The La Crosse County Historical Society usually accepts old items that are already a part of local history for inclusion in our artifact collection. But occasionally we accept something newer that we think will be of value and interest to future generations.
This dress uniform falls in that category.
Gregg Cleveland, chief of the La Crosse Fire Department, donated this firefighter’s dress uniform in 2013. It arrived in my office as if by magic, just appearing one morning, with a note in the pocket. No museum is a fan of “drop offs,” or abandoned property, but when I saw the uniform’s provenance, I reconsidered.
I have always wished we had more examples of very early uniforms from the police and fire departments — perhaps someday this uniform will be of as much interest as an 1890 uniform would be today.
Therefore, this uniform, once worn by the 11th chief of the LCFD, is now in our collection. One interesting thing about it is how similar it is to the uniforms worn by earlier fire chiefs. It is still navy blue wool, double-breasted, with fancy metal buttons showing the crossed bugle insignia. Really only the content of the material — a polyester lining, and some nylon mixed with the wool — identify this as a uniform from the second half of the 20th century, and not the late 19th century.
While the working uniform of a contemporary firefighter is entirely different in look, material and functionality, from one 120 years ago, the dress uniform intentionally harkens to the traditional role and look of a firefighter.
In 1877, La Crosse had four firemen on the city payroll, who oversaw the four main volunteer companies of firefighters. The first chief, C. A. Hunt, was a strong advocate of a paid firefighting force. He had come to La Crosse in 1886 and joined Rescue Hose Company No. 1. Hunt was appointed fire chief of the city in 1896 when, after many years of discussion, the city fire department became fully paid, with career firefighters.
At that time there were 45 men in service, divided into five stations, each headed by its own captain. Today, the fire department has 93 firefighters working out of four stations.
Chief Cleveland will retire this summer after 11 years as chief of the LCFD, and his uniform will be become that much more “historic.” The insignia patch on the left shoulder, for the La Crosse Fire Department, makes it an especially nice piece of local history. Now if only we had the badge that would have been clipped to the metal eyelet on the jacket breast …