September 02, 2003 11:00 pm
Don Keeling is the main man behind the Northeast Oregon Fire Museum. It will open just as soon as Keeling and others involved can find the money to complete it. ().
Don Keeling is the main man behind the Northeast Oregon Fire Museum. It will open just as soon as Keeling and others involved can find the money to complete it. ().

By Bill Rautenstrauch

Observer Staff Writer

Don Keeling knows a lot about the history of fire and firefighters.

A volunteer fireman himself, he's avidly studied that history for a couple of decades. He's made it a part of his lifestyle.

He has concentrated most of his efforts on the local scene. And during the last several months, he's been in charge of gathering a huge collection of records, stories, photos and vintage firefighting equipment into a central location in downtown La Grande.

The result? The Northeast Oregon Fire Museum, a potentially hot visitor attraction opening just as soon as Keeling and others involved can find the money to complete it.

"We want it to be a real professional-looking outfit, but it's not there yet," Keeling said during a recent tour of the museum in the former La Grande Fire Dept. headquarters on Washington Street.

Even in a state of incompletion, the museum is a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.

The fire trucks alone are enough to capture the heart of a history buff, an antique aficionado, or a kid dreaming of one day becoming a firefighter. They're old trucks, but they're pretty. Most have been restored to pristine condition.

Take, for instance, the 1925 Stutz, La Grande's first modern-day fire engine. It's perfect, right down to its leather seat and and nickel trim.

And, of course, Keeling's got a good story to tell about it.

"In 1955, it went away to Idaho, and in 1960 it was traded to J.R. Simplot for a color TV," Keeling says. He adds that he spent much time tracking the engine's whereabouts, finally finding it Idaho in the possession of one of Simplot's relatives.

To make the story even sweeter, the Stutz, — which, incidentally, responded to the Hot Lake fire of 1934 but didn't get there due to mechanical problems — was restored by prison inmates. The whole job cost $26,000.

"It was was done in the Nevada State Prison. Their vocational rehab program is one of the best in the nation," Keeling says.

Prison labor also was put to use on the museum's 1922 Model T one-ton, the engine once owned by Hot Lake, and also on the 1939 Seagrave, third engine ever purchased by the city of La Grande.

The restoration of the former vehicle was done at the Walla Walla (Wash.) state prison, and the latter at the Powder Valley Correctional Facility near Baker City.

Showy though it is, the fleet of six trucks represents only a part of what the museum has to offer.

Firefighting paraphernalia abounds, from the huge, circular rescue net hanging on one wall, to the gleaming brass fire pole connecting the second floor with the first, to the vintage steel helmet that rests in a display case with numerous other smaller items.

The museum remains a work in progress, however. Its opening was supposed to have taken place in August, but a shortage of funding — and time — has held it back.

After the City of La Grande announced it was building a new fire hall on the Island City Strip, Keeling, the La Grande Fire Department's assistant chief of volunteers, approached the city council with the idea of a fire museum in the old building on Washington Ave. It would be run by the volunteer arm of the La Grande Fire Dept.

He envisioned it as a major tourist attraction.

"A brown sign out on the freeway will bring in a lot of visitors," he says.

His idea was to dedicate most of the floor space to the museum but some to office rental. Rent collected would help pay for utilities and maintenance.

That idea is working to good advantage. Union County Tourism, the Union County Chamber of Commerce and Community Connections all have offices in the building and pay rent.

Work done so far on the museum has been accomplished by Keeling and an army of volunteers. Funding — about $100,000 so far — has come from donations and grants, Keeling said. He said that about $27,000 is needed to finish the project.

Yet to be completed are two major projects: the creation of photo displays and the storage of a vast amount of historical data in a multi-terminal computer system.

"It will be a great resource for people looking into their family history," Keeling, a local realtor, says. "We've got file cabinets full of photos and records that we're going to put into the system."