If you want to explore Oklahoma’s firefighting history, like its first shack of a fire station or the classy fire engines of the early 20th century, the Oklahoma State Firefighters Museum in Oklahoma City is really worth a visit. Also go if you just have an interest in small museums that are dense with all manner of curious object, or the way technology developed with America’s cities, or even if you just want to see some unexpected horse taxidermy. It’s all there within its two rooms, although it starts outside with some weather-worn old fire engines.
I visited the museum with my mom while I was in Oklahoma City for the Thanksgiving holiday, as I’d seen it many times while on my way to the zoo which is right next door, but I’d never made it inside. The museum was opened in 1969 and is run by the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association, and is the only museum in the country to be owned and run by firefighters about firefighters.
Also outside the museum is the Oklahoma Fallen and Living Firefighters Memorial honoring Oklahoma firefighters, and the Wall of Valor, paying tribute to those who gave their lives while battling the flames. The memorial has a really powerful sculpture by Shahla Rahimi Reynolds of one firefighter giving his hand to another who dangles above the ground, both clinging to the remains of a roof on a structure that looks like it’s about to collapse.
Inside the museum, the floors are packed with vintage firefighting vehicles and apparatus, and patches, photographs, wooden ladders, old alarm systems, resuscitators, fire hoses, and everything else you can think of related to firefighting history crowd the walls, ceilings, and cabinets, the majority donated by fire departments in the states, although some from individuals from around the world. The objects go back to the mid-1700s (obviously including things long before the Oklahoma firefighting tradition).
You can’t miss Sam and Don, who are front and center and are taxidermy firefighting horses. They are hitched to a 19th century horse-drawn steam engine, which would carry water to the scene of a fire while someone perched on a tiny metal chair on the contraption, which weighed several thousand pounds when it was filled up.
Apparently Sam and Don were two draft horses who pulled the steam engine in the 19th century, and are now immortalized in the museum. I would love to know where they were before they were donated.
Here is another early firefighting gadget: the Hunneman Hand Pump from 1870. William C. Hunneman learned blacksmithing from none other than Paul Revere, and designed this hand pump to help combat the fires that would often consume early American towns. Water could be pumped from a container through the hose, improving vastly on the bucket brigades.
This rickety structure is the Fort Supply Fire House from 1864, the first fire station to be built in what would become Oklahoma. Something tells me the “keep out” sign isn’t original, although with the free map you can get at the tourist office on the door.
I had never seen antique fire helmets before, and had no idea they could be so elaborate, or that they were once made of leather and metal. I suppose protecting your head was worth the discomfort from the heat. We also saw early firefighting coats made of rubber.
The 13 old fire engines are especially great, including this 1913 White engine used by the Lawton Fire Department. It looked like there had been a lot of serious restoration work on these things and they shined like new.
Here is a lovely 1919 Seagrave that was used by the Guthrie Fire Department.
You could spend quite a bit of time at the Firefighters Museum, examining the objects and appreciating just how far technology has come in being able to not just transport water and people to the flames, but also in protecting those brave firefighting people and finding new innovations in extinguishing and containing flames. Of course, firefighters don’t just fight fires these days, and the museum also has an exhibit on the Murrah Building bombing. I’m so glad I was finally able to see the museum, and that even in a place like Oklahoma City that I have thoroughly explored, that there will always be something new to discover, even if it’s from the 19th century.