Jim Wueste had no plans to be a firefighter. But his friend Tabby did. It was their senior year in high school and with his car in the shop, Tabby asked Jim for a ride downtown to sign up for the test. “The test was the next Wednesday. Well, he was smart enough to know that his car was still going to be in the shop then, so he signed me up too.” It wasn’t until the day of the exam that Jim found out he’d be taking it as well. “Well I got in, Tabby didn’t.” Jim laughs. (He reassured us that Tabby did eventually become a firefighter and served in Balcones Heights.)
Jim Wueste has been President of the museum since January 2017. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“I wound up doing a job I absolutely loved every day for 33 years. It’s funny how things work out.”
Decades later, Jim looks back on his time with the Fire Department as he strolls through the San Antonio Fire Museum. “I wound up doing a job I absolutely loved every day for 33 years. It’s funny how things work out.” Jim took over as President of the museum in January, one of several retired firefighters that make up the staff. The volunteers collectively work over 1200 hours a month, a figure that shocked members of the Fire Museum Network. “The thing that really blew them away was how much volunteerism there is here; and these guys giving their time and giving back to the community. I think that’s the biggest story here.”
Fire helmets through the years. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Located at 800 E Houston, only steps from The Alamo, the museum is housed in what was once Central Fire Headquarters for the City of San Antonio. This historical connection makes the visitor experience something special. The eye is drawn around from the bright red vintage fire trucks to a 19th century wooden water main encased in glass. Jim points to the middle of the room where the next museum treasure will go. “There was an 1895 steam engine that was housed at fire station number 5. We’re very close to getting that added back to our collection. You know an 1895 steamer, that’s pretty cool.”
Jim says there’s a certain fascination people have with the fire trucks. “I remember being a kid. You know, we’d hear the siren and we did everything we could to look down Blanco Road and see that fire truck go by.” But it’s not just the trucks that keep people coming back to the museum. “I think the kids can learn a lot just coming in and talking with old fireman, they love it. We have people who’ve been here four or five times.”
“There’s a brotherhood, they understand it.”
Many visitors are a part of the firefighting community themselves. “They come from all over the country. If a firefighter comes in from Boston or Los Angeles, they’re all the same. And firefighters, when they go to work, they live together.” Jim explains, “There’s a brotherhood, they understand it.”
A history of women in the Fire Department. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
In some cases, those familial bonds are literal. Jim points to an old portrait of a fire chief near the entrance of the museum. “I had a great-great-great Aunt who was married to that guy. He was married to a Wueste.” Jim’s family has been connected to the San Antonio Fire Department for generations, and that connection continues today. Jim’s daughter, Sarah, is currently a fire fighter.
The museum has put everything in perspective for Jim. “It’s funny, I was never a history buff. But history just kind of moves right through you. Here I am today, president of the Fire Museum, I did 33 years in the fire department, and I’ve got a daughter in the fire department.”
Jim Wueste served 33 years in the San Antonio Fire Department. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
As we were speaking, one of the other volunteers, also named Jim (they casually refer to one another as ‘Jimbo’), was preparing to take out a 1953 fire truck to burn off excess fuel. He offered us a spin. Minutes later, we were riding a circuit around downtown, ringing the bell and tripping the siren to the amusement of pedestrians (and possible confusion of office workers).
Visitors to the Alamo took immediate interest in the fire truck. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Jim made a stop in front of the Alamo. Not a minute had passed before families were gathering around, asking questions of the retired firefighter and taking pictures in front of the vintage truck. The museum president’s comment about peoples’ fascination with firetrucks rings true.
"It’s really a labor of love.”
“Our mission is certainly to preserve and display the history of the San Antonio Fire Department.” says Jim Wueste. But behind the mission of the organization, there’s so much more. “Everything you see these guys have done basically out of their pocket. It’s all been done in-house. It’s really a labor of love.”
The San Antonio Fire Museum, located at 801 E Houston Street. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
The next time you visit Alamo Plaza and take in the sacred history, consider crossing the street and discovering another piece of San Antonio history that’s alive and well.