Story and photos by Bruce Stambaugh, contributor
The smile on Larry Shifflett’s face said it all. He couldn’t be happier now that the Harrisonburg Fire Museum, named in his honor, was open again.
The museum, located on the third floor of the Public Safety Building at 101 North Main Street in Harrisonburg, closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s now open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., except on holidays.
“I’m thrilled that the museum has opened again,” Shifflett said. He has good reason to be. Shifflett had the vision for the museum not long after he began his 47-year firefighting career in Harrisonburg. He served 33 of those years as the city’s fire chief.
“The second year I was on the department, I spotted a hose clamp someone had thrown in the trash,” Shifflett recalled. “I retrieved it because I knew it had historical value.”
That was the start of Shifflett’s drive to preserve the past for future generations. By the looks of things, the respected retired fire chief has achieved his goal.
Even though the Fire Museum has only been reopened to the public for a brief time, the guest book shows several out-of-state visitors have already done the self-guided tour. Some visitors included officials from a fire department museum in New Jersey.
The museum takes up much of the space on the building’s third floor, which also houses the offices of the Harrisonburg Fire Department. Fire department gear, equipment, framed photos, and newspaper clippings also line the hallways that lead to the offices.
Shifflett saved the last milk glass dome light in the old fire station on Water Street. After spending 40 years in his basement, the light hangs near the museum’s center. Shifflett pointed to an old photo where the light had hung in the former station.
As guests enter the museum from the elevator, they can’t miss the bright red neon sign that glows “H.F.D. No. 1” for Harrisonburg Fire Department Number 1. There’s a framed photo with that sign in it, too.
Shifflett explained that no records indicate that the city council ever authorized a fire department. One was needed, so citizens formed not one but eventually four different departments covering various city areas. They were all numbered one through four.
Over time, only one station remained. That was Hose Company Number 4, which still operates today, only covering areas outside the city.
Like the city fire department, Shifflett said the fire museum “just evolved.” Shifflett recognized a potential home for many items he had collected when he spied unused space in the fire department’s offices. The museum has kept expanding ever since.
The museum is sure to pique the interest of visitors of all ages. The unique collection includes firefighters’ turnout gear, old fire extinguishers, dispatch consoles, hand-pulled hose reels, dress uniforms, and many other items.
Shifflett said that decades ago, the various fire departments in the county held weeklong lawn parties as fundraisers and entertainment for community members. Friday was always designated as the fire parade, and department members marched in colorful dress uniforms and paraded their fire trucks. Several of those uniforms are on display in the museum.
The museum’s centerpiece is a large cast bell that served as the first fire alarm for the city. A local church donated it.
Shifflett sees the museum more as a classroom. The former chief hopes visitors will appreciate the past by exploring the many fire department-related items, memorabilia, and old news stories displayed.
Of course, Shifflett also wants people to take away a sense of history. It’s the primary reason he and others have collected the various items on display in the museum.
The gleam in his eye revealed Shifflett’s zeal and love for his fire department. As current fire department staff members passed by, all gave the city’s longest-serving fire chief a respectful, “Hello, Chief.”
Shifflett also occasionally instructs a two-hour class for new firefighters who join the ranks of the city fire department. He wants them to understand the efforts and actions that created the Harrisonburg Fire Department.
“You can’t appreciate where you are and where you are going until you know where you have been,” Shifflett explained. “It’s important for them and the community to know their roots.”
Shifflett is grooming Acting Deputy Fire Chief Jody Quesenberry as a possible replacement to ensure those lessons continue to be taught.
“After all,” Shifflett rightly reasoned, “I’m not going to be around forever.”
If Shifflett happens to be at the museum, however, he’ll be glad to show you how that once-discarded hose clamp works. It’s hanging on a hallway wall, waiting to be used.
Visitors must first check in at the lobby of the Public Safety Building before entering the museum. Groups are requested to contact the Harrisonburg City Fire Department’s Community Risk Reduction Division at 540-432-7703 during business hours. Admission is free.
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