When it comes to exhibits sure to get visitors fired up, the at the in Hazelwood is sizzling.
The museum was founded on May 10, 2004, by firefighters Eric Kiehl, Chester Jones and Steve Arnold as a way to promote fire safety education.
“The goal for the museum was education,” Kiehl said. “Letting the public know what firefighters are all about – the type of work that we do, the type of equipment that we use, the gear that we wear – mainly it was an educational thing.”
But there was another reason the three decided to open a museum packed with a fascinating collection of fire-fighting memorabilia.
“Because we had so much stuff,” Kiehl said, laughing.
So much stuff indeed. The 2400-square-foot museum is filled from floor to ceiling with displays highlighting various aspects of firefighting, from the typical gauges firefighters use on a fire truck and mannequins wearing assorted fire-, heat- and chemical-resistant suits to patches, helmets and T-shirts from fire departments all over the country and, in many cases, through the years.
Just inside the door, for instance, is an 1820s era jumper style hose wagon, along with a painting showing that type of wagon being used to battle a barn blaze. The hose wagon, considered the prize of the museum’s collection, was pulled by firefighters to a fire. It carried about 500-feet of leather fire hose that could be connected to a fire hydrant if one was available, or placed into a nearby stream or lake in areas without hydrants. It also held tools such as axes, leather buckets and nozzles.
The wagon on display was found by Kiehl in a scrap yard in Wellston.
“It was totally rotted away,” said Kiehl, who has been a firefighter with the for 31 years. “One of the guys where I work, and he helps down here (at the museum), he was really interested in it. We went down, and he purchased it. It took him five years to rebuild it.”
The museum has plenty of interesting displays. The name First Due, for example, originated in the 1800s. In those days, fire departments competed with each other to be first to respond to a fire, sometimes for pride, sometimes because the local government would only pay the first fire department to arrive on the scene. The first department to put water on the fire, according to a display at the museum, would claim “First Due” and get credit for fighting the blaze.
The affiliation between firefighters and Dalmatians is also explained. In the days of stage coaches, drivers kept Dalmatians with the horses overnight because the dogs formed a tight bond with the horses and would protect them from horse thieves. Horses were also used to pull fire trucks, so the Dalmatians soon became an integral part of the fire department, guarding the horses and keeping them company between fires. While the horses are gone, many fire departments still keep Dalmatians as mascots.
The Dalmatian theme is prevalent at the First Due Fire Museum. A Dalmatian wearing a fire helmet is part of the sign outside the museum. Inside, there are Dalmatian statues in front of a couple of the bigger exhibits, plus cases displaying toy Dalmatians of various sizes.
Display cases also hold toy fire trucks, Disney characters dressed as firefighters, even Firefighter Barbie complete with a Dalmatian companion.
The collection has grown over the years since the museum opened, and it includes much more than what Kiehl, Jones and Arnold contributed.
“Everything in here is on loan from individuals,” Kiehl said. “We have about 38 individuals who (own) all this stuff.”
Many of the displays focus on equipment, showing early leather hoses, nozzles and buckets.
In addition, visitors can examine helmets from all eras of firefighting, ladders that extend to get better angles on a fire, even metal “fire protection” plaques that people used to have to prominently display on their homes to let firefighters responding to a fire know the homeowners had paid their bill. Without that, the responders would watch the home burn without doing anything to extinguish it.
The walls are covered with historic photos and paintings spanning the years from the early days of bucket brigades and horse-drawn fire trucks to current day firefighters dressed in high-tech gear.
One section is devoted to the Sept. 11th heroes – firefighters, police and medical responders who saved others and also gave their lives responding to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“Permanently etched in our memories are the images of firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel rushing selflessly into the terror and wreckage of Ground Zero,” a display called “Heroes” says. “As thousands of people were fleeing the exploding structures, scores of
rescuers were moving in. Their bravery, and the countless number of lives they saved, will stand forever as a monument to heroism.”
The display also features two American flags – one adorned with the names of all the first responders who gave their lives trying to save people in the aftermath of the attacks, and another flag with the names of all the victims. It is a somber reminder of one of the darkest days in this nation’s
recent history, and a testament to the ultimate sacrifice made by so many first responders.
Firefighters and their families come from all over the country and, in some cases, the world, to visit the museum. Many of the 300 or so fire department shirts displayed around the museum are brought in or mailed by firefighters who live and work elsewhere, including one from the Anchorage, AK Fire Department and another from the McMurdo Fire Rescue Station in Antarctica.
The museum, which is open Friday through Sunday, offers a self-guided tour. It is also staffed by firefighters who volunteer their time on days off from the fire station. Many of the visitors are firefighters, but the lay people have lots of questions.
Visitors are impressed by the museum’s variety.“They’re in awe because we’ve got a little bit of everything,” Kiehl said.
They are also grateful.
“They say, ‘We appreciate the job that you do – thank you very much.’ They usually want to shake your hand,” Kiehl said. “Little kids want to hug you.”
The First Due Fire Museum is in Suite 302 in the “Circus of Fire” section at St. Louis Mills, 5555 St. Louis Mills Blvd., Hazelwood, MO 63042.
It is open 12-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 12-6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, but the museum depends on donations to cover operating expenses. For more information, call the museum at 314-227-5911.