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N. IL Fire Museum

The Northern Illinois Fire Museum preserves our local firefighting heritage with plans for a more permanent home for visitors to enjoy.

Barney Orvis’ story sounds like the archetypical tale of a pioneering firefighter. As a child, on December 7, 1878, in fact, he witnessed his family’s McHenry County farm house burn to the ground. Heading to town for a spelling bee, young Barney and his family crested a nearby hill only to look back and see smoke belching up from their property.

Orvis’ memories of that chaotic scene become a bit hazy at this point — neighbors rushing in on horseback with buckets splashing water, his father pulling one last piece of furniture out just before the roof collapsed in flames — but one thing he did recall with clarity from that day was knowing that one day, he would become a fireman.

And so Orvis grew to adulthood advocating fire safety and prevention to anyone who would listen. He was destined to help form the Spring Grove Fire Department. It was, of course, all volunteers back then, and equipment was scarce.

They first used an old truck that proved insufficient at a 1926 fire at Richmond Mill, and Orvis was to become instrumental in raising over $3,000 to purchase a new fire truck. It was a 1928 Pirsch Chemical truck with a Chevy chassis — no primitive piece of machinery. At the time, the village budget called for a mere $250 for the fire department.

Fundraising meant dances, fish-frys, and whole lot of hard work and determination with one’s eye constantly fixed  on the prize. “It was amongst the finest firefighting equipment available,” Orvis would boast of that prize in later years.

The Modern Blaze
When a 3 a.m. fire gutted the Five O’Clock Steakhouse in Fox River Grove off Route 14 this past July, firefighters from nearly a dozen departments answered the alarm. They came from Cary, Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Lakewood, McHenry, Nunda, and others, joining their comrades of the Fox River Grove Fire Department in battling and finally quieting the blaze by 7 a.m.

Their modern equipment —immense red fire trucks costing upwards of a quarter million dollars, personal protective gear worth thousands — is a far cry from the bucket brigades of Orvis’s youth. Yet the urgency of the firefighter’s work remains the same.

Like at the Orvis family farm house well over a century ago, fortunately, the conflagration was contained and nobody at the steakhouse fire was harmed, despite the building being a total loss.

Honoring a Fiery History
The timelessness of firefighting is not lost on Roger Dreher of the Northern Illinois Fire Museum. He and 50-odd members of the McHenry County-based organization have amassed quite a collection of vintage fire fighting equipment; a collection to give the Barney Orvises of the world reason to boast.

There are 21 trucks, roughly half of which are motorized, and anyone reading this is likely to have seen over the years at least one of them displayed at the McHenry County Fair or your town’s annual Fourth of July Parade. “We send them out all over the place,” says Dreher, who served 18 years with the Crystal Lake Fire Department. “Scattered all summer.”

A Place to Call Home
“We do get a lot of dogs,” Dreher says of some donations to the museum’s collection. “With just one mechanic — one and a half if you count myself — we have to get rid of them. They’d take too much time and too much money to fully restore.”

Topping the museum’s wish list is not more equipment — it already has one of the finest collections in the nation, including 21 pieces packed into a nondescript building in Marengo and several other member-owned trucks being cared for at private homes.

No, what Dreher and his fellow enthusiasts wish for most is a permanent home — a true museum where this collection, along with displays and educational programs for kids of all ages, can be enjoyed by the public.
Plans are in motion to build such a site from the ground up. It may yet take some fundraising dances and fish-frys, though, and a whole lot of hard work and determination.

For the time being, however, tours can be made by appointment by calling 815-568-8950 or contacting mail@nifm.net. Barney Orvis would be happy that you stopped by.

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