Connected through time

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Capt. T.W. “Buck” Johnson runs his hand across the paint on a restored 1928 Metropolitan ladder truck. The truck sits in the lobby of the King’s Fork Public Safety Center, a space dedicated to the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue’s history.

It all started when a firefighter rookie was asked to clean out a closet in the fire station. T.W. “Buck” Johnson obeyed his commander and discovered a career-long obsession in the process.

At the bottom of the pile of things in the closet, Johnson found a stack of photo albums, daily logs and scrapbooks stuffed with news clippings.

The young recruit was entranced. The aging photos documented big blazes, firefighter get-togethers and activities. Yellowed clippings from the local papers recorded the newsworthy infernos. The daily log memorialized all the action, from the historical to the mundane, in scrolling handwriting on oversized pages.

Email newsletter signup

For Johnson, that was all he needed to start him on the trail of collecting pieces of the fire department’s history.

“We’ve got a long history of our family being in this fire department,” said Johnson, now a captain in the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue. “I guess that’s why it means so much to me.”

With his commander’s permission, Johnson began squirreling away every piece of Suffolk’s fire service history he found. Medals and trophies. Portraits of former chiefs. Shoulder patches and name plates.

At first, the memorabilia simply took up one file in his drawer. Then, the drawer was full to bursting. Soon, the collection occupied an entire closet.

But there came a day when the collection wouldn’t fit in a closet anymore — the day he and others in the fire department decided to restore a 1928 Metropolitan ladder truck that had been one of the department’s first motorized vehicles.

That was when Johnson hatched an idea that would only be fully realized last August. That’s when fire department and city officials cut the ribbon on the King’s Fork Public Safety Center, a combination space that houses a fire station, fire department administration and emergency operations center. The building’s lobby is fully dedicated to the fire department’s history, housing the hundreds of pieces of history Johnson collected throughout the years.

“These things that you see are priceless,” Johnson said, standing in the lobby and looking around at the collection. “This is all our stuff. This is nobody else’s.”

Every piece in the collection comes from Suffolk — right down to the trophies the all-volunteer fire company won in regional firefighter competitions in the 1800s.

Johnson routinely takes curious visitors on tours around the fire truck and in front of the display cases, talking about the collection just as easily as if he’s reciting his own family history.

In many ways, he is. Johnson’s father, brother and nephew all either retired from Suffolk Fire and Rescue or still serve in the organization.

Johnson’s tours typically start at the beginning — with a display case housing items from 1884 to 1911, when Suffolk’s fire service was an all-volunteer outfit known as the Phoenix Steam Fire Engine Company. The Phoenix company had a band — the Phoenix Military Band — and much of the memorabilia from the day is about the band rather than their firefighting prowess. However, they did bring home trophies from regional fire skills competitions in events like hose-pulling and ladder-raising.

The town of Suffolk gave what soon became the Suffolk Fire Company $100 a year, and the company earned the rest of the money it needed through fish fries and barbecue sales.

In 1912, the town decided to hire its first paid fire chief, Eugene Hurley, who had been a longtime volunteer.

Hurley was followed by Chief R.L. Jacobs and Chief H.A. Applewhite. Under Applewhite’s command, a second station was built, necessitating another name change — this time to Suffolk Fire Department.

Under portraits of Hurley, Jacobs and Applewhite in the display cases rest photos of fires, daily logs and even a voting box with white and black marbles. According to Johnson, members of the fire service long ago would vote on new members using the marbles. If even one black marble showed up in the box when it was opened, the potential member would not be initiated.

Another of Applewhite’s achievements was purchasing the Metropolitan truck that now sits in the museum.

The truck was in full service in the Suffolk department for 44 years when it gave out in 1972 at a peanut plant fire. The truck sat in a metal storage building for some time — that is, until Johnson gravitated toward it.

“As a rookie, I would ask the officer on duty if I could go out there and play with it and try to get it started,” Johnson said.

He eventually got the antique running, and all the firefighters pitched in to restore it, from the paint and detailing to the parts under the hood. For years, the truck made appearances in Peanut Festival and Christmas parades, until it conked out again.

Once again, the truck was fully restored to its former glory in anticipation of someday having a space to display it — a possibility that was looking more and more like reality through the last decade.

“This is its final resting place,” Johnson said.

Near the truck is another popular icon of fire history — a fire pole.

This isn’t just any fire pole, though, but one that came from the Morgan Street station where Capt. Ben Rawles Sr. died after being overcome with smoke at a peanut facility fire. The pole is anchored to the ceiling with a plaque signed by City Council, city administration and fire department members during the August 2010 opening of the new King’s Fork facility.

Nearby, a display case shows off some of the department’s more recent history. More and more fire stations were added throughout the years. The city added a third shift to prevent firefighters from working too many hours. Firefighters also became certified in emergency medical services, causing the department to change its name once again to the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue.

Current Chief Mark Outlaw rose to his current position in 1994. He could be the last chief from Suffolk to head up the department — another reason Johnson felt compelled to have the museum up and running soon.

“We’ve been fortunate that all of our chiefs have been homegrown,” Johnson said. “This stuff means something to them. Who knows about a chief that comes from across the country?”

Outlaw himself says you “can’t put a dollar figure” on the items in the fire station’s lobby.

“The fire service is known for its history and its tradition,” Outlaw said. “Sometimes I think we just lose history in the past, but we should preserve it. As long as I’m here, we’re going to do that.”

Johnson acknowledged the extraordinary amount of trust various chiefs placed in him through the years to save the department’s history. He’s currently grooming some younger firefighters — one of them the great-grandson of a former chief — to take on the duty of preserving the department’s history.

“You can’t just read this stuff and remember it the next day,” Johnson said. “It takes somebody dedicated to it. It’s got to be somebody that’s got some kind of connection to it.

“Hopefully, there will be somebody like that that will carry it on.”