By Mike Lauterborn
(For Westport News)
Westport, CT – Normally when a fire truck appears anywhere, it sets off concern and signals an emergency. But when Engine 2 pulled up at the Westport Historical Society, it elicited excited smiles and received a warm welcome.
The visit was part of the Society’s Creation Station Kids Vacation Program being held four hours each day at the facility Monday, April 18th through Thursday, April 21st. Geared to grades K to 5th, it allowed up to 20 students per day to engage in a variety of activities, from arts projects to drama, while learning about Westport history. Tuesday’s program, which the Citizen attended, was centered around local firefighting.
“Monday, we did an art project that used buttons, relating to the fact that there had been a button factory in Westport,” said Executive Director Sue Gold. “We also took the children on a walking tour down to the Saugatuck River and talked about its history. These youth programs, which are offered during February and April school vacations, and three weeks in summer, are a way to bring children to our facility to have fun creating projects that relate to local history and meet artists and other people in the community that can educate them.”
Said parent Kim Mendola of Norwalk, “This has been a terrific program so far, and it’s incredible the history aspect the kids are getting out of it. When they did their outdoor tour yesterday, they were told about various historical homes on the way and their significance. My daughter retained the dates and information. She was excited to come back today.”
Westport artist and educator Elizabeth Petrie Devoll was this week’s program leader. “My plan for today was to base projects on local fire department history, having them make little matchbox crafts and personalize an aluminum fire bucket. I’m trying to introduce simplicity while drawing a family oriented clientele.”
In Tuesday’s session, the group would also make sweet potato fries in the facility’s kitchen and do some role-playing and acting out in the gallery. However, the fire department’s visit was certainly the highlight of the morning.
Besides providing routine fire safety information, quizzing the children on how to respond to emergencies and showing off their gear, firefighters Ben Racho and Rich Calabria, along with Lt. Michael Kronick, peppered their talk with historical tidbits.
“Fire buckets were made out of leather and everyone had one,” said Racho. “If there was a fire, they would line up by a source of water, fill them and pass the water along to toss on the fire.”
Calabria put on all his firefighting gear, inspiring Racho to comment, “We didn’t have a lot of this equipment 50 or 60 years ago. The only gear was rubber boots, a coat and a hat.”
Kronick tried a trivia question on the children, asking, “Do you know why firefighters had dalmations? They would keep the horses calm.”
The lieutenant then went on to add that the first fire department was established in town in 1923, in a building built by the Bedford family and now occupied by the YMCA. Kronick also explained the origin of the term “hook and ladder,” noting that hooks were used to pull down burning structures so a fire wouldn’t spread. “Property conservation didn’t become a priority until the early 1920s when more resources and equipment were available to allow us to do the work,” he said.
As the firefighters led the children outside to show them the truck, they continued to relate bits of lore. “The earliest firefighting equipment – coal-fired boilers pulled by horses – were painted red as red paint was very expensive and showed a town’s prominence and stature,” said Kronick.
The visit would be a memorable one for participants like Julia Herlyn, 5, of Westport, who retained contemporary facts. “We learned that when there’s a fire, you need to get down and crawl.”
Casey Corso, 7, of Westport, keyed in on historical facts. “I can’t believe it took people passing buckets to fight a fire,” he said.
Corso added, “I’m having a really awesome time,” which summed up the feelings of the participating children, whose sparks of enthusiasm would not be doused by the otherwise dreary, overcast day.