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History of the Racine Fire Bells

From the History of the Racine Fire Department

FiremanFor years the fire fighters of Racine have provided protection to the citizens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their task at times was and still is a formidable one. As we approached the middle of the 20th century a group of community minded citizens asked: Who would help the fire fighters at a fire when the minutes turn to hours and the temperature dips below freezing? What about during the heat of summer when firemen are dressed in full gear battling a raging inferno? What about the history and folk lore that makes the Racine Fire Department what it is today? By 1948 the department had 91 men to protect the citizens of Racine, and yet something was missing.

In February of 1948, Chief Rudy Anderson encouraged and approved the establishment of an organization of civilians interested in addressing the concerns of the fire service. Three men, Herb Brown, Milton Hammerson, and Father Arthur Kelly, met with the chief and discussed how they could go about setting up a buffing organization in Racine. It was decided to contact other fire buff groups across the country to see how they operated, and seek practical information concerning their constitution and by laws. Not long after receiving this information another meeting was held with the chief, and the pros with the cons of having a fire bell club in Racine were debated at length. It was agreed that an endeavor like this should proceed slowly and with prudence.

BadgeDuring the month of September, 1948 several men met to discuss the formation of the Racine Fire Bell Club. Those in attendance included Herb Brown, Bud Orth, William McKinley, Charles Schiller, Clarence Cape, Hack Humble, Dave Tichter, Father Arthur Kelly, and Chief Rudy Anderson. In the course of discussion a committee was formed to draft the constitution and by laws of the group. They would report back to the group as a whole on November 18th, 1948 and formally approve a constitution and by laws for the organization. They further set January 1st, 1949 as the last date for accepting charter members to the new club, and the Racine Fire Bells were born.

This group of men dedicated themselves to insuring that our firemen could perform their duties to the utmost of their ability and not have their physical well being left to the unknown. Shortly after their formation, the Fire Bells started responding to fires, serving a hot cup of coffee or a cooling drink of water to the dehydrated firemen. Occasionally at greater alarms of fire the Fire Bells would serve a hot meal or provide a warm blanket or two when the weather was frigid.

Fire SceneWhen the Fire Bells were not chasing fires their organization grew by leaps and bounds. Often the group was more social than service due to the fact that fires were occasionally few and far between. These social gatherings became a place to exchange ideas about the fire service and the firemen they served. Learning about the intricate ways in which firemen went about their job of extinguishing a fire as to minimize the loss to the building and contents became intriguing to them. The many ups and downs of a fireman's job also offered an insight into the difficulties many of these firemen faced when battling the flames of destruction. Basically the Fire Bells became students of the fire service, and their reward was closer ties with those they served and a better understanding of why fires are fought in a certain way.

As the years went by, the Fire Bells expanded their knowledge and added a new element to their skills; First Aid! Under the direction of the Fire Department, the Fire Bells undertook American Red Cross training in first aid and became card carrying members of that organization. Their initiative paid off later on as the club became more active in providing first aid at many local events.

IFBAIn March of 1958, the Racine Fire Bells joined a much larger group of fire buffs: The International Fire Buff Associates (IFBA) which was formed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1953. The IFBA is a nationwide organization made up of Fire Buff groups from across the world with approximately 82 clubs in the United States, and several other clubs from Canada, England, Germany, and Australia to name a few. Through the IFBA ideas were exchanged, better ways of serving the fire service were found, and buffing in general was enhanced by the fellowship of other buffs from around the world.

The 1960's saw the Fire Bells get their first canteen vehicle. This 1956 Ford Panel Truck was purchased by the Racine Fire Bells from the Milwaukee Firebells in November of 1965. The Ford was outfitted with a stove, ice chest, coffee and water jugs, and a red light. Just what the club needed to get their services to a fire or other emergency. Although the Ford had a red light, the club was only allowed to use it if directed by the Fire Chief or once they were on the scene of an emergency. The Ford was a big improvement over the trunks of cars which is how the Fire Bells operated for almost 20 years.

BellA real BELL ringer and major accomplishment for the Fire Bells was the opening of FIREHOUSE 3 MUSEUM in April of 1977. This former Racine Fire Station is proudly presented as an educational experience to the Citizens of Racine. A place of honor where the artifacts relating to the Racine Fire Department are displayed for the benefit of the entire community. Built in 1881 this building stands as a reminder of what fire fighting was all about at the turn of the century. Hoofs pounding on brick streets, coal, smoke, and steam billowing into the air, and the anxious clanging of bells were familiar sights and sounds of that early era of fire fighting in Racine. Occasionally today as one walks through the museum reminiscing about those days gone by, the cry of FIRE can be heard echoing in the air as the ghosts of firemen race to their appointed task. Tours are conducted every Sunday except holidays from 1 to 4:30 pm.

Shortly after the Fire Bells acquired the museum, they obtained another canteen vehicle in January of 1978. This one came from the Mt. Pleasant Fire Department and was donated to the club. This vehicle represented an improvement in that up to 8 firemen could be brought inside to take advantage of the warmth provided by powerful heaters. A propane stove warmed up food or a fresh pot of coffee as the situation required.

In 1985 this vehicle was replaced with a bigger and better unit which remains in service today. This canteen is equipped with a microwave oven, air conditioning, two rapid coffee makers, portable generator power, and many cabinets in which to store other essentials for the fire scene.

Along with the new vehicles and equipment the club took on more community service in the form of First Aid. The Fire Bells provide stand by first aid at such events as the Kraut Festival, Air Shows, Salmon-A-Rama, Racine Raiders Football Games, 4th of July Parades, and other local events. Over 500 hours a year are donated to these functions at no cost to the citizens of the community.

As the Fire Bells look to the future, the need for their services will only continue to grow. The rewards of serving their community and the fire fighters are beyond measure. A friendly smile or a pat on the back for a job well done has gone a long way for these fire buffs who serve untiringly. Dedication and service will always be foremost on their minds; serving the fire fighters, and citizens of their community with enthusiasm and vigor second to none.

Significant Dates in the History of the Racine Fire Bells

Rehab Vehicles and Firehouse 3 Museum

Rehab Car 55

RFBC Car 55 - 1956 Ford (1965-1978) from Milwaukee

Rehab Car 63

RFBC Car 63 - (1978 to 1985) from Mt Pleasant FD

Rehab Car 64

RFBC Car 64 - 1969 IH (1985-1998)

Rehab Car 64 and 65

RFBC Car 64 1996 Chevy P6/LDV Rehab Truck placed in service April 18, 1998
during a dedication ceremony at Firehouse 3 Museum.
Rehab 65 - from Mt Pleasant FD backup truck.

Firehouse 3 Museum

Firehouse 3 Museum - This former Racine Fire Station was built in 1882 and served as home to a horse drawn hose cart, horse drawn steamer, motorized fire engine, and Racine's first full time Rescue Squad. The building was decommissioned in 1968 when several fire companies were consolidated at the new Safety Building. The museum is open for Party on the Pavement in October and by special appointment. School groups and Tours welcome!. Cost is free to the public.