"We limped through the winter," says Barbara Hammond, executive director of the museum.
When the problem got public attention a few weeks ago, the museum staff was stunned by how quickly it was solved. Michael Flannery of WCPO News (Channel 9) raised $20,000 for the work.
"Small organizations like us, we don't have the connections," Hammond says. "It's always a struggle."
The Fire Museum provides -- and preserves -- a unique perspective on Cincinnati's history.
Cincinnati was the first U.S. city with a paid, professional, horse-drawn fire fighting company, established in 1853.
"Everything that's here tells a story," Hammond says. "The story of the fire department corresponds with the history of Cincinnati."
As the city grew in population and outward, the fire department had to evolve as well, moving from simple hand-pumpers to steam engines, from volunteers to paid professionals.
Dating back to the early 20th century, the museum building first served as a home for the firefighters employed there. Shadows of the former inhabitants can be found among the exhibits, ranging from a gigantic distress drum from the early 19th century, retired from its place atop a building on Walnut Street, to the 1958 Ahrens-Fox fire engine, the last of its kind.
"Firefighting started out with a bunch of people with buckets," Hammond says.
Even the old buckets are on display.
A case displays 19th-century firefighter badges.
"When we opened, our main thrust was history," Hammond says, pointing out cherry red hose carts and emblazoned helmets of the same color.
But the museum's approach has changed since its opening in 1980. Hammond refers to these sorts of artifacts as "folk art," displaying the creativity and individuality of the bearer.
"It's telling the story a different way, and I think that's important," she says.
More than 20,000 children visited the museum last year, each taking a turn sliding down the authentic fireman's pole, trying their hands at the mock 19th-century Hunneman pumper in the basement or sounding the siren in the E-1 pumper upstairs.
A "safe house" in the basement offers children a sprint course in fire safety, going beyond the standard "stop, drop and roll."
"We provide valuable service to people, especially children," Hammond says.
Signs on the safe-house walls provide warnings about common household fire hazards and how to prevent them. The educational dimension of the museum is an effort to be "more responsive to the community and more relevant to the community" and to explore "critical issues of fire safety" with children, according to Hammond.
Outside the safe house several cases line the walls, filled with firefighters' patches from around the world. Donated by patrons and friends, the patches, along with a photography exhibit of modern Cincinnati firefighters, serve as a reminder that the objects on display are not relics of a bygone era. Instead, the museum represents the tangible foundation of an ongoing phenomenon.
Hammond asks herself a question about any artifact going on display, "What does that object convey to the viewer?"
The Cincinnati Fire Museum offers a sense of continuity, of individuals struggling within a certain sphere of time but not isolated from those who came before or followed after them.
With the financial crisis of the broken furnace behind her, Hammond looks forward to another year at the museum.
"We can move on, focus on the things we need to focus on," she says.
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