Nebraska Firefighters Museum celebrates the past, while looking to the future

A photo of the Nebraska Firefighters Museum in Kearney, Nebraska

In the front lobby of the Nebraska Firefighters Museum and Education Center in Kearney, Matt Fitzgerald smiles and greets a small family that just entered the building.

“Do you guys want some firefighter helmets?” he asks the family’s two children. Both light up with grins and nod enthusiastically.

He ushers the group into a room that seems like it’s from another time. Large black and white photos of firefighter squadrons grace the walls – making haste toward the flames, carrying ladders and buckets, often accompanied by a trademark Dalmatian. The gloss of several vintage firetrucks and wagons shimmers under the room’s lighting. A large statue of Smokey Bear (surrounded by his furry friends) stands reminding patrons that only they can prevent forest fires.

“I’m still amazed by it all,” Matt comments.

It’s been two years since Matt Fitzgerald began his job here as director. Prior to accepting the position, he worked as a tire technician and volunteer firefighter. He also served in the military. After a shoulder injury derailed any possibility of physical labor, the Nebraska Firefighters Foundation Board asked if he’d be interested in taking over as the museum’s acting director. It’s been an entirely new kind of role for him, but one he fully embraces.

“It’s different than what my last 25 years of work experience has been,” laughs Fitzgerald. “But I love dealing with people. I’m at my best when this place is filled with them.”

But so far this year, filling the museum has been a challenge. From late February to early April every year, thousands flock from in and out-of-state to observe the crane migration near Kearney. This year’s record-breaking floods put the kibosh on things.

"That’s a big source of tourism for us,” explained Fitzgerald.  “The flooding this year made sure that didn’t happen. We’ve lost over 600 visitors from a year ago, just in that time frame. Then we got this second round of flooding recently, which closed a lot of motels, roads in the area and put us down for almost a week.”

So now he’s turning to a legend of wildfire prevention for some assistance: Smokey Bear.

This year marks Smokey’s 75th birthday, and on Saturday, August 17th, the museum and event center will celebrate its 10th anniversary AND Smokey’s birthday. The event will feature kids’ games, an antique fire truck show, local BBQ and beer, along with a concert by Nicki Rezac and a magic show by David Fox. Fitzgerald hopes the celebration will bolster attendance and make up for the disruptions caused by the flooding. He says it’s also an opportunity for people to come out and find out more about the history and importance of Nebraska firefighters.

“You’ll have fire departments with one, two, three generations of people, all from the same family. It shows how much community means to those people. This year, we’ve heard a lot about Nebraska Strong. This museum represents that.”

More information about the celebration can be found here