by Jean Young Kilby
Forty-five years in the making, the Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum sits perched on the third floor of the city’s Public Safety Building like a cat in a tree, the pet project of Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett.
An impressive collection
Since he began volunteering at Hose Company #4 as a young teen, Chief Shifflett has collected hundreds of items from fire brigade buckets to fire extinguishers to a brassy fireman’s pole. “A lot of stuff was just laying around the firehouse. I picked a lot of it out of the trash can,” he said. “I never thought it would turn into this.”
His prize display is a mammoth hose reel with wheels big enough to move a covered wagon. “This was made in Harrisonburg in 1894 by John Morrison, who was at one time the mayor,” he said. “This was the earliest piece of fire equipment owned by the city. It took 8 to 10 men out in front pulling it to wherever the fire was. The bigger the wheels, the easier it was to pull it over gravel and stone. The problem was going downhill.”
Wandering through the circular museum gives one the surreal feeling of stepping back in time. A cough-drop red fire alarm box stands at the ready. At one time, Harrisonburg had seven of these alarm boxes posted around town for folks who didn’t have telephones. Cold War-era gas masks and Chemox masks are relegated to hanging on a wall, while mannequins showcase outdated yellow rubber fire suits. Vintage uniforms linger as testaments to the courage and pride of local firefighters down through the decades, beginning with the earliest professional firefighter, the Keeper of the Apparatus—the man responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of firefighting equipment.
A brief glimpse into the past
Not all fires are caused by faulty wiring or chimney sparks. According to the museum’s 1943 Record Book, at least one fire that year was sparked by a mislaid cigarette. Another fire broke out when someone struck a match close to rubber cement. One person’s curtain burst into flames from a nearby jack-o’-lantern; while one industrious woman started a fire while scrubbing her floor with gasoline.
Flipping through the pages of the 1943 Record Book can leave one with more questions than answers: How did a fire ignite at Wetsel Seed Company at 11:00 one night? Why did Harrisonburg’s Main Street School sustain a fire on March 28, while on the next day, Harrisonburg High School on Grace Street also reported a fire? Was an arsonist afoot? Several familiar names pop up in that book. On April 25, for example, Mrs. George Grattan sustained an estimated loss of $250 because of “unnecessary loss due to delay getting water on fire.” Why the delay? Fodder for speculation.
A museum for all
The fire department museum offers visitors a unique perspective on Harrisonburg’s history. History buffs will appreciate rambling among the exhibits, while children can enjoy a hands-on experience. They can don rubber suits and fire hats, pick up a real fire hose, and pretend to squirt water on a blazing fire. To top it off, they can shimmy up and slide down the fire pole.
Chief Shifflett will be retiring soon. He plans to continue collecting for the museum, but he hopes he won’t have to scour the trash cans for his next prize—the 1948 GMC pumper truck he’s had his eye on for a while.
Museum hours are 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Entry is free and open to the public. If you’re lucky, you might catch Fire Chief Larry Shifflett, a modern-day “Keeper of the Apparatus, inspecting the equipment.