EL PASO (U.S. ARMY) — Dejah Butler, 10, proudly wore the red, plastic firefighter hat she received at the front door of the El Paso Museum of History.
She walked in beside her father, Fort Bliss Fire Chief Charles Butler, who wore his dress blue uniform for the occasion — the unveiling of a new exhibit that features the El Paso Fire Department Saturday.
Together, after the speeches and ribbon cutting, the two slowly explored the exhibit entitled, “Up in Smoke: The Early Days of the El Paso Fire Department,” which includes the department’s prized 1901 Steamer, Engine No. 2, historic uniforms and artifacts such as a fire alarm box from the early 1900s.
Dejah and her father also enjoyed visiting a key part of the exhibition for children — a custom-made fire truck cab at floor level so children can easily walk into it.
“If you’ll look at the horn button, it says, ‘For the children of El Paso,’” said Wade Warling, retired battalion chief for the El Paso Fire Department. “It is the only one in existence.” A box next to the fire truck cab contains child-sized firefighter uniforms so children can try them on.
Julia Bussinger, director of the El Paso Museum of History, said the exhibit will be on display for a year, and it gives the museum a chance to say thank you to all the firefighters who have served El Paso since 1882.
Ben Fyffe, interim director, museum and cultural affairs department, said El Paso’s 1901 steamer engine — one of only five in the country — is the envy of museum curators across the country.
During a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., when people found out Fyffe was from El Paso, they said, “Oh, you’re the one with the fire department,” referring to the truck, Fyffe explained.
The more than 200 people who attended the event heard oral history about the department from Pilo Tejeda, president of the El Paso Retired Firefighters Association.
Tejada, who retired 32 years ago, said when he started at the department, firefighters worked more than twice the number of hours they do now. “You think about the firemen — think about the wives when we used to work 84 hours a week,” Tejada said. “We didn’t see our kids very much. You’d go home and then you were up and at ‘em and the next day you were back at the fire station.”
Firefighters started going door-to-door, asking voters to support a shorter workweek, and gradually, the number declined to 72 hours, then to 52 hours, and now 40 hours a week, Tejada said.
“It’s a good job. It made me a living. I loved the job. Most of the retirees that are here, the reason they’re here is because they love the job,” Tejada said.
Tejada encouraged people to visit the El Paso Firefighters Memorial Park, which is located at 316 West Overland Ave. A memorial stone includes the names of the 16 El Paso firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty, he said.
“We are very fortunate,” Tejada said. “There are some cities on the East Coast that have lost that many at one fire. It’s a job you’ve got to like if you’re going to stay.”
The museum, closed Mondays, is located at 510 N. Santa Fe St. For more information, visit www.elpasotexas.gov/history .