Flashing LED lights, hydraulic rescue tools and turntable ladders are standard equipment for firefighters these days, but it wasn’t always like that. The Reading area has a rich history of firefighting few know about. To learn more about the history of firefighting in Berks County we spoke with Fire Historian and retired Fire Chief Wiliam Rehr of the Reading Area Firefighters Museum.
The Reading Area Firefighters Museum is one of Reading’s little hidden treasures you may have unknowingly passed. It sits on the corner of South 5th Street and Laurel Street in the former Liberty fire house building.
The Liberty Fire Company building was constructed in 1854. At the time it faced 5th street. However, after its renovation in 1876 the building was redesigned with two large bays facing Laurel Street. Rehr says this is why the address is 501 south 5th and not Laurel Street. Not only did the renovation include a redesign on the lower levels, but also the addition of a 3rd floor which replaced the bell tower at the top of the building.
Today, 20 volunteers from various fire companies around Berks County serve the nonprofit organization and historic fire house. Most of their tour groups come from schools, daycare’s and senior centers. Althought, you don’t have to be in a group to visit, the museum is open Thursdays and Saturdays from 9am – noon. “That’s why we’re here, to preserve the history of firefighting in Reading and Berks County” says Rehr.
Stepping inside the former firehouse is like going back in time. Right as you walk in you are greeted by 2 vintage fire trucks. One which was built in 1937 and is in perfect working order. Purchased by the museum in December of 2016, it is mainly used for parades, event displays and the occasional pump demonstration.
Another obsolete, yet fascinating piece of technology on the main floor is an 1873 fire box and fire alarm system. Back in the day about 200 of the fire boxes were spread throughout the City of Reading. “If a fire was on your block you would run to the corner and pull the tab on the fire box” says Rehr.
Its a pretty ingenious system for its time. Each box sends a signal via telegraph wire to the Fire Station. Their, it would punch out a tape and alert the fire station and sound corresponding bells.
The number generated by the box would match the number on a display board in the station, thus showing where in the city the department should respond. With no electricity in the city, the fire boxes operated by spring loaded gears which had to be wound by hand. “It was the drivers duty to reset the box after the fire” said Rehr.
Touring the building Rehr was quick to show off the museum’s best pieces including a display of a special collection of fire helmets from every fire station in the City of Reading. Originally owned by the fire chief of Elverson Fire Department Tom Hess. The display sits in refurbished cabinets from a candy store formerly located on Penn Street.
Visiting the 2nd floor bring you to the John Wannamaker Room. Named after Wannamaker because the room is full of furniture from his 1876 centennial display in Fairmount Park Philidelphia.
The 2nd floor hosts a grand piano, chandelier and fireplace with a few gifts from other fire companies including a Sterling Silver replica of the Atlantic City Boardwalk and sailing schooner. The piece was given to the Liberty Fire company from the Atlantic City Fire Company in 1895.
Moving up to the third floor visitors will find several large display cabinets (donated by the Reading Public Museum) featuring 14 fire companies in the city of Reading plus a few from other Berks Fire companies.
In addition to the Fire company display cases, the 3rd floor also features a display of two generations of communications equipment, everything from radio’s, dispatcher equipment to phones.
Whether your a history buff or not it’s definitely worth the trip to the Reading Area Firefighters Museum.
501 South 5th Street and Laurel Street, Reading, Pennsylvania 19601.