By Ron Heal
Mike Fuss had a 31-year career with the Madison (WI) Fire Department. When he completed his last day on the job in 2000, he went home to his fire station. For the last 10 years of his fire department service, home for Mike was Old fire Station 8 at 407 North Street, Madison, Wisconsin. In 1988, the Madison Fire Department decided to relocate Fire Station 8 to better serve the response area. This would mean a new fire station being built. The then current fire station was not all that old, having opened in 1949. The three-bay two-story brick firehouse was in good repair. There was considerable interest as to what the city of Madison would do regarding the disposition of the fire station. While the property would be sold through a bid process, there was more to that process than a dollar amount. The city added points criteria that would assure the best future use of the fire station.
Fuss wanted that fire station! He already had begun to collect some Madison Fire Department memorabilia and fire department history in the form of retired fire apparatus. Fuss was very creative with the bid that he submitted. With a points system that totaled 200 points, Fuss recalls that he was able to score190 points. He wanted the fire station to become a fire museum and also serve as his home. He included business and neighborhood petitions with some 800 signatures. He had letters of support from civic leaders all the way up to the Governor of Wisconsin. He even tried to obtain a letter from the President! He was not successful in that attempt, but that was possibly the only support he could not get. When the bids were opened and all the points tabulated, Fuss was the proud owner of the fire station. When Madison Fire Station 8 moved to its new quarters on Lien Road, Fuss was ready to move into what has become his home and his “Old Fire Station 8 Madison Fire Museum.”
Owning a two story, three-bay fire station is no small task. Fuss would have to install three furnaces, one for each level, including a basement area. Replacing the flat roof with a new rubber roof was not a small matter.
Today, Old Station 8 not only houses the Madison Fire Museum and is Mike’s home, it also contains two display rooms on the second floor that feature memorabilia from the old Milwaukee Braves baseball team from the days when Eddie Matthews was a star player. The second room is Fuss’s music room—a tribute to Johnny Cash. Back down on the apparatus floor there is also a nice model train layout on display. Fuss opens his museum for guided tours by appointment. Call him at (608) 669-4141. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to know “Fireman Mike” and not only take the tour, but enjoy a spin around the neighborhood on one of Fuss’s open-cab Pirsch midship aerial ladder rigs and also sit down at the big table in the second floor kitchen that can seat 14.
When it comes to vintage fire apparatus ownership, Fuss currently has a collection of five fire trucks. Pirsch apparatus is most prominent as the Wisconsin manufacturer was a longtime favorite with many Wisconsin fire departments. A 1941 Pirsch quad is Fuss’s favorite. He recalls chasing after that rig in his youth. This rig would eventually be sold to Cottage Grove, Minnesota. In 1987 Fuss was able to locate the quad and negotiate the return of the rig to Madison. Mike already had three other vintage Madison fire trucks in his collection. It is little wonder that Mike wanted to own a three bay fire station. A visit to Old Fire Station 8 today finds the apparatus floor and the watch office full of equipment that would be in use in the 1950s and 1960s. A 1959 FWD 1,000-gpm pumper, a 1959 Pirsch 85-foot midship aerial, and the 1941 Pirsch quad with a 750-gpm pump and 140-gallon tank and full complement of ground ladders sit ready for the next alarm to come in over the Gamewell alarm system. Stored outside the station are a 1956 Pirsch 1,250-gpm pumper and a 1950 Pirsch 85-foot aerial.
Owning five vintage fire trucks is a challenge—even when you are able to have three of the rigs parked inside on your own apparatus floor. Finding storage for additional rigs is a problem and means that Fuss stores two rigs on the side apron at his fire station. He is working on a deal with a fellow retired Madison firefighter that could soon place those two rigs in a storage building in Janesville, Wisconsin. All Fuss would have to do is get the trucks transported over to Janesville. He has kept a log on everything that he has done with his rigs since 1982 when he got his first vintage rig. He records all maintenance as well as the many events that he and the rigs have been a part of. The log includes many parades, helping people trim trees, getting hawks out of nests, and painting buildings. From 1982 until 2002 Mike annually transported the Madison Fire Department Santa to various Madison hospitals as Santa made his rounds. His Old Station 8 hosted a Christmas party from 1988 until 2002. It’s easy to see that Fuss has given full value to his original bid to become the owner of the venerable fire station.
Fuss is known as the unofficial historian of the Madison Fire Department. In 1991, he authored Capital City Courage, a hard-cover history of the Madison Fire Department. He is considering a soft-cover reissue of his book. He is also working on a new book to bring a full update to the history of the Madison Fire Department. We will watch for that new publication from “Fireman Mike.”