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History Buff

Taff wants to promote
Madison fire dept. history with museum

He has bought newly renovated
Walnut St. firehouse

Tess Worrell
Contributing Writer

(July 2012) – Most passers-by saw only a decrepit, vacant building, but Bruce Anderson spied a treasure. After living in the county for 30 years, Anderson decided to follow a life-long dream to renovate a historic building for new residence.

Frank Taff

Photo by Tess Worrell

Frank Taff has a fascination
for Madison firefighting history.

The Walnut Street Fire Department, located at 808 Walnut St., combined both the challenge and history he desired. He set to work. After nearly three years of renovation, his treasure was visible to all and earned Anderson the Preservation Hero’s Award.
Anderson notes the challenges were many. After consulting with local architect, Donny Ball, Anderson devised a plan to keep the historic exterior while converting the inside to a residence.
His greatest challenge came in refinishing the cast-iron front to the building. The front was ordered for the fire department from a catalogue and assembled on-site. Rust and time marred the original beauty. Black and white photos of the original fire station gave no clues as to the original colors.
Anderson worked with the Cornerstone Society, a local preservation group, to create a historic color scheme. He cleaned rust and old paint from each and every tiny crevice of metal-work getting down to bare metal, then recreated to the best of his ability the original front to the building. Once Anderson completed the outside, he converted the second story to an elegant, two-bedroom apartment.
Now ready to move in, Anderson discovered he couldn’t bear to part with his country home. “Renovating the fire station was a great challenge. I would never do it again, but I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.”
The question remained: What would he do with the building?
Enter Frank Taff. A life-long volunteer with the Walnut Street Fire Department, Taff had visited the old station when his father worked there as a volunteer. Though the Department had long since moved to its present location at Third and Walnut, Taff remembered those early days and had a vision for turning the newly restored station into a showplace for the history fire fighting in Madison.
Madison organized volunteer fire protection for the city in 1821. The first fire house was built in 1830. Madison boasts the oldest active firehouse in America – Company 2’s building at Third and West Street, built in 1848. The original Walnut Street firehouse was built in 1875 to house the approximately 23 firefighters who volunteered for Company 4. The men were of primarily Dutch descent and worked for the slaughterhouse.

Firehouse

Photo by Tess Worrell

Bruce Anderson
won a preservation
award for his work in
restoring the Walnut
Street firehouse. Prior
to selling it, he lived
on the second floor.

Pictures of the original company are displayed at the firehouse along with period equipment. The centerpiece of Taff’s collection is an original Seagrave hand-drawn Hook and Ladder. Taff notes that the first fire companies didn’t have the resources to maintain horses, so most equipment was transported to fires on hand-drawn vehicles. Seagrave became the premiere supplier of fire equipment, mostly by accident.
Frederick Seagrave, owner of an apple orchard, designed ladders for reaching his apples. Customers soon became more interested in purchasing the sturdy ladders than his apples, so he began producing those. Fire departments liked the ladders so much, Seagrave designed carts for the departments to use in transporting the ladders, and the rest is history.
Visitors can see an example of an original “hook and ladder” cart on the main floor of the fire station. Lined with leather water buckets, the cart displays both the hooks fire fighters used to pull the building, and thus the fire, to them as well as the ladders they used to climb to the fire – leading to the name Hook and Ladder.
In addition to the cart, station walls are lined with original pictures of fire fighters, quilts depicting fire fighting history, and display cases for artifacts.
Taff said he hopes to use the building to educate others about one of the oldest, continuing all-volunteer fire departments in the nation. Though not a museum in the traditional sense (it will not have official operating hours where it is open to the public), he hopes the building will become a showplace where he can share his knowledge of all fire fighters have done with interested groups and individuals by appointment.
He says he is excited to have the station as the perfect backdrop for all he currently owns and hopes to add. He jokingly admits that, “I love to collect these items but I don’t want to become a hoarder. I figure if I put everything on display here so others can see and learn, I won’t end up on one of those reality shows.”
Taff asks anyone who has items he could use to contact him so he can add to the displays.
When asked his main goal for the building, Taff said, “Madison has been served by a volunteer group (for fire fighting) from the beginning to today. This will only survive if people have community spirit and a willingness to donate their time to join. We desperately need new membership. I hope by viewing the past, people will be inspired to contribute the future.”
Those interested in volunteering can contact Madison Fire Chief Steve Horton at City Hall or their local fire station.
To view this piece of history, schedule an appointment with Taff by calling (812) 265-3762 or stop by when the garage door is up. Taff welcomes all interested in learning and looks forward to sharing the fire fighting history of Madison.
“There’s a lot of history and heritage in Madison fire fighting, but no focal point. Maybe this place can serve that function – to pass along the heritage.”

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