MANAWA, Wis. – Five years ago, the tidy little H.G. Allen Telecommunications Historical Museum of Tomah, Wis., suffered the fate shared by dozens of small exhibit spaces across America.
The meticulous exhibit was a comprehensive look at the evolution of the telecommunication industry in the Midwest, comprised mainly of items donated by ravenous telephone collector Robert Prosser. Prosser’s passion for telephones was so big and so broad the Wall Street Journal chronicled his hometown’s plight to find a home for his 750,000-piece collection. Part of the collection ended up in the H.G. Allen museum. It is an interesting museum, with exhibits from the 1880s to the 1980s. Items include fiddleback wood wall phones with brightly polished chrome bells and original cranks or stately candlestick models still retaining their fabric cords. The museum even has an example of the first cradle phone made in 1895 in Stockholm, Sweden, nicknamed the Eiffel Tower phone.
The museum closed after the Tomah Chamber of Commerce, with which it shared a building, decided to save money and move downtown. The decision left the museum without a home, a staff to run it and a future put squarely on the shoulders of its board. One board member – Bob Squires, who grew up in the industry and became president of the rural Manawa Telephone Company – volunteered to store the museum in an unheated warehouse 90 miles east, until a new home could be found.
Five years on, the museum sits; the contents of two semi trailers on pallets and packed in large cardboard boxes stacked 10 feet high in a warehouse. It exists under the watchful eye of Tom Squires, the president of the Manawa Telephone Company and voluntary caretaker of the museum collection, who took over when his father, Bob, passed away last year.
“It really needs to be displayed in a museum,” says Squires. “We know it’s not good for the items to be stored in a non climate controlled enviroment. It would be great for an institution to put it on display.”
Squires’ burden is one faced by many small museums forced to close because of dwindling attendance and rising operational costs. Telephone collectors and museum curators say there is hope for the museum, but it may have to be transformed into something more interactive to reach an increasingly disinterested public.
Walking past the racks of boxed telephones, Squires’ interest in the museum exhibit is hard to hide. He pulls back a plastic tarp to unveil a solid oak switchboard. A Bakelite mouthpiece hangs from a swinging boom projecting out the top of the device. Weighing a few hundred pounds, the switchboard was once America’s crucial communications lifeline. It allowed dozens of homes to reach each other and overseas – as well as provide some evening entertainment if the phones were connected to a party line. The switchboard is one of several from the museum. Squires’ love of history stretches to his own family. He has kept the original wooden switchboard his mother used to operate in the 1940s.
Taking his role as caretaker seriously, Squires has made a pledge to keep the museum open – at least virtually. He launched a Web page off his company’s site, www.manawatelephone.com. There he has photos of the museum and a short history. He also posted a partial list of museum inventory there. The items on the list are for sale in whole or in large part but not for single items. To help pay the insurance on the collection, Squires was moved to sell some of the more common single-box and two-box oak wall phones. Common at country auctions across the Midwest, the units usually need some repair work but are valued between $100 and $200. Rare items, such as scarce phones made by the Stromberg Carlson Co. are stored away. Rather than sell off items piece by piece, Squires and the board wants the entire collection to find a home.
Squires said he and the two remaining board members recently sent letters to various regional museums and collecting clubs, seeking advice on where the museum could be sent. He hasn’t heard back from anyone yet.
Squires and the museum board faces a challenging road ahead, said Wayne Merit, curator of the JKL Museum of Telephony, near Stockton, Calif. Merit has been a volunteer curator there for the last 10 years. The JKL Museum offers a complete history of the telephone communication from replicas of the earliest machines used by Alexander Graham Bell to units used in the 1980s. It even has a switch room that is able to provide a dial tone to all of the phones in the museum. Even with the nifty features, “attendance was always low and it’s getting lower,” Merit told Antique Trader magazine. “It’s a piece of our history that’s going away.”
The age of the average telephone collectors is between 50 and 80, with most serious collectors being former telecommunications employees and executives, such as in Merit’s case. Merit said the challenge with large collections may increase in the future. He recently spoke to a collector of antique toy telephones who was looking to donate his large collection. Although it’s interesting, the trouble is figuring out what to do with them. Telephones that are connected to a land line are quickly becoming an obsolete household occurrence. “There was a time when we had land lines, cell phones, pagers, and fax machines. It required several numbers – it’s not that we wanted to have that – we had to have that,” Merit said. “Now we’re entering an era where one number handles all those functions and it doesn’t matter where you are in the U.S., or the world, for that matter. That one number stays with you.”
Based on photos of the Allen Museum posted online, Merit estimates the value of the would start at about $200,000 and increase from there. The Allen Museum faces a unique challenge due to the sheer size and heft of the switchboards. They are beautiful machines, but on their own, are not terribly functional or practical to move around or store.
Former Antique Telephone Collectors Association (ATCA) President Barry Huckeby told Antique Trader the museum collection might benefit from an innovative method used by other organizations. An ATCA member has created a traveling museum exhibit in a mobile home. He tows it to festivals and state fairs – anywhere there are large groups of people. “One of the important outreach we do in the club is bringing a museum to the community,” said Huckeby, a college basketball coach from Saginaw, Mich. The traveling exhibit will be on display at the ATCA’s annual convention in August in Shipshewana, Ind. – a charming antique mecca known for its large annual antique show and Amish heritage.
Huckeby and Merit share Squires’ concern about the health of the pieces. A warehouse that is not climate controlled will accelerate aging, with nickel pieces tarnishing and termites munching on the cases.
Squires hasn’t given up hope. He is dedicated to taking care of the museum contents. He has even volunteered to set up some exhibits from the museum at the upcoming Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association annual spring convention.
“We’ve had a lot of change the last 20 years. We’re moving from copper and iron wire to glass,” referring to the transition from traditional land lines to fiber optic cable. “It’s important to remember that history. I’d love to see it not get lost in the shuffle. I’d love to see that history get kept.”
Those interested in helping find a home for the H.G. Allen Telecommunications Museum should contact Tom Squires at the Manawa Telephone Company, 131 2nd St., P.O. Box 130, Manawa, WI 54949; or 920-596-1707, fax: 920-596-3779, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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