An old exhibit got a new look, and it’s now open to the public.
On Tuesday, people across America were celebrating the nation’s birthday, but visitors to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History also had another birth date to celebrate.
Mark Brown, a volunteer at the museum, said museum staff and local firefighters always referred to a fire engine on display at the museum — Mount Airy’s first — as “1916.” Last year, they even thought they might throw 1916 a centennial birthday celebration.
As they prepared for the celebration, museum staff found one problem — 1916 was actually 1917. In fact, she was ordered by the city of Mount Airy from American LaFrance Co. on July 12, 1917.
Brown said one member of the firefighting community even asked him if the museum might be able to just continue calling the truck 1916.
“We are a museum,” said Brown. “We are sort of bound to tell the truth if we know it.”
Thus, the birthday celebration for 1916 — rather, 1917 — was postponed for a year.
Museum executive director Matt Edwards said celebrating the truck’s birthday a year later actually worked out for the better, as 1917 was able to celebrate her birthday on the same day the museum reopened the exhibit in which she is showcased.
The birthday and grand re-opening took place in a ceremony which followed Tuesday’s Independence Day parade.
Edwards said museum staff began the $75,000 endeavor to overhaul the fire exhibit in February, when the exhibit, which has been a part of the story told at the museum for more than two decades, was closed to the public.
A donation from a donor, the Armat Foundation, with ties to the fire department, made the project possible.
After eating a slice of birthday cake and a hot dog and hearing a proclamation honoring 1917’s service, visitors got a free gander at what Edwards and company have been up to in the basement of the museum.
Of course, such an event would not be complete without a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but Tuesday’s ribbon cutting wasn’t your average such endeavor. It was done with a little bit of firefighter style, as engineer Mike McCraw cut a charred piece of wood with a chainsaw.
“We’ve repackaged a lot of the same stories and revised the flow,” explained Edwards, who also noted a few pieces had been added.
Though the exhibit still tells the stories of some of Mount Airy’s greatest — and most tragic — fires, he said the renovation took what was a basement filled with firefighting artifacts and turned it into a polished, finished exhibit.
“It looks like a gallery rather than a basement,” said Edwards. “It really offers the next step up in quality.”
Edwards said he worked with a company based in Matthews for the design of the exhibit. Inerlam Corp., of Mount Airy, did the printing for the project, and local contractors, museum staff members and volunteers did all of the renovation work.
The shiny new exhibit stands out in stark contrast to the dingy basement which 1917 once called home, and Edwards said those who do decide to wander through and see it should keep their eyes open, as just about everything there has some meaning.
For instance, new, black tiles cover most of the ceiling, but in places the rafters and huge wooden beams which support the building can be viewed.
Edwards said it was important to preserve some of the basement’s character, as the building itself has a story to tell.
One thing that was not preserved was the basement’s painted cement floor.
Instead, those who visit the fire exhibit are actually walking on historical significance, according to Edwards. The cement floor was replaced with a brick floor, but they aren’t just any old bricks.
“You are actually walking on the fire wall from the 1996 furniture factory store,” said Edwards.
Edwards said when a fire engulfed a furniture building more than two decades ago firefighters had to save what they could, opting to make their stand at a brick wall. Eventually Inerlam’s owners bought the property and offered the bricks to the museum.
Edwards said the fire exhibit is much improved. Those who had seen the old exhibit will be pleasantly surprised at how it has been repackaged, and those who hadn’t seen it will be captivated by the stories told.
As for 1917, she looks good for 100. Especially when one considers the tough life she has led.
According to the proclamation Fire Chief Zane Poindexter read, the engine spent three decades fighting fires in Mount Airy. She was then sold to Dobson, where she served a few more years, and then to Rural Hall’s fire department.
Eventually, she turned up in a salvage yard in Charlotte and was purchased and restored by the Mount Airy Fire Department, which used her as a parade truck prior to handing her over to the museum to go on display permanently.
She now sits prominently — though nobody has an idea how people got her in the building — in the newly renovated fire exhibit. Two of her younger sisters are enjoying their retirement alongside her, acting as pieces which bring history alive before onlookers.
Tuesday’s event was also accompanied by a fire truck rally, in which many area departments took part.
Additionally, fire department personnel were on hand selling t-shirts in order to raise money to make a life like 1917’s possible for another truck, “1967.” The fire department is hoping to raise enough money to get that truck running and restore it so it can become a parade truck.
The museum is open on Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.