“Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.”
– Chief Edward F. Croker, Fire Dept. City of New York (FDNY), 1908.
Russo’s latest display honors firefighters with ‘The Engine House’
SOLON– On Dec. 7, 1736, Benjamin Franklin formed the first organized group of men dedicated to preventing and fighting fires. Other such companies of dedicated volunteers in Philadelphia soon followed his 30-member Union Fire Company, and the model soon spread. Today both paid (career) and volunteer firefighters still stand ready around the clock to respond to fire and other emergencies. In Solon, 30 volunteers respond to fires, vehicle accidents, medical emergencies, hazardous materials incidents and even watch for severe weather.
Toni Russo felt they should receive some recognition.
“The library has wanted to do a window dedicated to the fire department for a long time. It’s high time to do this,” she said.
Known locally for her stunning thematic window displays at the Solon Public Library, Russo is rolling out “Engine House,” a tribute to firefighters, for October, which includes the annual Fire Prevention Week (Oct. 6 through 12). Some organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America dedicate the entire month to fire prevention and preparedness. “Engine House” gives observers a view of the life of the firefighter through a variety of historic equipment, turnout coats and other items common to the firefighting and emergency response. Russo calls it an evolution of the fire service.
Several local firefighters such as Marvin Stastny, Denny Hansen and Tom Trump loaned nozzles, uniforms, coats and other items for the display from the Solon Fire Department. Starting on the left side of the extensive display, one sees the earliest items in the collection, dating from the mid-to-late 1800s. “We have some wonderful items,” she said.
The centerpiece on the left is a silver-plated fire officer’s speaking trumpet from the late 1800s provided by Sandy Hanson. “That’s probably the most valuable and unique piece in there,” Russo noted.
Long before two-way radios, chiefs, captains and lieutenants used such horns to project their voices at a fire scene as they gave orders to their men. Also on the left side are various vintage fire extinguishers, some having used chemicals outlawed today due to their toxicity. A genuine fire hydrant also sits among the items along with vintage brass nozzles.
As the viewer progresses to the right, more current items are seen. “The most current would probably be the Ruzicka’s fire in 1988,” Russo said, pointing to a newspaper clipping showing Iowa City’s then-brand-new aerial ladder fire truck at the scene of the large blaze. Also on the right is the fire phone which was used to alert the Solon volunteers before pagers and portable radios. Carolyn Trump worked the phone, located in the hardware store, notifying members of the department as they would pick-up the continuously ringing phone.
Two things struck Russo as she began gathering items and talking with firefighters and their families.
First, the modesty of the firefighters impressed her. “They’re kind-of a ‘hot rod,’ like rodeo cowboys. It’s a lot of excitement. It’s a rush. But in their personal aspect, their modesty and humility is overwhelming. You wouldn’t know until you see their license plate with the little insignia that they were even firefighters.”
The second aspect that ignited her interest was the local legacy of firefighting. “There’s a deep core and a tradition of firefighting in these small town communities. I found it familial, running in families for generations,” she said. Russo found at least three Solon families with a personal history of serving the community through the fire service. “They go back a generation or two, either on the wife’s side or the husband’s side, of firefighters.”
She cited Marvin Stastny and his wife Bernita as a prime example. Marvin was recently honored for 50 years on the Solon fire department while Bernita’s father, a Reyhons, was a chief in a Linn County town. Then there’s Dean Trump and his wife Carolyn, “the firefighter’s wife extraordinaire,” as Russo called her. Their son Tom started going to fires with Dean at the age of 11 and was the youngest to join the department when he turned 18. Dean’s second assistant chief helmet is prominently displayed front and center in tribute to his many years of dedication to Solon. Russo also mentioned current Solon chief Bob Siddell, whose father was a firefighter, as well as his son.
The more Russo got to know the Solon smoke eaters, the easier it was for her to understand why the tradition runs in families. “You see it at the station, these little tiny boys with their dads, and their eyes are just huge. It’s like, ‘wow.’ So you see that aspect of it.”
In addition to the human stories, there are the items: the equipment, the tools, the helmets and uniforms. Some of it carefully preserved by individual firefighters, or by various departments, other times left piled up in an attic or storage room. “All the small town departments have these boxes of stuff, archival stuff,” Russo said. “These boxes get moved around until one day the chief says, ‘get rid of it,’ and all of this history, and it is extraordinary history, is gone.” Russo lamented that so much of the history of the volunteer fire departments is lost as older and former members die. “It’s (generally) not written down anywhere, except maybe in bits and pieces. There’s not a central place (collecting and documenting this history).” And much like with aging veterans, once they’re gone, so too are their stories.
However, some guys, like Solon’s Denny Hansen are working to preserve at least some of that history. Hansen is also a career firefighter with the City of Iowa City and is documenting that department’s history. He also secured a segment of a brass fire pole for Russo’s display.
While the visual extravaganza may look like a mini-firefighter’s museum, what isn’t readily visible is also of great importance, according to Russo, that being the families of the firefighters, and their stories. “The families’ stories are as important as the firefighters’ stories because they make it possible for him (to go volunteer). They cover his bases and they support him, and they sacrifice. That needs to be acknowledged as much as anything… it’s huge” she said.
The support includes accepting the fact a volunteer firefighter can be called away to duty at any hour of any day; weekends, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries are all fair game for the siren call or the pager they carry. “The wives I talked to said, ‘Oh yeah, he had to leave his birthday party,’ or Christmas dinner. They’re like a doctor on-call, they’re always at the mercy of that beeper.” The families also quickly learn to accept the risk of injury or death which comes with firefighting, and deal with the possibility that the next time he or she dashes out the door on a run, it could be the last time they see them.
“It’s just something that’s always there,” Russo said, adding she was impressed with, “(the firefighters’) commitment, it’s remarkable. Their families’ support, their heroics done so matter-of-factly… it’s always dangerous for them. I’m amazed at the competency, the discipline, the continual training, it’s impressive, it’s awesome.”
She sees the firefighters polishing the chrome and brass on their engines and trucks as, “an act of love. It’s like guys with their Harleys (motorcycles) everything is just beautiful.” Russo also found beauty in the vintage equipment. “There’s so much brass and tin and leather, and the brick, and the silver plate on the horn (speaking trumpet), the insignias (shoulder patches from various fire departments)… it’s just really a genre of art.”
As usual, food is also incorporated into the display, ranging from the cup of coffee that keeps firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, cops and nurses going at all hours, to plates of food left behind as the firefighter goes on a response, and the ever popular pancake breakfast platter. In Solon, as with many communities, the fire department hosts a breakfast as a fundraiser, and it has become a tradition of its own. Russo picked up on these community meals. “They’re family oriented, it’s like the church-basement supper. It’s your community, your tradition, your family.”
Russo hopes this window will be as well received, and have as much impact as her veterans tribute did back in 2011. “Like with our vets, these guys are our neighbors, we should be grateful for them. It’s a tradition; it’s a cultural, community, family tradition that’s just held in the highest regard by the people involved in it. It’s the guys forming a front line for the community.”
Engine House is on display now through Nov. 9 at the Solon Public Library, 320 W. Main St. Phone 319-624-2678 or online, www.solon.lib.ia.us .