- Associated Press - Thursday, December 31, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - More than 200 couples shuffled into Hesse Hall, now Second Story Bookstore, windows draped in silk curtains and a miniature hose truck stationed on the floor. Members of Laramie Fire Department Hose Company 5, outfitted in their best uniforms, escorted partygoers to their seats for a night of music and dance.

The members’ dress coats were the pride of the firefighters - a sign separating them from other Laramie hose companies. After 120 years, one of the coats found its way to the Laramie Fire Department museum in Fire Station No. 3.

“We are thrilled this is staying in the community, and we’re thrilled we can show it to people,” firefighter Ben Farber said.

Vi Moats, owner of Aphrodite’s Emporium, donated the coat a few days after purchasing it.

“Because it was local, I felt like it needed to be in Laramie,” she said.

Mike Snow has been a longtime seller to Moats, she explained. Leslie Crawford, Snow’s uncle, left his estate to Snow.

“After he found it, he had it framed behind glass,” Moats said. “That helped keep it in such a good condition.”

Last week, Snow brought the coat to Moats, who promptly called the fire department. Farber caught wind of the jacket and visited Moats. Two days later, the coat was donated to the LFD.

Laramie’s first fire department - more a group of local volunteers than the professionals we know today - started in 1876, Farber said. The department consisted of multiple semi-independent hose companies that didn’t always keep good relations.

“The fire service, in its early years, were kind of a bunch of hooligans,” he said. “There was a big wave when it wasn’t a professional group of guys at all. Firemen resembled gangs in their early days because they’d fight each other. One, to claim insurance money, and two, they were sometimes so competitive that they’d get excited and fight each other.”

Fighting each other rather than a fire didn’t raise much legitimacy within the community, Farber said.

“They realized that it wasn’t just a hobby that hooligans did,” he said. “They wanted to be respected members of the community because they saw it as a professional career. Jackets like this, they were attempts for firemen to not only look sharp in their community, but it was something for them as well. They took a lot of pride with what they were doing.”

The coats were completely ceremonial, Farber said. Firemen, called smoke-eaters, wore something similar to long-johns when on a fire call.

“They were trying a lot of different things,” he said. “They’d wet themselves down before going in a fire, so they wore these pajama-type suits. It turns out, they’d go running into a fire and get steam burns really bad. It was way worse doing that. The thought was a good idea, but it turned out to be horrible.”

The “water everything down” train of thought led to what could be called a breathing apparatus, Farber said. They grew long beards, threw water on them and stuck the hair in their mouths, attempting to filter out smoke.

It was not effective.

Money for the coats and other equipment came from the coveted insurance money from building owners, fundraisers such as firemen’s balls and other flat payments from companies like Union Pacific Railroad, Farber said.

Competition between hose companies didn’t always involve throwing fists. Each company had traveling sports teams, Farber said. Hose company 5 challenged the University of Wyoming football team to a match - unfortunately, the results are unknown.

The city eventually disbanded the hose companies in lieu of a dedicated fire department. The restructure cut the department from 150 volunteers to 28 full-time firefighters, consequently ending the era of hose companies and the accompanying extravagancies.

“No. 5 company, the junior company of the department, was entirely disbanded,” the Boomerang reported May 18, 1895. “The firemen generally express the opinion that the past glory of the department vanishes with the reorganization as made Saturday night.”

The coat will soon be on display at the Laramie Fire Department museum in Fire Station No. 3


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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