What’s in the Biloxi Fire Museum?

Chief Joe Boney leans on a ladder of an antique fire truck at West End Fire Co. No. 3 Fire House Museum in Biloxi.
Chief Joe Boney leans on a ladder of an antique fire truck at West End Fire Co. No. 3 Fire House Museum in Biloxi. ttisbell@sunherald.com

A corner in one room of the Biloxi Fire Museum tells a heartbreaking story.

Two firefighters, Edwin Kurt Jacquet Sr. and Carl M. Ohr, were among those responding to a fire on Oct. 20, 1986. In the midst of fighting the blaze, Ohr’s oxygen tank ran low but the alarm on his tank didn’t sound to alert him.

When Jacquet saw Ohr go down, he ran to help and threw his helmet out a window, a firefighter’s last means of alerting the others of distress. Nobody saw it. The two firefighters perished in the blaze, one trying to save his brother in uniform.

The memory still affects Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney. His voice cracks. His story ends. The room goes silent. The corner where the men’s pictures hang feels hallowed.

Boney didn’t just work with them. He would have been scheduled to work that shift that day.

“It could have been me there,” he said quietly.

The museum, a labor of love in which Boney plays a significant role, is housed in the old West End Hose Co. No. 3 Firehouse, built during the Great Depression by Works Progress Administration workers and completed in June 1938.

“There were three others built by WPA workers, but this is the only existing one,” he said.

After the building was abandoned, it became a storehouse for the Biloxi Police Department.

“One day, the chief sent me to clear the storeroom out,” Boney said. “Me and another guy, Larry Smith, also a fireman, were tired of seeing history destroyed. So we started collecting everything we could.”

In 1999, their small museum opened in the Dantzler House. Meanwhile, the old fire station fell deeper into disrepair. The city wasn’t willing to put money toward restoring it, so Boney, Smith and other firefighters agreed to do the work themselves.

“You see this beaded board?” Boney said of the wood wainscoting on one wall. “The old station was originally built in 1909. When this one was built, they were required to use original material as much as they could. So this came out of the 1909 building.”

The wooden floors “are the type used in here originally. This flooring came out of the old Lopez School when it was torn down. And the brick on the front arch is from the Gorenflo School.”

Two firetrucks are parked in the main firehouse. The museum owns the 1932 Ford pumper and the other Ford truck is on loan. The museum owns three trucks.

Early communications

The crown jewel of the museum’s exhibits is an engraved silver speaking trumpet presented to Phil McCabe, the first fire chief. It wasn’t just to look pretty; it was fully functional and routinely used at fires, like a megaphone.

“It was handed down to every chief up to around the 1930s or ’40s,” Boney said. “When we got radios, the trumpet was no longer needed.”

The museum also owns log books, which are records of every fire a firehouse responded to between 1909 and the early 1990s when computers replaced the handwritten logs.

One display case shows parade belts, which firefighters wore, as the name suggests, during parades. Parade helmets, Boney said, are made of papier mache and used strictly for those ceremonies.

“They just wore their regular hats back then,” the fire chief said. Two caps from the Civil War are on display because they were used as uniforms by the men who still owned them.

Volunteers for decades

Until 1952, Biloxi was protected by volunteer firefighters, Boney said. “The chief was paid — he was called the chief engineer — but everybody else was volunteer. In 1952, we got a fully paid department.”

There were four firehouses: East End, West End, Back Bay and Mississippi Hook & Ladder. Each one had a bell; a distinct number of clangs would sound the alarm for its volunteers to report immediately. Two of those bells are at the museum, one out front and one on display inside. Homeowners had responsibilities, too; every family was required to have a bucket in the house to help fight fires.

“It was considered prestigious to be members” of the volunteer department, Boney said. “Many of the prominent old Biloxi names — Dukate, Lopez — were volunteers.”

Decades before Ohr and Jacquet’s deaths, another Biloxi firefighter died in connection with an emergency. On March 15, 1951, volunteer Anthony Bernard Rouseau attempted to board the Central Fire Station’s engine en route to a fire in the laundry of the Buena Vista Hotel. He lost his footing and fell under the truck’s rear wheels.

The West End fire house was home to Bill Kornman, known as Uncle Bill.

“He actually lived here,” Boney said. “He was a school crossing guard, and a lot of people still remember him. He lived here in this room up to his death.” Boney did not know the year of Kornman’s death, but a framed feature article on him from 1955 said he was 65 years old at the time.

One room is dedicated to the annual Biloxi Firemen’s Day Parade and winners of the Miss Flame contest. Each year, girls would put change jars in stores, and the one who collected the most change was Miss Flame. The parade traditionally was held Sept. 19, the date in 1883 when Biloxi’s first volunteer fire company came into being.

“This year’s parade will be Sept. 17,” he said. The parade starts at 10 a.m. at Lameuse Street and U.S. 90, then goes north on Howard Avenue to the museum at 1046 Howard.

Biloxi firefighters get an introduction to their department’s history via the museum.

“We incorporate the museum into training for new firefighters,” Boney said. “We want them to know where we came from, that it’s a brotherhood.”

Biloxi Fire Museum

Where: 1046 Howard Ave., Biloxi

Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays or by appointment

Charge: No charge, but donations are accepted.

Etc.: This year’s Biloxi Firemen’s Day Parade will be held Sept. 17 at 10 a.m., starting at Lameuse Street and U.S. 90 in Biloxi, then north on Howard Avenue to the museum.