Tag Archives: oklahoma

Oklahoma State Firefighters Museum: History of Blaze-Battling in the Sooner State

Fire Engine

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.

OKC Fire Department

Fire Engine

Shawnee Fire Department

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.

Firefighters Memorial

Firefighters Memorial

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 Firefighters Museum

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).

Don and Sam

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.


Don and Sam

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.

Hunneman Hand Pump

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.

Fire Dept. 1

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.

Antique Fire Helmet

Antique Fire Helmet

Antique Fire Helmet

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.

Vintage Fire Engines

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.

Antique Fire Engine

Antique Fire Engine

Here is a lovely 1919 Seagrave that was used by the Guthrie Fire Department.

Fire Engines

Antique Fire Extinguishers

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.

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Scottish Rite Temple in Guthrie

One of the most surprisingly opulent places is in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Over the winter holiday, I drove up to the town north of Oklahoma City to visit the Scottish Rite Temple, an ornate, over-the-top mammoth of a building highly decorated with lush furnishings and arcane Masonic symbols. As you can see from the image above, it’s quite imposing, even more so since it is surrounded by single level homes, the termination of a road jutting off from downtown.

The temple was built in 1919, but its history goes back to a little before that. The cornerstone for the first Masonic building in Guthrie was laid in 1899, but the Masons moved into the current location after the capital of the state itself moved. Guthrie was originally where the new Oklahoma, getting statehood in 1907, set up its government, at a time when the town was the second largest city in the state. However, in a move involving a rather notorious incident where the state seal may or may not have been stolen, the capital was changed to Oklahoma City. The capitol building that remained in Guthrie was acquired by the Masons and incorporated into their new structure. The original legislative hall still remains.

Our tour started in the atrium, a stunning central hall with high ceilings from which there is the soft glow from stained glass and chandeliers. Every room in the temple was built to meticulously mimic a historic period of architecture or culture, and the atrium is a tribute to the Roman Empire. At 190 feet long and 52 feet wide, it certainly gives an air of awe, and the sleek marble makes it feel like a cousin to the temples of Rome.

The staircases at the ends of the atrium reminded me of Grand Central or other historic train stations, especially with the old clock ticking above.

We then entered the huge theatre, where the Masons perform the different degrees. I’m not really sure what that entails, but there were several Biblical-looking sets around the stage. I will also probably never get to see it, because even if women get to attend, they have to sit in an above area where they can’t see the action. However, I did get to hear the pipe organ, which was programmed to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, which is really the only song an organ needs to play. Like the atrium, the theatre has a Roman style to it, and there are 1,760 seats, so it’s quite impressive. All 5,376 pipes of the Kimball organ are in an arch above the stage.

Upstairs we visited the Pompeiian Room, a tribute to that city drowned in ash. The columns and friezes all have detailed painted patterns and the benches and chairs are models of ones originally carved from ivory and onyx. The rugs are from Ireland, but perhaps the camel hair in the wool fits the theme. My camera turned them all into blurs of light, but in the center of each stained glass window was a Masonic symbol.

The Assyrian Room was also heavy on the ancient world-inspiration. The chandeliers were designed to resemble the fire pots the Assyrians used back around 700 BC to heat their homes, and the upper edges of the room’s walls were even painted to appear singed by smoke. There were horse heads on the top of the columns and Assyrian sphinxes by the dark fireplace.

The Crystal Room was a gorgeous interpretation of 18th century English design, with its name taken from the Czech crystal chandeliers hanging from the towering ceiling. Every room of the temple seemed to have a sprawling, finely woven rug, but this one was the largest and apparently weighs 1,000 pounds. The rug had to arrive by train and be carried in twice by workers (the first time it was facing the wrong direction). This is back when Oklahoma was still a mess of a state, with dirt, dust, and oil derricks sprouting up everywhere, even right in front of the capitol building. To think of all this fit-for-royalty design arriving by train from the coasts is just crazy. Even now, Oklahoma isn’t exactly known for having lavish homes (with the exception of certain oil barons), and the Scottish Rite Temple is like finding a Fabergé egg in the carton of eggs you got at the grocery store.

The Rose Room is sort of a companion space to the Crystal Room, also done in the 18th century English style, although on a less grand scale. The stained glass in its windows was originally in the first Masonic temple in Guthrie, and had more symbols. The temple was dense with symbols, with two-head eagles and rules and compasses everywhere. If the chandelier in this picture looks slightly askew, it was designed that way, for a reason I couldn’t quite understand. Apparently it was a popular thing to make your guests feel like the room was moving back in the 18th century.

The “social promenade” (I love that term) at the top had views to the atrium and was in an Italian Renaissance style.

I loved the Writing Room, in a 17th century English style. Some of the chairs were made extra long for taller men. Were the men especially tall in Oklahoma in the early 1900s? This is where the Masons would write letters home while they were at the temple, although the room doesn’t get much use now, sadly. At least they haven’t put in computer outlets!

If I loved the Writing Room, I was absolutely infatuated with the library. In a Gothic style, it looked like something you’d find in Oxford, except for the cowboys and Indians on the pillars (one of the few Western touches in the building). There were literary quotes on the wall and Masonic texts in the cabinets. Our guide said there was also a secret room above the library where the librarian would have once stayed.

More old world elegance was in store with the Blue Room, which is also where many of the Masonic ceremonies take place (which is why there is an altar in the middle of the room).

Back downstairs, we entered the Egyptian Room, which was actually a 300-seat theatre. All the painting was done with pigments blended with egg whites, as the Egyptians did in their temples. (Our guide said the theatre had a rather awful smell the summer it was painted.) The curtain is from 1899, another carryover from the first Guthrie temple.

It was strange to go back out into the world from the Scottish Rite Temple, as if I had been time traveling to other countries and places, with odd symbols following me like a slightly off dream. If you ever find yourself in Guthrie, definitely pay the temple a visit. You will not be disappointed!

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