We have converted a two-car oversize garage into a replica of a 1930s era firehouse complete with period equipment, uniforms, and an operational vintage fire truck.
The firehouse project is close to my heart because from earliest memories, I held our first responders — firemen and police officers — in high esteem. I’ve always looked up to them and am glad to pay them the honor and respect they deserve. My father reinforced my high opinion of these hometown heroes. He would say, “These are a special group of people who risk their lives every day for others.”
I’ve been a member of the Antioch museum board for 16 years. Eight years ago, the former Mayor, Jim Davis, and I were discussing an underutilized vintage fire truck that was stored in a city garage. Mayor Davis got the ball rolling when he wondered whether the museum should ask the city to donate the fire truck to its collection of historical objects. I immediately thought the idea was a great one, and could imagine the museum housing the fire engine in a space designed to look like a vintage firehouse.
Furthermore, as I thought more deeply about the project, it seemed to me that we could add significance beyond merely showing what the Antioch fire hall might have looked like during our parents’ and grandparents’ day. The display could also serve as a medium for getting the message out about the role that fire districts play in our local community as well as presenting basic principles of fire safety. I could imagine fire fighters, both active and retired, volunteering time and energy to encourage us to carry on the traditions of vigilance and effective response to the threat of fires that past generations considered so important.
During the next few years the idea of adding the fire station component to the museum periodically came to the attention of the museum board, but we are a volunteer organization with a long list of possible museum projects, so we never channeled enough energy into the idea to actually get the fire station off the ground. I am planning to resign from the board next year, so realized that the fire station exhibit would have to become a reality now, or it would never happen, so last winter we got to work.
I was in a good position to help move the project forward. After spending my whole life as a resident of Antioch, working for 30 years for the Antioch Recreation Department, and serving for 16 years on the museum board, I was fully aware of how things actually happen in our city. The Chamber of Commerce honored me as the 2014 Antioch Citizen of the year especially because of my track record of organizing and promoting special events and projects for the good of our community and rallying resources and people around a cause.
Once we had hammered out the details of the project, the museum board gave us the green light to move forward, and we brought a formal proposal to the Antioch City Council. After we carefully explained what a valuable community asset the fire station project would be, Mayor Wade Harper and the council members passed, with a 5-0 unanimous vote, a motion to turn the fire truck and other equipment in their possession over to the museum. The Contra Costa County Fire Protection District also provided photos and other artifacts.
It was a happy day for me when we successfully took possession of the vintage fire truck, but the vehicle presented us with a problem because the firefighting equipment had been built on the chassis of a 1927 Model-T Ford. It turns out that Model-T’s were operated with a completely different set of levers and pedals than found in subsequent vehicles. Any of us would be baffled if we just sat down at the controls and tried to drive the fire engine out of the garage. Fortunately, we were able to obtain the volunteer services of a Model-T specialist, Bill “Willy” Frazier. Willy owns several of these ancient vehicles and is familiar with every detail of their service and operation. He not only provided invaluable assistance in getting the fire truck into running condition, but he is serving as the driver training instructor and is currently training five volunteers who will become certified operators, able to drive the vehicle in whatever parades, school exhibits, or community demonstrations we plan for the future.
I’m an evangelist or sparkplug for the project, but it was never close to being a Tom Menasco one-person show. Over a period of nine months, a couple dozen people worked tirelessly with me, and more than 100 sponsors joined in the effort, raising more than $50,000. We probably saved more than $30,000 through contributions of in-kind services, as volunteers focused their areas of expertise in pushing forward various parts of the project — erecting barriers plus contrib- uting painting services, graphic arts, and electrical services. If not for their help, paying for the services would have been prohibi- tively expensive.
We plan to utilize the fire truck on a regular basis by cruising through neighbor- hoods and getting the attention of adults and children so we can engage them in discussions about the history and importance of fire safety. The fire truck’s random appearances will also serve to attract visitors to the museum. The vehicle could also become a rolling advertisement for special events and openings.
We had a wonderful time at the May 21 dedication of the firehouse exhibit. Edward “Skip” Cavalli, a former fire chief, was on hand to answer questions about the history of the Antioch Fire Department. Skip is 87 years old, so he has living memories of the days when our Model-T pumper was state-of-the firefighting art. Fire Captain Vito Impastato was present to reply to questions about the current state of firefighting technology. Vito spent 13 years as an Antioch firefighter and is captain in a Concord Fire Station.
The new fire hall exhibit provides something for the community and for our museum that people will be enjoying and learning from long after we are gone and forgotten.