April 2008 Issue
Urban Legends - Toledo Firefighters Museum
Vibrant museums, old neighborhoods and architectural treasures –– a tour of Toledo’s historic highlights shows you the Glass City’s fascinating character and culture.
People come to see “Neptune,” the beautifully restored 1837 machine that was the city’s first hand-pulled and -operated fire pumper. Personally, we’d go just to meet Bob Schwanzl and John Repp, retired firefighters and curators of the Toledo Firefighters Museum. With about 70 years of service between them (Repp joined his division in 1953, Schwanzl in 1958) the duo adds a living-history component to the collection that is just as compelling as all the brightly restored vehicles on the building’s first floor.
Housed in the Old Number 18 Fire House, the two-story museum is a surprisingly detailed portrayal of Toledo’s firefighting history. The ground level is a showroom of meticulously restored pumpers, trucks and other vehicles used by the city, including the 1929 Pirsch pumper, which Repp rode on during his early years with the division. “It was still in service when I came on,” he says. “It didn’t go very fast, but it was reliable.” The blindingly red rig could transport four firemen, ladders and water tanks and is the only remaining one of four the city purchased in 1928. Surrounding the trucks, the downstairs walls are covered with firefighter paraphernalia and old-fashioned firefighting equipment, including a tin roof cutter that looks like an oversized can opener, and a life net — the round, trampoline-like pad designed to catch people jumping out of a burning building.
Imagining anything before cell phones gets tougher with each generation, but the curators are quick to give a demo of how the department was alerted about a fire. Schwanzl says Toledo used neighborhood fire alarm boxes into the early 1960s, and a quick pull of the handle on the museum’s display sends a loud ringing through the building. The bell prompts a response from an old-fashioned tape register, which punches holes in the tape for the watchman to count and cross reference with a locator board. The watchman would give the cross streets to the nearest station, “and from there, you hoped there was someone standing on the corner yelling ‘that way,’” he says.
Upstairs, the museum’s library is filled with journals that chronicles the stations’ daily business, as well as composite photos of past squads and the upper half of the two shiny gold poles you probably noticed downstairs (the holes in the floor are blocked per the insurance company). Part of the museum’s mission is to promote fire safety in the community, and the second floor also houses a mini theater with a mock child’s bedroom — complete with faux burning waste basket, smoke machine and rope ladder — for role playing how to react in a fire emergency.
The museum is open Sat. 12–4 p.m., and by appointment. 918 Sylvania Ave., 419/478-3473.www.toledofiremuseum.com