A Publication of WTVP

“Ready at the Bell,” an exhibit of artifacts and memorabilia of the Peoria Fire Department, opened April 4 at the Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House Museum. The exhibit will be open during normal tour hours: from 1 to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, until the beginning of August.

“All ages will find this exhibit interesting,” said Flanagan Site Manager Gloria LaHood. The admission price of $4 for adults and $2 for children also includes a guided tour of the house.

Battallion Chief Doug Brignall, author of the book Peoria Firefighters – A Proud History, assisted in development of the exhibit. Engineer Marty Baker, who helped with research for the book, has also assisted with the Flanagan exhibit. The book, published in April 2000, provides an encyclopedic overview of firefighting in Peoria, with glimpses of activity in nearby communities. It’s available for sale at the exhibit.

The book chronicles 150 years, from 1846 until 1996. Prior to that time, fighting fires was a task for bucket brigades involving all able-bodied men, women, and children.

The exhibit spotlights one of Peoria’s earliest volunteer companies: new Peoria Volunteer Fire Company #4, a group of German-Americans organized in 1858, with headquarters in 1860 near present-day Jefferson Street and MacArthur Highway. They responded to structure fires and to general alarms and were the only volunteer group not disbanded after the paid force was established in 1865. Their National Water Throwing Championship trophy, won in Chicago in 1878, is displayed. The 1855 Button hand pumper, which they used, is displayed at Peoria’s Wheels of Time Museum. It fought every major fire in Peoria for nearly 45 years.

Fire-fighting gear worn into a burning house last year during a rescue attempt demonstrates the protective quality of today’s gear and provides insight into the life-threatening environment of a fire. “The uniform is completely trashed, the air mask melted, and the leather helmet and plastic face shield scarred, but the firefighter survived. He had second and third degree burns on his ear and part of his cheek,” Brignall reported. “He was on fire when he came out.”

Another part of the exhibit focuses on communications. In the earliest days, a discoverer would run through the streets yelling “Fire, fire!” By the late 1850s, the bell at the Congregational Church on Main Street, between Jefferson and Madison streets, became the fire signal. The bell was to be used only in case of fire, and $3 was given to the first man to ring out the charge, Brignall’s book says. In 1870, Peoria began installing pullboxes throughout the city. These were connected to bell strikers mounted in the fire bell towers.

The exhibit includes a pullbox and a brass bell built into an ornate oak case that hung either in a firehouse or a residence, Brignall said. For many years, fire officials also were connected at home to the pullbox system. In 1987, boxes were removed from street corners. Today, a computer-aided dispatch system sounds tones and speakers transmit information regarding fires.

Although focused on firefighting activity, the book shows the interrelationship of various aspects of city life, including development of the first water works and the influence of early industries.

A display showing the location of brewers and distillers is among the exhibits in the basement of Flanagan. “I wish I could have included an entire chapter on the brewing and distilling industry in Peoria,” Brignall said.

The 1904 Corning Distillery Fire is still considered Peoria’s worst. More than 50,000 gallons of burning spirits created a river of fire. Fourteen men and nearly 3,200 cattle died. The city paid more than $6,000 to dispose of the rotting cattle. A 1935 blaze in the Hiram Walker and Son Distillery rackhouse destroyed nearly 100,000 barrels of whiskey and produced a glow so bright it was seen in Bloomington. The fire cost the federal government approximately $8 million in uncollected excise taxes on the lost liquor.

Peoria’s deadliest house fire occurred April 11, 1989. The arson on NE Glendale Avenue claimed the lives of seven young children and two adults.

The firefighting community took a personal loss on September 11, 2001, when 343 firefighters died. “You feel like you knew every one, because firefighters are the same,” Brignall said.

Locally, at least three firefighters have already been activated for military service due to recent world events. “They’re taking care of business,” he said. “We pray for their safe return.”

The exhibit at 942 NE Glen Oak Avenue in Peoria’s oldest residence pays tribute to Peoria firefighters and the proud history they continue to write. AA!