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Regional fire museum stokes an interest in history
By Jessica Laskey
Did you know we have a local fire museum?
I didn’t until I spoke with Larry Schluer, board member and volunteer docent manager of the Sacramento Regional Fire Museum in West Sacramento, which recently reopened after closing for the pandemic.
“It’s been tough,” admits Schluer, a retired firefighter. His family has put out blazes since 1865 when his great-grandfather emigrated from Germany and helped found Woodland’s first fire company.
“We opened a few months before the pandemic, then we closed and now we’re open again. The biggest problem is getting the word out that the museum exists. People don’t know about us.”
When he joined the museum’s board two years ago, Schluer made it his mission to spread the word. He constantly comes up with ideas to help the Pioneer Mutual Hook and Ladder Society, the nonprofit that runs the museum, capitalize on its collection of artifacts, documents and equipment from local fire service history.
“We have so much information and stories we impart when people come in,” Schluer says. “We have two huge pictures that came from the Wells Fargo Building at 555 Capitol Mall. I start my docent tour at the one that shows J Street and the waterfront in 1849—that’s all that existed in Sacramento at the time.
“After the first big fire in 1850, when 10 buildings burned down along the waterfront, the city started acquiring hand-pulled firefighting equipment. When they transitioned to a steam pumper (fire engine) that weighed a couple tons, horses were introduced to draw it. When the fire bell rang, the horses were trained to unhitch themselves and line up. The driver would pull a lever and the harnesses would fall down, the horses would get hitched up and they were out of the station in 30 seconds, which is remarkable even now.”
The ability to share fire facts with the public has been long in the making. The Pioneer Mutual Hook and Ladder Society was founded in 1990 to establish a fire museum.
“We’ve been collecting membership dues for almost 40 years with the idea of creating a museum someday,” Schluer says. To that end, the group gathered and stored equipment for years before moving into the West Sac building in 2019.
One unique acquisition is a Gamewell fire alarm panel, an alarm center developed in 1939 for the Sacramento fire dispatch operation housed in Winn Park. When the city sold the building in 2019, the society jumped to acquire and restore this piece of history.
“When the system was dismantled, the panels that were wired together were all cut apart,” Schluer says. “Our in-house electrician (Larry Hopkins) has been working to restore it ever since.” Visitors can activate one of two working street boxes in front of the museum to send an alarm back to the office display.
Other displays include a dorm room—complete with beds constructed at Folsom Prison—and a restored fire truck that visitors can sit in and “drive” with a two-foot steering wheel. “It’s a big crowd pleaser,” Schluer says.
Not to be missed is Sacramento’s first aerial ladder truck, an 85-foot beast drawn by horses and dating from 1912. More than two years went into the restoration.
The museum is open to the public, but Schluer encourages people to book private tours and parties to help sustain the museum. He’s planning additional activities, events and workshops and is recruiting docents—especially former firefighters—with the hope more visitors follow.
“Just about everybody leaves with a big smile on their face,” Schluer says. “Now we just need more people to know we’re here.”
The Sacramento Regional Fire Museum is at 3650 Industrial Blvd., West Sacramento. For more information, including hours and admission fees, visit sacfiremuseum.org or Facebook.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.