Fired up Museum: Haven for firefighter fans in Lutherville celebrates 25 years of ringing kids' bells

UP FRONT

September 05, 1996|By Charles Salter Jr. | Charles Salter Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Richard Flint knows his is a museum kids can't resist.

Firetrucks and fire engines are like dinosaurs, says the executive director of the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville. They're big and colorful and noisy, so they are utterly fascinating to children. In fact, according to the museum's most recent survey, the average age of youngsters who visit is 6.

But what about teen-agers? Flint wonders. And adults?

He doesn't want them to get the wrong idea about the place and miss out on discovering the country's colorful history of firefighting, from Colonial bucket brigades to horse-drawn steamers to motorized rigs. He doesn't want anyone to assume this is merely a children's attraction.

The Fire Museum, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a Heritage Day on Sunday, tries to appeal to a variety of age groups and interests, be they engineering, history, art, antiques or big, colorful, noisy trucks.

"I give a regular tour and a noise tour," says Gary "Beau" Bowen, one of the volunteer guides, whose light-blue shirts and navy pants are designed to resemble a firefighter's uniform.

The noise tour includes rattling the wooden noisemaker that Colonial watchmen carried, clanging the large brass alarm over the firefighter's watch desk (circa 1943) and cranking up a familiar earsplitting siren on a 1957 Seagrave pumping engine -- right after a warning to cover your ears.

Flint would like to add more interactive attractions to the museum, just north of Baltimore in the back of Heaver Plaza off York Road. Children -- and adults who can't resist -- pull a fire alarm, climb behind the Hula-Hoop-size wheel of a 1926 Mack pumping engine and don actual firefighting gear, a cumbersome, double-layered wool coat and long-brimmed black metal helmet. A camera is a must; the smaller the tykes, the more they appear to have shrunken in the oversized outfit.

Last year, Flint was brought in as the museum's first executive director to expand the family-owned operation, which, during its first 24 years, was open only 26 days a year, on Sundays for six months. Still, attendance was steady -- families, school groups, active and retired firefighters, volunteer firefighters in town for their annual convention. Last year, 10,000 visitors came, from 26 states and seven foreign countries.

"That's incredible for a small museum," says Flint, an award-winning curator, who developed a complex of museums for the University of Maryland at Baltimore before joining the Fire Museum.

"It has a national reputation. It's not such a specialized place that people won't come."

This year, the museum is open an additional 100 days, including weekdays during the summer and Saturdays and Sundays in the fall.

There are about 205 museums devoted to firefighting across the country, and only a half-dozen have vehicles on display. The Fire Museum of Maryland has one of the largest collections, not far behind the one in Phoenix -- the Hall of Flame.

What distinguishes the Maryland museum from the rest, though, is its comprehensive collection of firefighting apparatus -- about 45 rigs in all.

"There are only two horse-drawn water towers left in the country, and we have one of them," says Flint. "There are only five ladder trucks like ours and 15 Christie motorized steamers like ours. We have all the key pieces."

Stephen Heaver, the museum's founder, bought his first fire engine back in 1962, while his wife and two sons were on vacation in New England. Over the phone that week, he told her he had a surprise. When she and the boys arrived home, they found an American LaFrance fire engine from 1828 parked outside their home.

Not surprisingly, it was a hit among the neighborhood children, who came running whenever they heard the horn sound; that was Heaver's signal to climb aboard for a ride around the cul-de-sac off West Lake Avenue.

Heaver, a retired real estate developer, grew up a block from the firehouse on Upland Road, where Engine 44 and Truck 25 regularly roared by. On summer nights, when he slept on the screened-in porch, he didn't miss any of the excitement.

"I learned to tell whether Engine 43 from another station nearby was also responding," he says. "I could tell by the exhaust whistle."

As an adult, he became interested in the mechanics of firefighting, and when a fellow enthusiast in Long Island offered to sell Heaver his entire collection in the late 1960s, he couldn't resist. After that, opening the museum in 1971 was a natural; he needed somewhere to store his collection, and he wanted to share it with others.

Over the years, he has been fortunate to find a host of folks as dedicated to the history and technology of firefighting as he was, including one Stephen Heaver Jr. He inherited his father's burning passion and has been the museum's curator from the beginning.

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