Awesome.” That’s how my ramble partner, the fabulous tween Olive Gardner, described a recent Saturday scoot-about to the North Charleston and American LaFrance Fire Museum.
Since our summers can be hotter than blazes, the air-conditioned fire center seemed a most appropriate destination. After a fiery lunch of ’cue sandwiches and spicy baked beans at nearby Jim ‘N Nick’s, we headed inside.
So how goes the awesomeness? For starters, 11-year-old Olive was admitted free, and I paid only six bucks. That was my first impression. Olive’s rundown was a bit more studied. “I really liked the pole,” she stressed. Said pole was a mock fire station brass pole that we—yes, we—slid down quite a few times. “I also liked the true and false game,” she added. The punch-card test posed questions at 10 stations along a self-guided tour. Interestingly enough, Olive just finished Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch, much of which centers on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The museum showcased a kiosk on historic fires, covered the tragic event she’d read about, even ran a true-false question on it.
Olive also liked “the fire engine we could sit in and drive.” The actual cab was très cool with its operational lights, sirens, horns, vibrating seats, and windshield depicting a city street. Rev her up, and the scene played as if we were barreling through traffic on the way to an emergency. “No offense,” critiqued Olive, “but that would have been even cooler if the scene changed to where I steered, instead of me having to turn the wheel to the scene.” (Spielberg, please take note.) Other winners: a buzzing game that had us matching firefighting tools to their names; the mock house that caught fire as though a ghost was setting it ablaze with common accidents; the fire hose water pressure strength test; and the pulley attached to 100-plus pounds of firefighting uniform and equipment. (Olive flung all 50 pounds of herself onto that rope, and it didn’t budge. Good thing she’s aiming for marine biology.)
And of course, there were the restored historic engines, ranging from an early 1857 hand pumper to a mid-century model emblazoned with “Gardner.” There was a rare colonial-era wooden “engin,” old-time leather fire brigade buckets and helmets, a 1700s fire rescue exhibit, and details on everything from fire insurance tags to battalion patches. The place schooled us on firefighting past and present while teaching prevention tips in such cool fashion that it felt like a stealth education.
Going home on I-26, we grew hoarse mimicking fire engines and ambulance sirens. At milepost 218, we passed the charred field where today’s firefighters practice putting out flames in a several-stories-high cinder-block stairwell. Then we drove down Cannon and pulled over at the circa-1887 Station 7. We parked and headed to the back of the building, where sure enough, an old-time fire watchtower still stands guard, teaching us that the past is surely present in this city. Olive pointed out that they still use sliding poles inside the station, too.
North Charleston & American LaFrance Fire Museum. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m. $6; free for child under 13. 4975 Centre Pointe Dr. (843) 740-5550, legacyofheroes.org