Tucked away in the heart of Bonne Terre is a museum dedicated to firefighters and fire departments alike.
Big River Fire Chief David Pratte has spent the majority of his life volunteering as a firefighter and along the way he decided to start collecting firefighter/fire department items. What started as a few items quickly developed into something much more.
“I am pretty passionate about the fire service and have been in the fire service for 50 years,” said Pratte. “I’ve been the fire chief at Bonne Terre, Terre Du Lac, Lake Timberline and now I’m currently at Big River. I have been working for a lot of years (50), ever since I was 10 years old and trying to preserve the fire department history. Every time I see someone throw something away I grab it.”
Pratte has collected many items over the years from model fire trucks to actual fire trucks. But what really drives him is his passion for the history of it all. He said that the Bonne Terre Fire Department was where it all started from in this area and his dream is to preserve for it for others to see.
“The fire service actually started in 1894 and they had pull carts over in the St. Joe Lead Mines,” said Pratte. “They started building what they called ‘hose houses.’ They were little brick houses and there are two of them left in town today. The best one still standing is on the corner of Francis Street and Murrill Street. I have managed to get the property in the middle of town, where hose house 3 once was. Part of my goal is to build one of these fire stations back. It’s going to take a little work and progress, I’m also going to have to go the city and get some permissions.”
Pratte said with some help and support, he would like to put one of the old fire stations or hose houses back up in town at the corner of Division and Benham. It’s going to be a building made out of brick roughly 19 feet by 19 feet.
“I hope to recreate a hose house as closely as they were, but my dream is to move the last standing original hose house to the property I have obtained and restore it,” said Pratte. “My plans once the project is complete is to open it up during city functions and parades, so people can see and learn about its history.
“I plan to have two hose carts in there and stuff for people to look at relating to the history of the fire service. I would have a lot of the pictures hanging in there on the walls, it will be a smaller museum dedicated to that era.”
Right now he is working on seeing if he can possibly get that original hose house structure and if he can’t get it, then he plans on looking into figuring out how to raise some money to get bricks to put up a replica. Pratte said he is looking for support and people that are interested in helping.
In 1894 there were about 6,000 people in town and they were using about 40,000 gallons of water a day. They built these six stations and each one had two hose carts in them. As time progressed, they were having more structure fires because of the wood stoves and shake shingles everyone had in 1908.
“The water supply came from Big River North and it was pumped to the mines in Bonne Terre,” said Pratte. “That was our water supply and the wooden lines started to fail. That is when the Bonne Terre pond came into play as a reservoir and it was supposed to hold one million gallons of water. There was also a smaller one east of the mill and it had 80,000 gallons in it. When they built the reservoir (Bonne Terre pond) they started putting better water lines in and eventually started putting hydrants in.”
In 1907 and 1908 they laid 11 miles of water lines in the city and put in 27 fire hydrants or fire hubs as they called them. As the population grew and the fires got bigger they couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t even stretch enough hose from what little hydrants they had to put out the fires.
“In 1929 the city and St. Joe went in together and bought the ’29 General. It was the first motorized truck that Bonne Terre ever owned and it’s still there today,” said Pratte. “In 1937, they bought a 1937 Ford and took it to the St. Joe shops where they built a fire truck out of it. That was another step of procession with our fire service.
“In 1958 they ordered a brand new fire truck from St. Louis called Central and each time they upgraded the pump got bigger and the tank got bigger. We went from pumping 50 gallons a minute to 500 gallons a minute working the fire hydrants.”
In 1954 a rural fire department was established in the area and it continued to be a challenge financially. They went out on the corners selling fire tags trying to make it work not only for the rural department but for the city, too.
“The 1995 the city decided to buy a new truck from a company in Springfield, Missouri and the 1958 had to be traded in,” said Pratte. “They got the new truck and I went chasing after the 1958. After six years I finally got my hands on it and was able to get it back to town. The 1929 changed hands several times and I found that the Shriners had it. I was able to get it back from them.”
The building he has now is in fact an old fire house and has slowly worked on it over time. Pratte said he has always had it in his heart to save some of the history of the fire department since he was a young boy.
“I started collecting stuff and had a small room in my house with all kinds of fire stuff in it,” said Pratte. “I had decided that I wanted to build a building and I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I was able to get this building from Mr. Boyer and my son, myself and a couple others helped take it down and it sat stacked up for a few years. When I finally had the money, we started to put it back together. My wife gave me a tremendous amount of support allowing me to spend time here to do the things I do.”
Once inside it may seem like a lot to take in, but as visitors slowly make their way around the room they will appreciate all the items careful set up for viewing. There are old pieces of equipment in every corner and pictures line the walls. A shelf up high displays many models of toy fire trucks and helmets hang on the wall.
There are glass cases filled with memorabilia from conferences, Smokey the Bear, old fire tags, badges, patches and more. Pratte has several items autographed in his Johnny Gage collection, items from “Emergency,” a TV series that ran 1972-1979. John Roderick “Johnny” Gage is portrayed by actor Randolph Mantooth. Gage worked with Roy DeSoto as a firefighter/paramedic for the Los Angeles County Fire Department and usually rode “shotgun” in Squad 51.
While it is all firefighter related, there is something there for everyone to enjoy. Pratte hopes to some day build a bunk room and install a fire pole, along with having a viewing area where visitors can watch videos to learn more about the history of firefighters.
Pratte said that everyone is welcome to come down and visit his little museum, in fact he welcomes anyone who has a spark of interest in what has become his passion.
The museum is located off N. Division Street across from Holekamp DO It Center. Two flags fly in front of the building, along with a statue of a firefighter. If the door is open, stop by or contact Pratte to set up a time to visit.
Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or firstname.lastname@example.org