Over 100 years of firefighting history

A ticket to the New Ulm Firemen’s Ball from 1924

NEW ULM — The New Ulm Fire Department (NUFD) has been around for nearly 150 years and in that time it has amassed an impressive collection of artifacts. Due to space limitations and problems with preservation, few of these items have been on display to the public. However, this could change in the near future.

Last month the City Council authorized two recommendations that will assist the NUFD with long-term preservation of the artifacts.

First, the council agreed to advertise for a conservation assessment and long-range preservation plan for historical items held by NUFD. The city also agreed to authorize the design and construction of a new storage facility to be used by NUFD, New Ulm Police Department and Animal Control. The NUFD plans to use space in this facility to store antique fire equipment. In March, NUFD will need a new location to store the equipment as the former storage facility has been sold.

Fire Chief Paul Macho said the current conditions in which these items are stored is not conducive to preservation and the department is interested in showcasing the vintage items to the public.

The NUFD has a wide array of firefighting artifacts dating back to 1870. The department has even kept the minutes from firehouse meetings going back to 1870. Those early meeting minutes are not easy to read. For the first several years the minutes were written in German.

A vintage photo of members of the NUFD in a parade pulling the old hand pumper

Some of the smaller artifacts include fire bells, lanterns, fire pull boxes, gas masks and especially old photographs.

“The department was always big on pictures,” Macho said.

Every year formal pictures are taken of the fire crews. Photographs of department members go back to the beginning of the department.

In addition, the department has scores of historical photos taken from the scene of major New Ulm fires. Original black-and-white photos from the 1930 Kretsch garage fire and the January 1936 fire that nearly wiped out downtown New Ulm are stored in photo albums and damaged pictures frames. The photographs are so old that in some cases the picture frames are considered antiques and are in need of restoration. The department hopes the conservation assessment will assist with the cataloguing of these one-of-a-kind documents for future generations.

Not all of NUFD’s antiques will be able to fit in a display case. The largest antiques in the NUFD collection are vintage firefighting vehicles.

A photo of the Eagle Roller Mill fire, April 26, 1957

An old horse-drawn hand pumper is still owned by the department. This pumper was one of the first machines purchased by NUFD and it is nearly 150-years-old. Macho said it is one of only two hand pumpers in the state.

Few examples of the hand pumpers survive since the mechanical components included leather materials that become damaged with long-term exposure to the elements.

“Cold does them no good,” Macho said.

This is one of the reasons the department wants to move the collection into a new building. Heated storage would go a long way to preserve the antique equipment. Macho said anything above freezing would help.

The hand pumper served the department for nearly 20 years, but it was not the most efficient way to fight fires. The volunteers nicknamed it the “Mankiller” as it took half a dozen men to operate it. After 15 minutes the men would be exhausted and needed to be replaced.

After a large fire claimed the Merchant’s Hotel in March 1885, the NUFD requested that the City Council provide better equipment, but for two years their demands were ignored.

In 1887, the firemen gave the council an ultimatum: either provide better equipment or the department would dissolve. A year later NUFD received an American La France steam engine pumper. The steamer was horse-drawn and came with a coal cart. The firemen were using equipment that required fire to fight bigger fires. The steamer was a part of the NUFD’s fleet for several years until water mains and hydrants became commonplace in the city. The steamer is still in the NUFD’s possession and is stored alongside the hand pumper it replaced.

In 1919, the NUFD received its first motorized pumper. Like the steamer, the 1919 truck was built by American La France. It was capable of pumping 350 gallons per minute. Over time the department purchased new trucks and the 1919 truck was sold. It eventually became part of a museum near Rushford. In the mid-1980s the museum owner was forced to sell it and the NUFD was notified their old truck was going up for auction.

A group of local firefighters including former Fire Chief Jerry Plagge were able to acquire the truck for $6,850. The truck was only expected to sell for $3,000 but a bidding competition started between the New Ulm people and a group from Arizona. Plagge said the group bidding against them eventually backed down after the crowd started booing them.

“Everyone wanted us to have it since it was our truck,” Plagge said. “It still said New Ulm on it.”

The NUFD’s next pumper upgrade was the 1930 American La France capable of pumping 750 gallons a minute. As with the 1919 pumper, the 1930 model was sold off but Plagge said it was easier to get this truck back. The pumper was initially sold off to a local implement dealer. However, after the implement dealer passed away, the family donated the truck back to NUFD.

The final antique vehicle owned by NUFD is the 1958 Pirsch fire truck. It is the vehicle most frequently seen by the public. The Department uses it to transport Miss New Ulm during parades. It also serves as a caisson during funerals for firefighters.

All these vehicles are maintained by members and former members of the NUFD. Macho said several retired firefighters put in long hours to fix up the vehicles. Just last year a few retired firefighters managed to get the 1919 pumper running again. The department was able show the nearly 100-year-old vehicle off during a vintage car drive-in event.

The construction of a new storage facility would allow the department extra space to not only display these vehicles, but to give volunteers space to restore and maintain the items.

Macho is hoping the longterm preservation plan and new storage facility will be in place by 2020 for the NUFD’s 150 anniversary celebration.

“It would be nice to have the restoration work done by then,” said Macho.