
The original watch room on the main floor is dedicated to the history of Engine House No. 5, which was built in 1880 on the corner of Leonard and Monroe avenues. The station served the Grand Rapids community for about 100 years before being slated for demolition in 1980. Museum founder Jeff DuPilka purchased the building and moved it to its current location.
But the main attraction is the fire engines, of which the museum has seven, ranging from a manual hand pump from Plymouth, Mass, that was featured in the 1934 Chicago World Fair to a 1972 Ward LaFrance pumper sitting out front.
In fact, the museum’s 1876 Silsby Steamer will be featured at this year’s “DreamWheels!” television show. Part of the 28th Street Metro Cruise, the show is set to record Saturday, Aug. 27, from 6 – 7:30 p.m. at Pal’s Diner, 6503 28th St. SE. The Silsby Steamer is part of a tribute to David Knisley, a former “DreamWheels!” host and Grand Rapids firefighter who died in a boat fire this past May.
“Actually, firefighters originally pulled their own equipment to a fire,” Blum said. “They felt that using animals was beneath them which shows how manly man they were. In fact, if you used a horse to pull your cart, you were often ridiculed.”
Eventually as firefighters acquired steam pumpers, it was decided animals were better at moving the equipment. In 1910, Engine House No. 5 was the first in Grand Rapids to get an Oldsmobile outfitted to carry hose, called Hose Cart No. 5. It marked the end of the horses at fire stations with many stations converting the hay lofts to lounges for the firefighters.
The two-story museum has been cleverly designed to give visitors a sense of what firefighting is about, its history and why the American public remains fascinated with the profession leading many, like DuPilka, to want to preserve its past.
“We really want this to be a destination spot,” Blum said. “Travelers are looking for those unique, special spots, especially as they are going from one place to another. We want to be one of those places.”
Blum, who got involved with the museum four years ago, admits he is not a curator, but a person with “an insane passion” for firefighting and its history and most of what he knows he has learned along the way and through the questions that people have asked, such as one boy’s about where the water comes from that lead to the discovery of why a hydrant is called a “fire plug.”
To discover that connection and much more about the world of firefighting, you’ll have to go to the Engine House No. 5 yourself.
Engine House No. 5 is open from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Wednesday – Friday and 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. For more information, visit the website or call 616-895-8121. Engine House No. 5 is marking its 30th anniversary with a Birthday Bash Sept. 17 from 7 – 11 p.m. Tickets are $30 per couple or $15 per individual.
Make sure to check out the “DreamWheels” show which will be broadcasting live Saturday, Aug. 27 from 6 – 7:30 p.m. at Pal’s Diner, 6503 28th St. SE, and Rogers Plaza, 972 28th St. SW. The show will air Saturday, Sept. 3, at 7 p.m. on WKTV Channel 25.