A fire truck with lights and sirens going races past you. You might wonder where it’s going. But then you don’t give it another thought.
To most people, firefighters are a mystery.
They don’t know that volunteer fire departments were originally formed to fight tobacco barn fires. They don’t know that before modern technology, fire chiefs used what they called a speaking trumpet to give instructions to the firefighters. They don’t know that when a firefighter dies in the line of duty, none of the other firefighters will ever use his or her hook again — it turns into a memorial to the fallen.
Most people probably don’t even know that on any given night, there are firefighters eating and sleeping at the fire station.
Jennifer Kuykendall, Wayne County Museum director, hopes to make the firefighting business and the men and women who risk their lives to do it a little less of a mystery through a new exhibit, “A Courageous Calling: The Firefighters of Wayne County.”
It opens May 4 and runs through the end of August.
On opening day, if there are no fires at the time, the Goldsboro Fire Department will have an interactive event just for the children. There will also be a fire truck and real-life firefighters the children can talk with. Also on hand will be Sparky the Firedog mascot.
Kuykendall said the idea for an exhibit on firefighters came about while the agriculture exhibit was going on.
“We talked to people who were in the tobacco fields about how important the volunteer fire departments were to rural farmers,” she said. “Because of the nature of tobacco and how it’s cured over low flames, those barns burned down a lot. You weren’t so sad if your house burned down, you could just build a new house. But if your tobacco barns burned down, you lost your whole year’s livelihood. Volunteer fire departments, especially in rural areas, to save what could be a year’s worth of income for a family. I just got fascinated with firefighters.”
Kuykendall said firefighting is a huge part of Wayne County.
“We want to celebrate the history of all the fire departments,” she said. “And we’re also curious about their traditions and rituals.”
In the exhibit will be photographs of firefighters and photos of local fires from the past. Other photos will show the inside of firehouses. There will also be some old equipment that firefighters used to use. Videos of interviews with some firefighters will be shown.
There will also be an interactive corner for children, where they can try on some firefighters’ boots and a coat, a fire helmet and an old airpack.
The museum has a collection of toy fire trucks from the 1960s that will be included in the exhibit, along with items from local collectors.
“We want to honor our firefighters for doing the incredibly dangerous work that they do,” Kuykendall said. “And we want to educate people about some aspects of firefighting that maybe they didn’t know about.”
One of the firefighters interviewed for the exhibit was 67-year-old Jay Howell with the Nahunta Volunteer Fire Department, who has been in the business 50 years.
He said when that department started in 1959, there were no fire hydrants. The firefighters got their water from ponds and streams. Then came the quick dump system, where a tanker would haul water from wherever it could be found and put it into a holding tank at the scene of a fire. The truck could hold anywhere from 1,800 to 3,000 gallons of water — enough to put out a normal house fire.
Howell also remembers the days when firefighters had no radios on their truck, before there were even cell phones. He said if a community had a fire, the dispatcher in Goldsboro would have to call a local resident to come out and manually activate the fire siren.
The firefighter has seen much destruction and death during his career. He said firefighters deal with it by talking to each other.
“Sometimes a firefighter hits a career high of trauma and that’s their tipping point,” Howell said. “We’ve had fires in our district, and we’ve had loss of life in our district. Sometimes you see more than you can absorb quickly, and it takes a while to digest what’s just happened.”
He hopes visitors to the exhibit will learn how Wayne County, in just 60 or 70 years, has gone from have no fire trucks and no fire protection to now being a well-oiled machine protecting people in the county during wrecks, fires, flooding and hurricanes and tornadoes.
James Farfour, deputy chief of the Goldsboro Fire Department, didn’t start out to be a firefighter. After getting his degree in law enforcement, he came to Goldsboro looking for a job at the age of 23. He found out the fire department had an opening, applied and got the job, which has turned into a 25-year career in firefighting.
One of the things he remembers best involves a speaking trumpet.
“Before radios and any modern technology, firefighters used a speaking trumpet, which was a megaphone of sorts,” Farfour said. “Officers carried those to yell instructions to the firefighters. We had one from this department that we think was from the 1880 to 1900 period. It went missing for 90-some years. A volunteer firefighter found it in New York state on the side of the road and returned it to us. We don’t know how it disappeared, but it’s now one of the treasures that we have here in our display case.”
In that same display case are the nameplate and steam whistle from one of the horse-drawn steam pumpers that the Goldsboro Fire Department had back in the day. It is from the Mary Alice, named for the daughter of the fire chief at that time.
“They took the steam pumper out of service around 1940,” Farfour said. “Then it went to Herman Park for the children to play on. During World War II when the government needed metals for the war drive, they scrapped the steam pumper.”
Farfour said the steam pumpers were made of brass and wood, and brass was quite a commodity during the war.
But before the Mary Alice was scrapped, firefighters at that time removed the nameplate and whistle. The story is that they didn’t ask permission, they just did it.
Farfour also noted that the horses that pulled the old steam pumpers were trained so that when an alarm went off, most of them would come out of their stalls on their own and stand at the pumper. The firefighters would then lower a quick rig that was kept in the ceiling over the horses’ necks and hook up the pumper and would be out the door in no time at all.
Farfour has remained in the firefighting service because “it’s the best job in the world. It’s not a job you end up in. It’s a job you strive for. When you come to work, for the most part, the people you work with are your brothers and sisters.
“It’s the closeness, camaraderie and trust you have in each other. Even if you have an argument, you know that person is still going to have your back.”
Kuykendall said she thinks people are generally captivated by firefighters and firefighting, and hopes visitors will learn a lot from the exhibit.