LARAMIE — Gary Garcia, 58, turned the ancient leather helmet over in his hands.
Despite being about 100 years old, the paint — though flaking — was in surprisingly good condition.
Attached by rivets, a bronze eagle head, brown with age, crested the dome. In its beak, the bird of prey clasped the top of red, leather emblem emblazoned with the number two.
“This helmet looks like it’s likely from the early 1900s, so it could mean anything really,” Laramie Fire Department Chief Dan Johnson said, accepting the helmet. “It could be the firefighter’s engine number or a company. I can’t be sure without more research.”
A nearly identical helmet, albeit adorned with a white emblem rather than red, was hung on Johnson’s coat rack.
“People bring in artifacts from time to time,” the fire chief explained. “But, that one is from Casper.”
Both helmets sported the iconic elongated rear brim complete with simple designs embossed into their topsides. Their bronze eagles were nearly identical. Both emblems bore the number two.
Aside from the emblem color, one might guess they were from the same department. Beneath the emblem on Garcia’s helmet, however, four letters spelled the difference — LCFD.
Lost and forgotten
During the winter of 1976, Garcia drove west on Wyoming Highway 230 with some high school buddies to hunt rabbits.
“There was an old lean-to — it might have been a shed or a place for someone to rest,” he said, drawing an invisible structure in the air with his hands. “We looked inside for rabbits nesting down. It was a mud floor, and we didn’t see anything. Then I looked off to the side of this thing, and there was part of a hat sticking up.”
Pulling it out of the mud, Garcia could see it was a fireman’s helmet, but because of the small size, he thought it was a toy.
“We goofed around with it for a minute, then threw it in the back of my truck,” he remembered. “Then, I just kind of forgot about it.”
A few weeks later, Garcia’s dad, who owned the Alcove Inn at the time, found the hat and cleaned it up. The two discussed whether it was real or a toy, but Garcia remained unconvinced given the small size of the hatband.
For about a decade, the hat collected dust as display in his dad’s bar. Then in 1986 as Garcia started to travel for work, his dad returned the helmet.
Nowadays, Garcia works as a manager for Sprint overseeing the installation of cell towers, but he said he’s traveled all over the U.S. working for telephone companies in one capacity or another.
“For the longest time, it hung on a rifle rack in my truck,” Garcia explained. “It started a lot of conversations, but other than that, it just hung there.”
Clad in a red checkered shirt, Garcia leaned back in a wooden bench at Coal Creek Tap. His face was clean shaven and thin, black-rimmed glasses framed his sincere eyes. Looking outside Coal Creek’s large picture windows, he pointed to buildings and told stories about losing his class ring in an alley a block away, visiting stores long forgotten and growing up in Laramie.
Although he now lives in Elizabeth, Colorado, with his wife, he said he returns to Laramie and Cheyenne often to catch up with old friends and family.
It was his connection to the city that prompted him to return the old fire helmet.
Feeling nostalgic, Garcia subscribed to a Facebook page dubbed “You know you are from Laramie when. . . . .” and posted a photo of the helmet along with his story.
“A few days after the post, I was contacted by Chief Johnson and a fire marshal by the name of Mark Young,” he said. “They asked if there was any way I would be willing to return the helmet.”
It wasn’t the first time Garcia considered gifting the relic. Once, he planned to give it to a friend, who was a fire chief in Montana, but they fell out of touch before Garcia could make a proper gift of it. Then, after moving to Colorado, he discovered his neighbor was the assistant fire chief of the local department and planned to give the helmet to him as a birthday gift, but the neighbor moved away a month later.
“I guess it was always meant to come back to Laramie,” Garcia shrugged, smiling. “I never really owned it. I was just more of its caretaker.”
Back at the firehouse, Johnson said the helmet would be displayed at the LFD Station No.3 Fire Museum.
“I’ll probably reach out to the Laramie Plains Museum and see if they can do some research for us,” he said. “Artifacts like this help us preserve the history and tradition of firefighting. It gives us an appreciation of the past, and we really respect the efforts of prior generations of firefighters.”