The San Antonio Fire Museum, housed in the historic Central Fire Headquarters building near the Alamo, offers a glimpse for some 14,000 visitors annually into an era when volunteers used hand-operated water pumpers and heavy leather hoses to battle fires in early San Antonio.
The San Antonio Express-News reports officials of the five-year-old museum at 801 E. Houston St. fund a $225,000 operating budget with donations, museum store sales and admission fees of $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for children ages 3-12. But the museum could do more to advance its mission of preserving San Antonio's firefighting heritage and educating children and adults about fire prevention and safety.
"We want to share our history with everybody," said Jim Wueste, president of the Fire Museum Society.
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"If somebody came in and their great-grandfather was a firefighter, I'd love to be able to have a kiosk they could come up to and type in that name, and we'd have all that information," Wueste said.
The dream of a place to honor the thousands of men and women who have toiled and sacrificed to protect lives and property in the Alamo City dates to 1997, when a group of fire personnel sought to find a way to organize and display the many photographs, mementos and documents that were in storage.
The society, a registered nonprofit, opened the museum in 2013 at the old fire headquarters, which it leases on a yearly basis. The building, also once known as Station No. 1, a 1938 structure of the Works Progress Administration, housed three firefighting units and held personnel records, with an adjoining structure where equipment was serviced, supplies delivered and furniture built for other fire stations.
"This was like a little city. It just never closed," Wueste said.
Joe Garza, a docent and retired battalion chief, said volunteers scraped and painted the station during a renovation that also included electrical rewiring and installation of air conditioning in the station's main bays.
"I was assigned to a ladder truck that used to park here. And I can tell you the station never looked this nice," Garza told a group on a recent tour.
San Antonio's first volunteer fire department was organized in 1854. According to a narrative written for a 1952 convention, it began as "only a bucket brigade with a lot of vim and vigor that was determined to do something about protecting life and property against the demon fire."
The company acquired a two-wheeled hook and ladder truck in 1856, and in 1858 purchased the first hand-operated fire engine used in San Antonio, storing it in a one-story adobe structure, part of a 1700s presidio in Military Plaza.
Water for firefighting was drawn from the river or other body of water through a suction pipe, then carried through 50-foot sections of leather hose. A bound history of the Fire Department printed in 2000 by Turner Publishing Co. describes an 1874 blaze at the Alamo as one of the "famous fires in Old San Antonio." The "Alamo Fire" occurred on a Sunday afternoon at Honore Grenet's store, whose facade had been built around the mission-era Long Barrack. Firemen used water from a nearby acequia to battle the blaze, saving the store.
In 1891, the local volunteer companies were disbanded and reorganized as the city's paid fire department, with 45 men and six fire houses.
Another famous, early-morning fire in 1912 killed five nuns and three boys at a Catholic orphanage where CHRISTUS Santa Rosa health system now stands downtown. According to witness accounts, the nuns died trying to save infants and children.
Perhaps the showpiece of the museum collection, on loan from the Witte Museum, is a coal-fired 1892 Ahrens Steamer drawn by three horses, then later pulled by a tractor by the late 1920s. It was one of three steamers bought by the city, and the only one not donated for scrap metal during World War I, Wueste said.
Next door, the annex building that once was a shop for the Fire Department has an EMS unit and other displays primarily for children. Fire safety puppet shows are presented to children, who also can try on kid-size firefighting gear.
The museum's antique firetrucks include a 1951 Mack Truck and American LaFrance emergency vehicles from 1927 and 1981 that are used in parades, fundraisers and firefighter funerals. There also is a tribute to 28 fire/EMS personnel who have died in service since 1896, including Scott Deem, who was killed in a 2017 fire at a Northwest Side gym.
Wueste said he and his 12-member nonprofit board would like to improve and expand the museum, with digitization of archives; modern interactive displays; more exhibits on special topics, such as 9/11 and San Antonio's early black firefighters; renovation of upstairs and basement space for education and archival storage; and installation of an elevator for disability access. The museum society, an independent nonprofit, hopes to negotiate a long-term lease or conveyance with the city for both buildings.
The museum has more than 50 core volunteers, mostly retired firefighters and spouses, and about 400 members, with memberships available for $60 annually.
It receives donations through bequests and firefighter pension and United Way payroll deductions, and will participate in The Big Give next March 28. It also relies on income from sales of coffee mugs, T-shirts and other items in its store. The museum began charging admission in early 2017, but wants to remain affordable.
"Hopefully, these younger firefighters will follow us and carry on this mission," Wueste said. "But it's tough with a completely volunteer model."