DeKALB – Sue Breese remembers sliding down the fire pole as a second-grader during a field trip to the old DeKalb Fire Station on North Fourth Street near the corner of Lincoln Highway.
It’s that type of memory DeKalb firefighters know residents associate with the department, and it’s the goal of the department’s newly created DeKalb Firefighters Historical Foundation to preserve those memories and the department’s history.
That old fire pole now has its own space at Station 1, at Seventh and Pine streets. But those involved with the foundation hope to find a more permanent home for it in a museum space some day.
“The fire department has been a part of this community for a long time,” Lt. Luke Howieson said. “There’s a lot that correlates with the community’s history just from our history.”
Breese, director of the county’s Joiner History Room, said she’s not aware of other local departments taking such an active role in maintaining their history.
The nonprofit foundation, created about two months ago, raised almost $2,000 at a pancake breakfast earlier this month and continues to seek donations. The foundation’s long-term goal is to display historical items that have been collected in a museum space, rather than keeping things tucked away in the basement.
“How great is it that we’ve got these people that want to preserve everything?” Breese said.
Howieson and others began delving into the department’s history years ago, with the hope that they could collect and preserve articles, photos and things such as original fire trucks and the first chief’s badge.
Protecting the department’s history is a way for firefighters to honor those who served in the past, Lt. Todd Stoffa said.
“The fire service in general is built on history and tradition, and how the people before us set up what we have today,” he said.
“We’re a big family, and this is our family history,” Howieson added.
The department, established in 1869, became full-time in 1904. Back then, firefighters worked a grueling six days and 12 hours on, with 12 hours off.
“I think one of the neat things is the mission of the department hasn’t changed since 1869,” Stoffa said.
The fire service is very traditional, said Chief Eric Hicks, but it’s interesting to see how equipment has evolved over the years, from fire extinguishers to ladders and helmets.
Howieson and Stoffa think the community would appreciate seeing things like the working Gamewell fire alarm system housed in the basement of Station 1, which alerted firefighters to calls in the days before computers. It dates to the early 1900s and is one of just a few surviving Gamewell systems in the country.
Also in the basement, an old log book lists calls firefighters went on decades ago. A silver speaking trumpet was used to shout orders before fire personnel communicated electronically.
Photos of past firefighters, trucks and notable fires have been displayed throughout the station. Howieson has tried to make the department’s history visible over the years.
The foundation’s collection now also includes larger pieces such as the department’s old fire engines. Bob Kyler of Malta recently donated his 1951 Mack engine, which handled calls within the city when it was used in the ‘50s. A sister truck took rural calls.
“I wanted to give it to somebody I knew would preserve it and take care of it,” Kyler said.
When Kyler brought the truck to Station 1, it drew a lot of interest. Howieson and Stoffa said firefighters who had the day off came in to check it out.
Hicks also has one of the department’s ladder trucks from the 1930s, which he plans to donate to the department once the foundation has a spot for it.
Howieson said they’re looking for monetary donations and historical items that can be added to the collection to realize their dream of seeing the community enjoy the historical artifacts.
“Pieces of history, once they go ... it’s irreplaceable,” he said.
Though it’s hard to say when the department might be able to display the collection, Hicks said anything is possible in terms of securing a space.
“Especially when you get in with history like that, you never know who’s going to say, ‘Hmm, that’s a good idea,’ “ he said.