- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2014

You probably wouldn’t expect to find letters from Ronald Reagan, Douglas MacArthur, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower and Henry Kissinger tucked away in an unassuming brick building. With a small bell tower. In Old Town Alexandria.

But the building that houses the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association holds those letters and much more. (The letters, by the way, are thank yous from the writers to the association for inducting them — or their husbands — as honorary members.)

Built in1855, the little firehouse on South Alfred Street serves not only as the association’s headquarters but also as a museum for the community.

“The museum takes a very human approach to history. It shows how firefighting was a huge aspects of life in the community,” said Philippe Halbert, museum aide and event supervisor for the city of Alexandria. “It’s great that this building is still serving the community and bringing it together 200 years later.”

And speaking of bringing the community together, the entire neighborhood is invited to gather Saturday on South Alfred Street for a festival celebrating the firehouse’s 240th birthday. (The Friendship Firehouse was founded in 1774.)

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the portion of South Alfred Street between Prince and King streets will be blocked off so pedestrians can stroll among craft and food vendors, listen to a brass band, and tour the museum with association members.

At 11 a.m., the ceremonial cutting of the firehouse’s birthday cake will take place, and cake and ice cream will be passed among the guests.

“It’s going to be a fun day for the family,” said Bill Kehoe, the association’s secretary-treasurer and an organizer of the festival. “Last year about 2,500 people showed, up and this year we’re hoping to see more.”

Alexandria firetrucks also will invite children to climb aboard and don free plastic helmets.

The festival aims to highlight the museum’s mission of relating the history and importance of firefighting, said Mr. Kehoe, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria since 1977.

Established in 1774, the Friendship Fire Company was Alexandria’s first volunteer firefighting unit, a fact proudly displayed on its bell tower. In an era of wooden buildings and open flames, the city needed volunteers to combat frequent fires.

Behind the firehouse’s green double doors lies the Engine Room, where two gold ropes hang from the ceiling below the bell tower.

Artifacts from the 18th and 19th century fill the room — including a rusty but ornate four-wheeled carriage called a hose reel. Constructed by a volunteer in 1858, the hose reel is stamped with the company’s trademark of two clasped hands, and features two black-and-white photographs of young volunteers who died while serving.

“Even the artifacts show how close and community-based the company was; they were like a family,” Mr. Halbert said.

Also on display: the “Rodgers Pumper” — a bright red water-suction engine built for the company in 1851. Etched on the pumper is the date 1774 and the clasped hands symbol. (Competition to get to fires first spurred volunteer companies to personalize their equipment.)

Other artifacts include sections of rubber fire hoses, leather water buckets, a silver speaking trumpet (the 18th-century version of a bullhorn), and glass fire grenades, which released a mixture to smother the fire in the 1700s.

A second-floor room houses what looks like an oversized pool table: The company once held meetings around the green-topped table, and the association still does today.

A bust of George Washington sits between two columns at the end of the room with a plaque that says Washington presumably funded and held membership in the company.

Another room showcases the association’s prominent members and awards, and a plaque lists all of the honorary members. Beneath the plaque, guests can leaf through a book of thank you notes from members who include presidents, mayors, even Washington Redskins players.

Mr. Kehoe said the association’s board of trustees meets each February to elect a new honorary member, so maybe the next thank you letter will be your own.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $2.

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