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Collectors in Arkansas hope to spark desire for firefighting with museum

A crew of collectors in one small Arkansas town are looking to inspire future generations by keeping the future firefighter pipeline full.

SHANNON HILLS, Ark. — One retired fire crew that has turned into collectors has been looking to tap into the little kid energy that often follows a field trip to a local firehouse.

"My family had no problem buying for me at Christmas," said Bob Franklin, retired Little Rock captain. "It was always fire trucks."

He has used that story to explain what drove him to more than 50 years in the fire service. Franklin shared that shopping for him these days is still just as easy— just tell him you're cleaning out a fire station anywhere in Arkansas.

"We started having fire departments calling us and saying 'hey, we have this old stuff, you want it?' And so it just kind of going from word of mouth," he said. 

Those calls started coming in once word got out that Franklin and his retired buddies wanted to put together a museum that would build on the Historic Firehouse Museum and Hostel in Little Rock's MacArthur Park and go bigger.

"We want to create a statewide museum representing the 836 fire departments across the state that represent the 14,000 firefighters across Arkansas," said Franklin.

Since hatching the idea three years ago, Franklin, his wife, Bunny, and associates have been filling a warehouse in Shannon Hills with all things firefighting from all kinds of time periods.

There are many air packs years past, with a rebreather from the World War II era. There is also the steel shell of an antique fire wagon that has been awaiting restoration— Franklin said it was all wood from the steering wheel back.  

They also had a display of iconic helmets sitting on a truck, which included one from 1891.

There's even a set of oxygen tanks that had been stowed in storage and never used.

"The oxygen bottles have got 1948 oxygen in them," Franklin said.

Though the problem for the museum's board has been the timeline. 

They've established a non-profit to handle donations and grants needed to actually bring the vision to life. They insist they want to offer something more than dusty antiques.

"We're gonna have an apparatus room with trucks in it that the kids can see and climb on," Franklin said. "But we're going to have an education center where we can teach fire safety classes. We want to work with Union Pacific to incorporate rail safety programs. We could work with the electric company on electricity safety."

The action plan for these ideas to come to life involves some help from North Little Rock politicians and would-be donors.

"We are working with the city in North Little Rock, when they build their new central fire station, we would move the fire museum into the old central fire station in the Argenta Historic District," he explained.

The board is sure the key to sparking the desire to save lives and property lies in that moment where kids discover the power of these tools and toys, just like Franklin did decades ago.

"It's a very noble profession. I've got 52 years in the fire service. I'm still active and getting to see their faces when they see something that is over 70 years old and still works, it's amazing," he said.

There are still some hurdles to clear within the city government, but Franklin said that Mayor Terry Hartwick has been supportive. They've hired a grant writer, and they are accepting donations while they fill the warehouse to the rafters.

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