Vintage items from Marblehead Fire’s past find place to rest

An old glass-fronted bookcase has been given a new life holding antique objects at Marblehead Fire Headquarters.

“We’ve always wanted to start making a place where we could collect historical stuff,” said Fire Chief Jason Gilliland, showing off his latest acquisitions. “It’s only been here a couple of months, and I’ve already had people send stuff in.”

The huge piece of furniture has sat in the Building Commissioner’s office in the Mary Alley Municipal Building for decades until recently, when the current commissioner said he had no use for it. Gilliland said he put in a call to the Historical Society, but they had no room for it, so he asked if he could have it. Everyone said yes.

A relic itself, the three-section-cabinet is original to the Mary Alley from its days as a hospital, Gilliland said. Now it holds old fire helmets, several made of leather, as well as a chief’s hat of wool and leather, which Gilliland called a rare find. There is also an all-service mask that’s more than a little scary looking.  

“Could you imagine wearing that thing,” Gilliland said of the awkward-looking mask connected to a small metal tank. “You used to have to have 1-percent oxygen to make it work, and those things would get really hot against your chest. That’s what they used to wear instead of the air tanks. It’s got activated charcoal in there, which heats up.”

Gilliland said they also found a “ladder dog,” a chain with a hook and a spike on the end. The chain would wrap around the ladder, anchored with the hook, and the spike would then be tapped into a wall to keep the ladder from falling away from the building, he said.

But perhaps the most unusual thing in the bookcase thus far is a ginormous ball of string.

“It’s heavy,” Gilliland said of the volleyball-sized mass.

A large ball of twine sits in an antique cabinet. The twine accompanied deliveries of fresh laundry, which firefighter Nathaniel Rodgers, who served from 1942 to 1971, started collecting and winding into a ball. CURRENT PHOTO  / NICOLE GOODHUE BOYD

According to Gilliland, back in the day, the laundry service, used for linens and other items, delivered fresh laundry wrapped in brown paper tied with string. When firefighter Nathaniel Rodgers, who served from 1942 to 1971, started with the department, he also began a habit of collecting the string and winding it into a ball.

“The laundry stopped using string, probably in the late ’90s, but this ball got passed from firefighter to firefighter,” Gilliland said. “Scott Murray, Captain Murray, saved it, which is why we still have it.”

Gilliland has also acquired a large portrait of William Atkins, who served with the department from 1920 to 1928 and was interim chief for a short while. That came along after he received a call from Atkins’ granddaughter, asking Gilliland if he would like the portrait for the collection.

Portrait of Chief William Atkins, who served as Marblehead fire chief from 1920-28. CURRENT PHOTO / NICOLE GOODHUE BOYD

“They said no one wanted it, so I said yes,” he said.

They also have a pair of his turnout boots sitting high on a shelf.

Gilliland said eventually he will make cards to explain the history of each item.

“I have a huge appreciation for history; I want this stuff,” he said. “And as we continue to find stuff, we’ll continue to put it in there.”

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