Key West has preserved its rich history of public safety and museum docents at the Key West Firehouse Museum are happy to tell guests how the first responders put out fires in the old days, even before fire trucks existed.
“Big George was the favorite horse of the Key West Fire Department because he was the strongest, fastest and most intelligent. When the fire bell rang, George got in front of the steam engine and was ready to be harnessed,” said Alex Vega, museum president and also a retired Key West Firefighter.
The museum is celebrating its second year as a public institution. The former fire house, located at 1024 Grinnell St., was once Vega’s headquarters.
“We used to have to open the windows after we were done with a call because the residual carbon monoxide from the engines filled the upstairs,” he said.
How old is the fire station? Well, it’s one of only a few in the country that dates back to the era of using coal as fuel. There’s a hole cut in the floor for ease of shoveling. And there’s a 1929 La France Fire Truck complete with a hand crank and a steering wheel located on the “wrong” side. The truck also features the emblem of a Dalmatian, the mascot of fire departments all over the United States. Museum volunteer Rich Siniscalchi understands said the dogs played a dual role.
“The Dalmatians were used to protect the trucks and they also could find fire hydrants in the snow,” Siniscalchi said. “Back in the day, insurance companies would pay the first company that arrived to extinguish the fire.”
The museum also features a collage of some of the most tragic fires in Key West.
Vega said his most memorable experiences with the Key West Fire Department occurred during hurricanes.
“When the eye of the storm came over the island we had 45 minutes to do checks,” said Vega, explaining that trucks could not be out during the full brunt of the storm.
Both Vega’s father, frank, and his son, Vince, are also firefighters. He said it’s in his blood, as is the museum.
“A little voice from upstairs told me I have to make this museum and preserve the history,” Vega said.
Vega said that even as a young firefighter he was interested in the long history of the department. He used to listen to the club of old firefighters and support personnel called Tiger Hose Guys and never forgot their stories. In preparation for the museum’s opening, he tracked down all the Key West Fire Department’s old badges and as many living fire chiefs as he could. He remembers taking the photo of KWFD Fire Chief Dickie Wardlow a few days before he passed away. The museum even has Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto’s desk. The former fire chief disappeared before sentencing began on his conviction for drug dealing, sparking a popular urban meme “Where’s Bum Farto?”
“I used to think he died but after doing some research I think he spent the rest of his life in Costa Rica,” Vega said.
Unfortunately the museum is in desperate need of funds and some months the admission cost barely pays for the electric bill. Send donations to P.O. Box 5563, Key West or stop by the museum is at 1024 Grinnell St., Key West. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.