A Catskill Catalog: April 25, 2012

In 1977, the late Harriet Smith, of Roxbury, told me about the Firemen’s Museum in Hudson. I was the father of two small boys, and Harriet assured me that taking the boys to the Hudson museum would be a real treat. The kids will love it, she said.

So, being a bit slow on the uptake, a couple of Saturdays ago, I went, with one son and his five-year-old daughter in tow. And Harriet was right! Twenty-five years later, the more modernly named Museum of Firefighting proved a delight for three generations.

Hudson, itself, is a pretty neat town. A sleepy Dutch village until 1783, it was settled, at that time, by New England Quaker whalers from Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Providence seeking escape from the war-torn Atlantic coast. These self-proclaimed proprietors laid-out their riverside city in a grid, with nine or 10 streets running straight-as-an-arrow from the riverfront, slightly uphill, each about a mile long.

The grid pattern gives the town a real urban feel, reminiscent of old Manhattan. It feels like a bigger city than its population of 7,500 would suggest, a welcome urban diversion just an hour and 15 minutes away.

Warren Street, the main drag, is an antique-shoppers heaven. It is lined with shops filled with furniture and art, bric-a-brac and all sorts of stuff. An afternoon browsing the shops would make a pleasant day.

“Antiques are not only amazing to look at. They’re also what put Hudson back on the map.” That is the word on www.gotohudson.net, a website devoted to the joys of “Upstate’s Downtown.”

“A couple of decades ago, a handful of intrepid urban pioneers moved their antiques and collectibles businesses to what was then a nearly abandoned, yet miraculously preserved Warren Street, sparking the restoration and revival of the town. Since then, dozens of other premier retail focusing on the decorative arts have located here, turning Warren Street into an eye-popping destination for designers, collectors, and home owners the world over.”

The first chartered city in the United States, Hudson never became a major whaling center, but its deep-water port made the city a commercial and industrial dynamo throughout the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, right up through the ’50s.

Columbia Street was Diamond Street, back in the day, a mile-long strip of over 50 bars and too many bawdyhouses to count, a red-light district of some renown. In 1951, Governor Tom Dewey ordered the state police into the city to conduct surprise raids on its many brothels, uncovering city police involvement in the racket, and essentially shutting down Diamond Street.

The Museum of Firefighting is just outside of downtown, on the parkway-like Harry Howard Avenue. It is on the grounds of the Firemen’s Home of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, a skilled nursing facility founded in 1892. Over 120 years, “2,649 firefighter’s and their spouses and members of ladies auxiliary have been admitted and cared for.”

The Museum of Firefighting is 50,000 square feet, much of it in homage to volunteer fire companies and volunteer firefighters, who, by the way, get in free. The rest of us pay five bucks.
The ground floor is filled with equipment, turnout gear, and apparatus. Red and yellow fire trucks abound. Five-year-old Francesca loved climbing on the apparatus with the “Do touch” signs, and was good about keeping her hands off the gleaming trucks that were off-limits.

Here are engines, hook-and-ladders, every fire truck a kid could imagine. Fire company banners hang from the ceiling. The walls are covered with historic fire company composite photos. It is fun to look through displays of fire-badges and company-patches for local village fire companies.
Upstairs, panels of text explain the history of fire fighting from Roman times, when people were enslaved for the sole purpose of fighting fires. An unmotivated work force led to the development of citizen firefighters, at first every householder, and then, later, volunteers.

But you don’t have to read the explanations to learn from the remarkable array of early firefighting equipment, from the leather buckets that every early-American household was required to have, to the hand-pulled pumper-engines, to the much larger horse-drawn apparatus.
Kids love the hands-on put-out-the-fire-in-the-colonial-house game.

I liked the recreated 19th century firehouse company room with its custom-made raised-dais, three-kneehole officer’s desk, trophy case, and card table.

Fire-horses and Dalmatian dogs get their proper respect. The video on fire horses is worth sitting down and watching.

And then there is the September 11th Memorial. I know, through a friend, a retired officer in the NYC Fire Department, just how personally devastating was the loss of so many friends and colleagues.

A moving and fitting memorial is only an hour and 15 minutes away.
It’s worth the ride.
billbirns@gmail.com