VNoldbetsy052020

Earl Midlam drives Old Betsy, Venice’s first fire engine, a 1926 American LaFrance, in one of the many city parades it has participated in.

VENICE — A volunteer effort is underway to create a museum with open storage viewing of Old Betsy, the city of Venice’s 1926 American LaFrance fire truck.

Earl Midlam, former council member and a former fire fighter, has been taking care of the vehicle along with a cadre of volunteers for more than 50 years.

It’s currently housed in a storage unit owned by Sarasota County near the base of the Venice Avenue bridge.

There was some concern a few years back the county wanted to sell the building.

“It’s time for Old Betsy to be placed in a museum for others to enjoy,” Midlam said. “She served us well as an ambassador. We now have an appraisal book on it, which means its value will go up, and the city has it insured.”

With the help of Venice Heritage Inc., Midlam has come up with a concept plan for an open storage, unstaffed building, where people can view the fire truck from the outside through tall windows.

The inside would house other fire fighter apparatus, axes, helmets and other artifacts. Midlam said he previously visited Madison, Fla., and got the idea from an open storage museum housing the city’s antique fire engine.

The museum would be located somewhere in the Venice Cultural Campus next to the Triangle Inn archives building, or near the Julia Cousins Laning and Dale Laning Archives and Research Center.

“The current lease has expired and the fate of the building is unknown,” Midlam said.

He sent a formal proposal to City Manager Ed Lavallee recently, with backing from the current mayor and former council members and an undisclosed financial commitment from William H. Jervey Jr., who donated $1 million for the Venice Public Library endowment, and more recently $1 million as a matching gift for the Venice Theatre’s The Next Act fundraising drive.

“I am eager to be the primary financial backer of that endeavor,” Jervey wrote to Harry Klinkhammer, Historical Resources Manager.

“I hope that we can work to find a way to help you create a new home for Old Betsy,” wrote Mayor Ron Feinsod to Midlam. “Our city’s rich history is an important part of its attraction for tourists and Old Betsy certainly has a place here.”

At this point, Midlam envisions a building approximately 1,600 to 2,000 square feet that would cost from $120,000 to $500,000.

Lavallee wrote back to Midlam on Monday with suggestions to help make the project more presentable to the Venice City Council, including working with the finance department on a local fundraising effort to raise the necessary capital.

Midlam said anyone who wants to donate towards Old Betsy’s new home should send a check made payable to Venice Heritage, Inc., and indicate the funds are for Old Betsy.

The address is Venice Heritage, Inc., PO Box 1190, Venice, FL 34284. He also asked anyone with photographs of Old Betsy from years ago to send them to Venice Heritage, Inc.

“I want to be able to tell her story,” Midlam said. “That truck will be 100 years old in 2026, which is not long from now. It’s time to bring her a ‘home.’”

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