Inside one of the five bungalow style firehouses built in the 1920s by Milwaukee architect Charles Malig, there is a quiet treasure.
The Milwaukee Fire Education Center and Museum, 1615 W. Oklahoma Ave., isn’t exactly a secret, but considering the passion for the history of firefighting that burns in the folks that maintain and grow it, it almost feels like it.
To the naked eye, the former firehouse, built in 1927, is a repository for old vehicles, a brass fireman’s pole, call boxes and other memorabilia. But the resources housed in the museum go much deeper.
There are all kinds of records stored in filing cabinets. There is a box of old run cards – which told firehouses which units were expected to respond to blazes – for the entire city. And that’s just the start.
"The Milwaukee Fire Historical Society has been in existence since 1981," says retired deputy chief Warren Skonieczny, "and this was an active station until ’95. Those folks moved a few blocks down the street here, and then this was vacated for a few years.
"We were able to get this one, which we are very fortunate to have," adds Skonieczny, who everyone calls "Ski."
The two-story station, with its gabled roof and colonnaded porch, has been set up inside to appear as it did when it went into service, says Skonieczny, pointing out the floor tile, the copious woodwork, the lockers, the kitchen outfitted in 1927 style.
The station belongs to the Milwaukee Fire Department, with which the historical society and museum enjoys a fruitful and amicable relationship. That’s not true everywhere says Skonieczny.
"The Chicago Fire Department and the Chicago Fire Museum, they’re miles apart. We are a finger of the Milwaukee Fire Department. The Fire Department owns the building ... the city actually owns it. So, they have recognized that this is a real, viable entity, so they want to preserve it. In 2001, this was designated as a historical landmark. This, along with two other bungalow firehouses."
The others are located on Hawley Road, just south of Bluemound; on 47th and Center Streets; on 26th and Capitol Drive; and on 30th and Locust Streets.
Inside the main entrance, there is a room with the call box and other equipment, including a fire alarm telegraph system. To the left is the captain’s office and bunk. Straight back is the dormitory, which housed 10 firemen, including two officers and two drivers.
In the back is the kitchen, and the stairs to a room above, where Randy Leach, a retired lieutenant who serves as the treasurer of the historical society, has cabinets stuffed with photographs and papers and a large table covered in ribbons.
"This is one of the big projects that we’re working on," Leach says, looking at the mountain of history – and labor-intensive work – splayed before us. "We have, an old Dictabelt machine? There was a plastic belt inside, that was almost like a belt sander belt, and it records 15 minutes at a time. Well, when we got into the modern era, after the war, that was when those were developed, they started saving and recording incoming calls and the communication between the dispatchers and the chiefs and all that sort of stuff."
Leach says the society has belts from 1967 to 1985 (and another 10 years after that of reel to reel tapes) that contain any communication between dispatchers and chiefs.
"So when a chief would call and go, ‘Dispatcher, give me a second alarm,’ and they always give reports, ‘We’re showing fires on three floors,’ you know. That’s what’s on there."
The belts also contain communication between dispatchers. The result is that the belts (and the tapes) are packed full of details about and descriptions of fires in Milwaukee across decades.
"We found a Dictabelt on eBay and we have a guy that’s converting it," says Leach, who sounds excited by the prospect of preserving the content of the belts and daunted by the work it will require.
After a peek around the attic (there is only one room up on the second floor, surrounded on three sides by open attic), we head back downstairs and stand at the bottom of the hose drying tower and peer up.
Ski tells me about how veterans would assign rookies to sit by the window at the top of the tower "on lookout," and about how seniority ruled when it came to using the pay phone at the back of the station to call home during shifts.
Out in the biggest room there is a brass fire pole, but it doesn’t actually lead up to a hole in the floor, since there’s nothing but attic above in these bungalow fire stations.
In here there is a range of gorgeous classic firefighting apparatus, including two built by the MFD shops in the 1930s and an early Cadillac ambulance.
"This is just part of our collection," says Skonieczny, showing off the bright red "bling" – adorned with polished chrome – of the collection. "We actually have a few in storage, and that’s always the ongoing thing. We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do with all the things we’re collecting. We’re kind of outgrowing (this place).
"They built these (firehouses) because the trucks were bigger than the older ones, and they were the first motorized apparatus. Well then a couple generations later, now they’re closing it because the new rigs aren’t fitting in here."
Leach says that a lot of department history on paper that is maintained by the historical society is also kept off-site because the museum is not a climate-controlled facility. And, as Ski said, space is a constant issue.
The collection has its roots in the late 1940s and 1950s says Skonieczny, when a series of chiefs began to recognize the importance of preserving the history of the department. Many items and records were stored at the fire academy until the society was formed and began to acquire personnel files, company journals, department journals.
Leach says that a lot of valuable records and items were literally fished out of dumpsters.
A group of collectors called The Fire Bell Club was instrumental, he says, in saving big rigs and equipment.
Now, many retired firemen, or their survivors, donate items like uniforms, training manuals, books. Other items are acquired on eBay.
The museum is a great place to do research. Not only is there a database of multiple alarm fires dating back to 1853, but there are magazines, annual MFD reports and more.
"A lot of it is good for researching back because you start piecemealing things together," says Leach. "We have a lot of those records. Our friends in Chicago, they have no records from the Chicago Fire Department. It’s all gone. Disappeared."
For families whose more recent relatives were firefighters, there’s another, more personal reason to do your research in the place you’re most likely to run into Leach and Skonieczny.
"Like Randy said, often somebody will come in and say, ‘Oh, that’s my dad! Did you know my dad? He used to work here!’ Yeah, I worked with him!"
But at the moment, the museum is not overwhelmed with visitors. And that’s a shame because the museum is not just valuable in theory. There is a lot on display and there are mountains of useful records.
Getting folks in the door and to keep coming back is a constant battle, says Leach.
"We are in what I call the custodial mindset, and through these efforts we’ve been trying to utilize this building. There are other fire museums that I’ve been doing a lot of research on and that’s the biggest thing: you have to get (visitors). You don’t want it to be an antique store, where people just come in and look."
The key, he believes, is to connect the dots for visitors. To offer something deeper than a truck, a hose nozzle, a helmet. To paint a picture of how those items figured into firefighting and the daily life of firefighters.
"They want to know the stories," Leach says. "And that’s what we’ve been attempting to do. Now the next step is the sound and the photos and stuff. For a number of years, they were all just stored away and we collected them, which is great. But now we have to get them in a format where they can be accessed. Because right now, even though we change these (displays) around a little bit, what’s going to draw you in the second time, the third and the fourth?"
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.