Recognition for Westchester Twp.’s firemen past and present is the focus of
the newest exhibit at the Westchester Township Historical Museum.
“The Fire Departments of Westchester Township,” which officially opened on
Feb. 18, gives museumgoers plenty to examine such as the helmet of former
Chesterton Fire Chief Warren “Skip” Highwood, former Porter Fire Chief
Arthur Hokanson’s fire bell, antique fire extinguishers, the first patch to
be worn by Burns Harbor firefighters, extinguisher “grenades” filled with
salt water and a steel beam from the World Trade Center that was loaned by
the Northwest Indiana Steel Heritage Project commemorating the tenth
anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The exhibit is the first to be produced by the museum’s new curator Serena
Sutliff, who earlier this year reintroduced the History of Porter exhibit.
The inspiration for the exhibit grew from the fact that both of Sutliff’s
grandfathers were veterans. Since it was too late for a Veteran’s Day
exhibit, Sutliff switched her idea to honoring the individuals who have
preserved the safety and the spirit of the Westchester community.
“I wanted to do something so they could say ‘This is where we came from,’”
The histories of all the Westchester fire departments, past and present, are
traced, with nods to the Liberty and Pine Township volunteer fire
departments and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Fire Management.
For a personal touch, Sutliff has included “Did You Know?” trivia bits
throughout the exhibit.
1902: The First
Year of CFD
Before the establishment of the first Westchester Twp. municipal fire
department, fighting fires involved all residents. In the late 1800s,
“bucket brigades” would form whenever a fire broke out. Brigades would carry
buckets of water from wells and creeks to put out blazes. The results often
proved futile, however, as many buildings burned to the ground due to
improper heating and cooking.
The exhibit features drawings of the early bucket brigades. Men, women and
children would stand on the tops of roofs armed with buckets to battle the
blazes, mostly to prevent their own homes from catching fire.
Chesterton town leaders in 1902 determined the need for a fire department
after an inferno destroyed eleven businesses lining the east side of Calumet
Avenue in downtown Chesterton. During the blaze, John Lundberg, president of
the Chesterton Town Council, sent telegrams to LaPorte and Valparaiso
seeking fire engines and horses to control the fire. Two months after the
tragedy, town leaders significantly changed the fire management system and
building codes, requiring commercial buildings to be built out of brick. A
new well system was implemented and the first fire department, where
initially 40 men volunteered, was established on the corner of Broadway and
Calumet. Pictures in the exhibit show some of the men standing in front of
Chesterton’s first firehouse with the horse-drawn “fire engine.”
The CFD provided protection for Porter until its department’s inception
years later in 1908. However, while Chesterton came equipped with modern
well systems, the Town of Porter protested they had no resources of their
own to keep fires from destroying the town and wrote letters of concern to
the Chesterton Tribune (seen in the exhibit). The Porter Fire
Department held its first meeting in 1908 and announced its team six days
later with J. L. Atkinson as the founding chief.
Sutliff knew Atkinson to be the first fire chief in Porter but it took a
little more effort to discover who Chesterton’s first fire chief was. The
effort involved researching the minutes recorded at early CFD meetings,
which was not the easiest task due to the poor legibility of the
handwriting. But Sutliff was able to decipher a “captain” who oversaw the
department by the name of Charles Haslet.
“I like finding new info,” Sutliff said.
Haslet led the department until 1905 when the group elected John Graessle to
be its chief.
The original log books holding the 1902 by-laws and meeting minutes can be
found in a display case. Museumgoers can skim through copies of the earliest
CFD records, part of the display.
Dune Acres and
Beginnings of other Duneland Fire Departments are chronicled in the exhibit.
Until the 1960s, each resident of Dune Acres was considered a member of the
volunteer fire department and every house was expected to have an “Indian
Fire Fighter”, a large backpack-type pump that could be used to control
grass and brush fires. Residents who were unable to handle the device had to
use small beaters.
Fires in Dune Acres tended to start along the South Shore Tracks and a siren
sounded at the clubhouse to alert the town. Women on the town’s telephone
committee watched from the clubhouse whenever there was a windy day during a
dry period. A volunteer fire department was formed but ceased in the 1980s.
The Burns Harbor Fire Department, formed in 1971, was not officially
recognized by the town until 1977, initially experiencing an adversarial
relationship. Residents at town meetings rallied against the need for a fire
department since the town had Porter under contract for fire protection.
Town Fire Chief Herschel Knight had the department create new regulations.
and Skip Highwood
Apart from learning the narrative history behind the Westchester fire
departments, visitors can study artifacts to get a glimpse of how the
firefighters carried out their duties in different time periods.
The firefighter helmet has seen a few upgrades since the original leather
helmets worn in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Sutliff said the material did
little to protect the firefighters from heat or debris but did keep the
water off their heads.
About 1950 is when the classic red fire helmet came into style which
provided better protection from debris.
More relics include a fire truck light on loan from the CFD that resembles
one used on a 1941 American LaFrance fire truck. The Porter and Burns Harbor
departments’ very first pager systems from the 1970s and 1980s, which
replaced the bell and phone alert systems, are displayed.
A blast from the past is the large nozzles on loan from CFD Captain Tony
Coslet. A hefty pipe nozzle from the 1950s took three to five men to handle
it and still could be carried on a ladder. A smaller brass nozzle on display
was fashioned around 1940 and designed to shoot a straight stream.
Nearby is an A.C. Rowe and Son fire extinguisher canister patented in 1881
which used sodium bicarbonate and sulfuric acid. Turning the canister upside
down, a chemical reaction created pressure to expel water.
The extinguisher came from CFD Deputy Fire Chief John Jarka who also lent
his 60-pound resuscitator, inhaler and aspirator. EMTs carried the medical
equipment in the 1940s though the 1960s on every run. The museum has a photo
of CFD firemen training to use the device.
There is plenty to see from Warren “Skip” Highwood’s personal collection on
loan from his family. Aspiring to be a firefighter at a young age, Highwood
would collect firefighting equipment, magazines, books, photographs and
When he joined the CFD the by-laws had to be changed to allow Highwood to
join the force at a younger age. Highwood served 47 years and was fire chief
from 1990 to 2009. He was awarded the title of Indiana Firefighter of the
Year in 2002 by the Indiana Veterans of Foreign Affairs.
A slide show honoring the past and current fire chiefs of Chesterton,
Porter, and Burns Harbor is set up as a special portion of the exhibit.
Through April 29
Over 90 people attended the opening reception in February, many of them
firefighters and their families, Sutliff said. Local fire stations brought
three trucks out for guests to see.
The exhibit continues through April 29.
The Westchester Township History Museum is located in the Brown Mansion, 700
W. Porter Ave. in Chesterton. Hours for the free exhibit are Wednesday
through Sunday from 1-5 p.m. Appointments for tours can be made at