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Museum preserves the heritage, history of Elgin Fire Dept.

Vice President Cathy Hemmings speaks about different fire stations located Elgphotographs second floor Fire Barn #5 Museum ElgSunday February 24

Vice President Cathy Hemmings speaks about the different fire stations located in Elgin in the photographs on the second floor of the Fire Barn #5 Museum in Elgin on Sunday, February 24, 2013. The station was built in 1903 and has two floors an attic and a basement. The station also houses two new displays, the paramedic and first-aid and toy fire truck displays. | Erik Anderson~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 27, 2013 6:12AM

ELGIN — When Jim Carrigan taps his finger against the frame of a certain window in the Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum, two dried-up grains of oats fall out of the crack behind the frame and land on the windowsill.

Those grains represent a visitation from the past just as amazing as the fuel oil that continues to bubble out of the sunken USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

The oats were harvested and delivered to this building sometime between 1903 and the 1920s, to feed horses kept here back when the “horsepower” of Elgin’s fire vehicles literally was horse power. The oats slipped into the void in the wall and have been hidden away there for the past century.

But then, lots of the exhibits date back many years inside this little-noticed museum at the intersection of St. Charles Street, May Street and Arlington Avenue.

The building served as Elgin’s Fire Station No. 5 from 1903 until 1991. Two similar, one-vehicle/two-horse stations were built about the same time on DuBois and Dundee avenues.

After they were replaced by bigger, multi-vehicle stations in this age when firefighters spend most of their time working as paramedics, the DuBois Avenue building became a private home. The Dundee Avenue station was converted to a business office.

But a group of volunteers interested in keeping alive the history of the Elgin Fire Department formed a nonprofit group and leased Station 5 from the city for use as a firefighting museum.

“We are the only museum in Elgin run entirely by volunteers, ranging in age from 24 to 77,” said vice president Cathy Hemmings.

She said some of those are present or former firefighters. On a recent visit, for example, 49-year-old volunteer Doug Ackmann talked about being with the EFD for 23 years and had actually manned the pumper and ambulance that were based in this building.

Other volunteers make their livings elsewhere but simply are intrigued by firefighting. Carrigan, the current president, is a 26-year-old house-painter/building contractor who says he used to hang out at one of Elgin’s fire stations when he was a kid. Hemmings, 54, is the daughter of former Elgin police officer Dick Barth, who also volunteers at the museum. She put in time as a volunteer firefighter with the Rutland-Dundee Townships Fire District and worked for awhile at the Elgin Public Museum.

New displays

Fire Barn No. 5 reopened for the season earlier this month with some new exhibits. A glass case is dedicated to firefighters’ efforts to provide first aid 50-plus years ago, when ambulance service was provided by Elgin’s funeral homes, in what some wags have noted seemed like a conflict of interests.

Visitors who have come before also will find a different vehicle in the truck bay. It’s an open-cockpit 1954 American LaFrance pumper that spent most of its life working out of the DuBois Avenue station, on the city’s west side. It’s not as old or as famous as the 1929 American LaFrance ladder truck that used to be housed here (and before that, spent much of its life as a play slide in Trout Park). But Carrigan said the ’54 pumper can be more easily driven in and out of the station to show visitors how it works, give kids rides and participate in parades.

Carrigan said the three old firetrucks owned by the museum (it also owns a 1948 Ward LaFrance pumper) will be rotated, with one on display at the fire barn while one is stored in an extra space at another Elgin fire station and the third is kept in a volunteer’s garage.

However, Carrigan said, the museum always will keep on display both an ancient “hose reel” pulled by human-power and the organization’s proudest possession — a horse-drawn steam pumper built just four years after the Civil War that was named “the James T. Gifford” in honor of Elgin’s founder.

Famous fires

Some cases hold photos and artifacts from noteworthy fires, including the destruction of the Rialto Theater in 1956, the Wing Mansion fire along West Highland Avenue that killed teacher/socialite Abby Wing in 1897, and a 1973 fire that killed one patient in Sherman Hospital. The cases even hold some melted-together dinner plates from the Chicago Fire of 1871, one of Abby Wing’s fire-scorched shoes, and a burned blanket from the Sherman tragedy.

In the early days, the fire department’s technology was limited. That 1869 steam engine pumped water. But with no piped city water supply, it depended on being able to suck up water from some pond, well or cistern at the fire scene.

After the steam engine was taken out of service in 1887 because of fear it would explode, Elgin’s firefighters at first depended on whatever water pressure was spurting out of the nearest fire hydrant from the city’s water pumping station. When water pressure in the far-west-side hydrants failed during the Wing Mansion fire, a messenger ran downtown to beg businesses to stop using water until the blaze could be put out.

The department did have some chemical warfare in its early 20th century arsenal. The displays include several glass “hand grenades” filled with liquid carbon tetrachloride that firefighters could throw into a burning house. “Those put out fire pretty well. But breathing the carbon tet could kill you,” said Carrigan.

The brass pole

Hemmings said the barn’s stairs were built very steeply so the horses wouldn’t try to follow their human friends up to bed on the second floor at night. To get back downstairs when a call came in, the barn also has a brass pole that firefighters could slide down from the second-floor sleeping quarters.

She said that pole had a second unofficial function. “The men downstairs would tap against the pole when the chief stopped by” and the men upstairs would know they had to stop doing anything they wouldn’t want the chief to see, she said.

Several displays center on Elgin’s ”callbox” system. Beginning in an era when few Elginites had a telephone at home, but continuing into the early 1970s, many street corners had a red box mounted on one of their utility poles. Anyone who spotted a fire could pull a lever on the box and a control panel at the central fire station would print out the number of the alarm box on a punch tape. The nearest fire station would send a truck to the alarm box site, and the person who pulled the alarm would show the firefighters which house was burning.

Hemmings said several private entities within Elgin also had their own private fire equipment and trained volunteers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including Elgin National Watch Co., the “state hospital” and even the Illinois Watch Case Co. plant. The museum displays a metal-coated, heat-reflecting suit that used to be housed at the now-defunct Elgin Airport in case of a fiery plane crash.

The museum is open most Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children. Carrigan said the museum’s annual budget of $5,000 or $6,000, most of which goes to maintain the old firetrucks, comes entirely from donations and admission fees. The city government pays the building’s utility costs.

Carrigan said museum volunteers will drive the old firetrucks in Elgin’s Fourth of July and Carpentersville’s 9/11 parades this year. They also will display the trucks at the Elgin Area Historical Society’s cemetery walk and house walk, in September. The staff also is planning an open house with food, safety lessons and children’s crafts on June 8, and will host the annual Elgin Firefighters Memorial Service on May 11.

For more information, call 847-697-6242, visit, or see the “Elgin Fire Museum” page on Facebook.

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