What does the Maintenance Department at your establishment of work mean to you? Are they simply the ones called when there’s a leaky faucet? Perhaps they are there for you when the lights in your office inevitably die? From patching walls to pruning bushes and keeping the lavatories in working order, these are but some of the things you will see maintenance personnel do. But what about what goes on behind locked doors? Surely they must be diligently addressing other escapades considering you’ve caught a glimpse of one emerging from the depths of the mechanical rooms, covered in grease or soaked head to toe in water—which from where it came is left either to the cruelty or innocence of your imagination. To find out what sort of shenanigans those men and women are up to, we must open the not-so pearly gates to the boiler room, ascend into the ceiling, crawl through labyrinths of air ducts, and climb to the rooftops themselves in order to see what it thoroughly is to be a Maintenance Technician.
When I began my employment here at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, I knew little about what I was getting into. I was simply aware that I’d be dealing with plumbing, boilers, and HVAC. What I did not know, was how extensive and intricate each piece of machinery truly is, how much care and knowledge it takes to keep them alive and working properly, nor what other exciting endeavors I’d be addressing. After a year of working and learning from a man who has spent thirty years in the maintenance field, I must say that I have a tremendous amount to learn.
This museum is home to: fifteen air handlers, eight air compressors, four hot water boilers, two steam boilers, two reverse osmosis machines, a chiller, a cooling tower, and quite a handful of pumps to keep all the heating and cooling water flowing. All of these are critical pieces of equipment that have to be maintained very carefully in order to preserve their good condition, thus keeping every artifact within the building safe from the everlasting march of time. The list of equipment goes on, but let’s stick with these key components. How does one properly maintain all of these machines? Filters must be changed, bearings must be greased, belts must be replaced, the water in the steam boilers must be treated with chemicals to bar the creation of scale within the boilers, and the same goes for the cooling tower. I could ramble on for hours about the war I rage against faulty equipment, but for the sake of keeping my audience awake, I digress.
While I, a mere high school graduate, may have a great and seemingly overwhelming task set in front of me, it has yet to be unrewarding. Through the teachings of my coworker/mentor, and never-ending trials and errors, I have learned quite a lot over the past year. There is also a great sense of satisfaction when the job is done correctly. Be it wiring a new air compressor motor to run on low voltage, to tearing apart and rebuilding a boiler, it feels good knowing that I was the one who made it right. That I was the one who soldered in a new refrigerator compressor so that our eatery could continue providing refreshments to our visitors. That I was the one who helped preserve that one-hundred and fifty year old painting by John Mix Stanley himself, so that it can be enjoyed now, and in the distant future (assuming it doesn’t catch fire like so many of his other pieces).
Maintenance at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is not always dirty work, however. Let’s not forget the times I’ve done what I consider to be some incredible things. I’ve held some amazing artifacts in my own hands, including firearms that come from all corners of the world and from the very pages of your high school history books, paintings and bronze sculptures from renowned western artists, and even astonishing taxidermies for the Draper Natural History Museum. The stories and theories that rush through my head as I wield an 1860s LeMat revolver, the care and devotion I see and feel as I delicately move a sculpture carved from marble, the feelings associated with holding priceless pieces of history are staggering.
A year maintaining a museum; it has been challenging, it has been fun, it has been discouraging at times, but rewarding in the end. I’ve made a good number of friends among the wonderful staff that keeps the museum afloat. I’ve seen exhibits come and go, I’ve seen the Plains Indians Museum from the four-story high catwalks, I’ve been inside vaults containing more artifacts that even most of our staff haven’t seen. I must say that it has been a very memorable year, and I look forward to seeing what else is to come; more knowledge, more history, more friends, and more stories to share. As for you, my dear reader, I thank you for taking the time to listen to my story, and encourage you to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West should you find yourself on an adventure to the Greater Yellowstone Region.