Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, January 26, 2013
Fire museum opens its doors, finally
Artifacts include 1929 firetruck, helmet, coal pit

The office desk that former Key West Fire Chief Joseph "Bum" Farto once sat behind now sits undisturbed on the second floor of the historic Fire Station No. 3.

Along with the desk are red fire jumpsuits, office phones and other assorted items that belonged to the famed former chief who went missing in 1976 after he was caught brokering a cocaine deal.

There's even one of the now hard-to-find T-shirts asking "Where is Bum Farto?" behind Plexiglas.

Retired firefighter Alex Vega was standing by the collection Wednesday, smiling as he recalled his firefighting career just beginning as the sun was setting on that of Farto, or "el Jefe," as he liked to be called.

For more than 100 years the old stone building has stood at the corner of Grinnell and Virginia streets, back when the Key West Fire Department consisted of only 12 paid men, 200 volunteers and horse-drawn steam engines.

After 21 years, about $600,000 in grants and donations and years of setbacks, Vega and director of operations Rich Siniscalchi say the firehouse's sirens and bells will ring once again at 5 p.m. today.

The Key West Firehouse Museum has been beset by myriad funding problems since Vega first brought the idea before city leaders in 1992.

"They were still using the building as recently as 1998," Vega said, laughing as he walked around pointing to knickknacks, nozzles, bells and pieces that speak to the history of Key West. One interesting note: The fire pole that firefighters used to slide from the second-floor living quarters to the ground floor where the horses and steamers were kept is made of galvanized steel, not the typical firehouse brass. To this day, no one is quite sure why.

"Maybe it was cheaper or maybe they just didn't want to polish the brass," Siniscalchi wondered aloud.

In the early 1990s, as plans for a new fire facility on North Roosevelt Boulevard were being finalized, city officials began talking about converting the old fire station into condominiums or using it as a garage for city vehicles.

That's when Vega, who began his firefighting at Station No. 3, stepped in and saved the building from sure destruction.

Vega walked from one exhibit to the next telling stories about each piece and how it made its way to the museum. Over the years, a city leader, widow, retired firefighter or attentive collector might stumble across something and call Vega to see if he was interested in an old fire helmet, patch or firehose nozzle.

And by the looks of things, he didn't turn down any callers.

"If it wasn't for the generosity of this community, this never would have gotten off the ground," Vega said, adding that Key West developer Ed Swift donated the 1929 firetruck that is now the flagship of the collection.

If not the firetruck, then perhaps the old fire bell that hung at the Key West City Cemetery for decades will be the big draw. The bell was rung to alert both firefighters and residents.

The museum once housed horses ever at the ready to pull steam engines and water hoses.

Vega discovered what he believes is one of only three remaining firehouse coal pits in the nation.

"They kept those steam engines, which were steam pumps, really warm all the time, so they could fire them up quickly when they were needed," Monroe County Public Library historian Tom Hambright told The Citizen in 2007. "They would have had to tend to the pumps and rotate the coal, and put the smoldering coal someplace, to keep from starting a fire. This pit has been preserved nicely."

There's also a piece of the World Trade Center that New York City firefighters brought down themselves to present to Vega and the museum.

The museum also houses the only known Cuban firefighter memorabilia -- patches and medals -- in the United States. Vega and Siniscalchi could find no other such display in the country, they said.

"This community has been very generous over the years," Vega said.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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