Kim Stellhorn was practically raised in a fire station. His grandfather was a volunteer fireman in Illinois. Much of Kim’s childhood was spent with his grandfather taking him on fire truck rides, going to the station, and attending events at the firehouse. His lifelong passion for collecting fire memorabilia started when he was a young man, and his collection has continued to flourish ever since.
In 1971, at the age of 15, Kim himself became a volunteer fireman after his family’s move to Texas. His collecting experience began there four years later, when he started collecting fire patches that were sewn onto uniforms. Many of these patches were acquired through the mail, years before the Internet. By the early 1980’s, Kim was a full-fledged collector, expanding beyond patches and collecting other items, such as helmets, vintage photographs, toy fire trucks, and much more.
Many of the fire-related items in Kim’s collection were given to him, either through his own firefighting connections, his grandfather and family, or friends. As he describes these items, he says, “I have such a wide range of items, each with their own story.” One such story involves his sister and brother-in-law, who were missionaries in Russia in the early-1990’s. Kim’s sister tried to take some photographs of a Russian fire department, to share with her brother, but she forgot to load the film. However, the Russian firemen became suspicious of an American taking pictures of their department because this was just after the end of the Soviet Union. To alleviate their concerns, Kim asked his sister what the department needed as he would try to donate some items. The department did not have money to buy anything and there was very little production of fire equipment, or anything else at that time. So, Kim sent some items from his collection: gloves, hood, magazines, and a patch. The mayor and the fire chief in this small town in Russia were so excited that someone in America would share something with them, they decided to have an elaborate celebration, replete with the entire fleet of local fire trucks and demonstrations of their indoor and outdoor equipment. They also reciprocated by giving Kim’s sister a Russian fire helmet, hood, gloves, a leather belt with a fire axe, a winning competition ribbon, and a cloth calendar, which all became part of Kim’s collection.
Kim’s collection includes three pieces from as far back as the 1920’s and 1930’s. These include a flood light from a truck in his grandfather’s fire department, an attic ladder, and a bell.
The value of his collection, according to Kim, is “priceless.” He describes nearly every piece he has as “one-of-a-kind,” with great sentimental value – much more than monetary. About three-fourths of his collection are unique pieces that family and friends have given him, as well as items he acquired himself as a firefighter. He has picked up some of his items, such as some of his toy fire trucks, at local garage sales.
Overall, Kim has around 1,000 pieces in his collection – about 400 patches, 30 helmets (some from Austria, Belgium, Russia, and France), as well as other items including badges, belt buckles, commemorative pocket knives, beer steins, and multiple photographs. He also has a significant number of toy fire trucks, including about a dozen Russian trucks that actually have the Soviet Union flag on the side – from before its dissolution in 1991. Other types of trucks he has are Franklin Mint collector fire trucks, Tonka trucks, and Matchbox special edition trucks.
Kim singles out a particularly interesting item in his collection: hand-drawn membership drive posters for his original volunteer fire department (Arcadia Volunteer Fire Department, in Texas). He was given these posters by the artist herself. They are 11” x 17”, and were placed in businesses in 1961 to encourage people to join the Arcadia Fire Department. Kim had them framed, and they now hang in his office.
In addition, Kim’s collection expands to other artwork and books. He has over a dozen numbered collectible Christian firefighter prints by artist, Jim Davis, and autographed books by firefighters and authors, “Red” Adair, Dennis Smith, and Dave Houseal.
His collection is stored in a devoted space, called his “Fire Room.” As Kim points out, there is not much wall space left in the Fire Room!
Kim’s fire collectibles, spanning almost 40 years, includes some truly remarkable pieces. His passion for collecting is not getting extinguished anytime soon!