Al Dyer Jr.'s process for settling in as the new director of Ypsilanti's Michigan Firehouse Museum and Education Center included getting to know the resident ghost, former Ypsilanti fire chief Alonzo Miller.
"Shortly after I became director, I was contacted by a paranormal group out of Ohio who asked if they could come and do a paranormal investigation at the museum," Dyer says. "I had no idea what that would entail – if it would be full-on ghostbusters showing up with proton packs or dudes setting out five crystals at different points around the museum. I was ignorant of the whole paranormal investigation culture, but I was curious and thought, 'Why not?'"
The idea of tapping into a new audience for the museum grew into the Old Firehouse Para-Con, a paranormal investigation convention set for Dec. 8 at the museum. Attendees can pay $30 to browse vendors and listen to a series of panels by paranormal experts or pay extra for VIP tickets to a ghost hunt in the museum from midnight to 3 a.m.
As the museum celebrates its 20th anniversary in November, it's continuing its tried and true mission of celebrating Michigan's firefighting history while also experimenting with new ideas and ways to bring in a wider array of visitors.
Built in 1898, the core of the museum at 110 W. Cross St. is Ypsilanti's old firehouse, which continued to serve as a working fire station until the mid-1970s. The rumor that Miller died in the station and returned to haunt it is romantic but inaccurate; Miller actually died at home in his sleep after fighting a huge fire in 1936.
In 1975, the city of Ypsilanti built a new fire station and the old fire hall was sold to a family who lived on the property. In 1998, the old fire station was acquired by the Weaver family and opened as a firefighting history museum. As the museum gained popularity, a newer extension was added in 2002.
Bill Emerson, former fire chief for the city of Belleville, became a volunteer at the museum in 2013 after retiring.
He serves as a docent when the museum has group tours planned and enjoys explaining how the equipment works and the history of firefighting. He especially enjoys it when former firefighters turn up.
"We still get some of the old-timers who come in fairly regularly and want to see the old place again," Emerson says.
Emerson also assists local Boy Scout troops who come to the museum for their fire safety merit badges.
"I had a parent say the other day it took forever to get her son in, because every time we offer the program, it's full up," Emerson says. "We put about 45 or 50 boys through in a four-hour time period to earn their fire safety merit badge."
While Emerson enjoys teaching others, he says what keeps him coming back is that "every time I go, I learn something new."
Museum assistant Taylor Mull has been working at the museum while taking historic preservation classes at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). She says the museum attracts visitors from all over. Just over the summer, a group from the Dallas Fire Fighters Museum came in for a tour.
Mull says she enjoys talking and is always happy to give a tour to schoolchildren who come through on a regular basis.
"Coming to the museum is every kid's best dream," she says.
Dyer came on board as the director of the museum in July 2018, having spent 22 years as a firefighter and later fire chief in Lincoln Park, followed by a stint as fire chief in Iowa.
When his wife, who is a nurse, was offered a contract job back in Michigan, Dyer began looking for work, asking a family friend if there might be an opening for an instructor at EMU. The friend said EMU wasn't hiring, but the museum was looking for a new director.
At first, Dyer couldn't see how that career trajectory, from fire chief to museum director, could possibly work. But the museum's board interviewed him and thought they'd give him a shot.
After a couple months of getting acclimated and following through with already-planned events at the museum, Dyer began making some changes and bringing in fresh new ideas.
Increasing public engagement
Dyer notes that the museum is open to the public only 16 hours a week and says the building is underutilized. He has a vision for making the museum a bustling center of fire safety and a sought-after venue for special events. His biggest goals all revolve around building partnerships and increasing public engagement.
In addition to the Para-Con, Dyer would like to emphasize the "education center" part of the museum's name by offering either free or low-cost classes in fire safety, CPR, and related topics. He also hopes to host a murder mystery dinner, remodel the educational center in the basement, create short videos about local firefighting history, and heavily promote the museum as a rental venue for special events like weddings, or even a funeral for a retired firefighter.
Dyer plans to achieve many of those goals by reviving and expanding on existing partnerships. For instance, the museum recently partnered with EMU's Alpha Phi Omega coed service fraternity, which adopted the landscaping around the museum, tearing up overgrown plants and planting new ones this fall.
Dyer says he sees an opportunity to work with the EMU theater department on a murder mystery dinner, or work with EMU's historic preservation department on a video project. He suggests that as an alternative to a traditional written thesis, students could do a series of podcasts on each piece of equipment in the museum, making exhibits fresh and interactive while earning class credit for college students. The project could be paired with a phone app, so that when visitors scan a QR code, a professionally-made recording would appear.
"There's an immense amount of history on each piece of equipment, and they each have a story to tell," Dyer says.
Dyer hopes to use fees from special events not just to keep the doors open but to take care of some needed repairs.
Mull says when she first was hired at the museum, one of her duties was to empty a bucket in the attic that filled up with rainwater. The roof was fixed recently, but more repairs are still needed.
For instance, the platform in the museum's tower is unsafe, suffering from cracked joists. If that could be repaired, the museum could offer VIP passes to the tower for paranormal investigators who love the museum's ambience.
Dyer respects the work that went into making the museum what it is today, but he doesn't believe in resting on your laurels.
"It's good, but there's no reason we can't make it great," he says.
Museum hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. For more information, call 734-547-0663, visit http://michiganfirehousemuseum.org, or check out the museum's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MichiganFirehouseMuseum.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe.