Structure fires have played a major role in Perry’s history, destroying large parts of the downtown commercial district on several notable occasions, most recently in 1989 with the loss of buildings along the west side of Railroad Street between Willis and Otley avenues.
Hometown fires and the people who fight them will be commemorated and celebrated at the grand opening Saturday of the Iowa Fire Museum and Fire Prevention Education Center, 1122 Second St. in downtown Perry. Events begin at 9 a.m., with a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m.
Among the many activities planned for the grand opening, none has more historical gravity than the visit to Perry by descendants of Fred Knell, original organizer of the Perry Volunteer Fire Department in 1878 and the town’s first fire chief.
Knell died in 1909 and his widow, Anna Knell, lived in Perry until her death in 1939. Their children had moved away, and there have been no Knells in Perry since Anna’s death.
But thanks to the diligent researches of Brian Eiteman of Perry, founder and director of the Iowa Fire Museum and Fire Prevention Education Center, about 25 of Fred and Anna Knell’s offspring will return to Perry this weekend for the grand opening of the fire museum and a ceremony honoring Perry’s first fire chief.
Among the Knell family coming to town is Anna Tiedeman, 94-year-old granddaughter of Fred and Anna Knell, who is traveling from her retirement home in Maine to attend Saturday’s ceremony honoring her ancestors. Tiedeman graduated from Perry High School.
“I’ve been talking to a couple of members of the family for about three years,” Eiteman said, “and they’ve evidently adopted me as a Knell family member. They’ll be coming from all over the country and having a family reunion that day for the museum opening. So I’ll show them around Perry and the sites. Their family hasn’t been in Perry since 1939.”
Eiteman has also planned a little surprise for the returning Knell family. After Fred Knell’s death in 1909, the Perry firefighters commissioned his portrait, a charcoal drawing that now holds pride of place in a prominent spot on the wall of the new fire museum.
“Their family has never seen that picture,” Eiteman said, “so I made duplicates of the picture and am putting them in their rooms at the Hotel Pattee. That way, when they get there, the first thing they will see will be a picture of Fred.”
The Knells arrive Friday, and Eiteman intends to take them to the graves of Fred and Anna in Violet Hill and then show them Perry’s new fire station, with its $500,000 firetrucks, and also the original Webster School at Fifth and North streets, which Fred helped to endow.
“I’m going to show them these things and say, ‘This is Fred’s legacy,'” he said.
Eiteman’s extensive researches — he holds all the minutes of every Perry Volunteer Fire Department meeting — have made him feel almost as if he knows Fred Knell.
“I’ve been on the fire department 23 years and have been interested in its history at least since then,” he said. “I kind of feel like I know the guy. When I talk to Fred’s granddaughter, and she says, ‘I’ve got some stories for you,’ I say, ‘You know what? I’ve got some stories for you, too.’ So I would start a story and she would finish it, or she would start a story and I would finish it. We knew the exact same stories even though we’d never met and Fred died in 1909. I think because of that they have just kind of taken a shine to me, and the reason why they’re coming back is to support me with the fire museum, and that’s it.”
The Iowa Fire Museum and Fire Prevention Education Center is a growing collection, and Eiteman hopes the grand opening will also spur donations toward the construction of a larger building. Among the museum’s prize pieces is an 1890 Howe hand-pumper acquired from the DeSoto Fire Department in March and restored by Eiteman and his supporters in time for last week’s Fourth of July parade.
The hand-pumper was drawn by horses and pumped by humans, with pistons on each side of a cylindrical bulb forcing pressurized water through the hose. Eiteman said the leather in the bulb was recently replaced so the pump works as good as new.
“We set it up on July 4 and let people pump it themselves,” Eiteman said. “It’s a great fundraiser.”
The 125-year-old hand-pumper is all original, with only the trappings for horse-drawn transport replaced by a modern hitch in front. It is on permanent loan from the DeSoto Fire Department in an agreement to be renewed every 15 years.
A similar loan arrangement was made for the museum’s 1929 firetruck with the city of Ottosen, Iowa. The vintage firetruck, long the centerpiece of the collection, last saw action in a 1996 parade and now has an older companion in the 1890 Howe hand-pumper.
“I want this to be kind of like a living museum that’s always going to get bigger and bigger,” Eiteman said. “This is the Iowa Fire Museum for a reason. I want this to be the best fire museum in the state. I don’t make any bones about it. In fact, I’m fundraising to build a new building and hope to place the facade from the old fire station on the front of the new building.”
With 130 years of firefighting experience in the Eiteman family -– Brian’s father, Frank Eiteman, is a former assistant chief of the Perry Volunteer Fire Department, and his grandfather, Art Eiteman, great-grandfather, Frank Reynolds, and great-great-grandfather, Charles Reynolds, also served on the city’s volunteer fire brigade. Brian is himself now among the department’s assistant chiefs.
He said the creation of the Iowa Fire Museum and Fire Prevention Education Center has been “a labor of love. I want this to be big, and I want it to be a draw and be a benefit to the city.”
The museum is also a monument to the history of Perry’s firefighters and to the large role that fires have played in the city’s development. Eiteman has amassed about 4,000 photographs of firefighting history to go along with his virtually complete archive of minutes of the Perry Volunteer Fire Department’s meetings, extending all the way back to 1878.
He was 9 when the old fire station was torn down and has fond memories of playing hide-and-seek in the building that once stood on First Avenue.
Saturday’s grand opening will include antique firetrucks and car show on display along Second Street between Willis Avenue and Warford Street. Between Warford and Lucinda streets, the Perry Volunteer Fire Department will stage firefighter water fights all day, with firefighting teams from around the state coming to Perry to compete.
A ribbon cutting will occur at 10 a.m., with caution tape used in place of ribbon and the cutting done by a set of the Jaws of Life, Eiteman said.
For more information, contact Eiteman at the the Iowa Fire Museum and Fire Prevention Education Center, 1120 Second St. in Perry, 515-865-0922.
Video courtesy PEGASUS TV 12 volunteer Doug Wood