Georgia Rural Telephone Museum
"My desire is that you enjoy a trip through the history of tele-communications, leaving with a greater appreciation and understanding of 'telephony'." -- Tommy C. Smith
Even as the cost of a long distance call plunges to zero, financially disconnecting telecom companies one-by-one, we suspect the US will never suffer from a shortage of telephone museums. There are dozens -- from extensive exhibits in county historical museums to dedicated structures filled with old phones saved from the scrap pile. They are nurtured by fanatical private collectors, retired phone company employees, and civic organizations such as the Telephone Pioneers of America.
The telephone seems, on the surface, genetic kin to another historical networked conduit found in hundreds of museums -- the steam locomotive. Built around old rail sidings and engines, train museums are chiefly adored by railroad fans and children. But where do you find masses of phone fans? It's not like everyone works for the phone company (but after seeing my last bill, a-ha-ha), and if appliance ownership was core to appeal, wouldn't toaster and lawn mower museums abound? It's a mystery just barely worth exploring, so we head to one of America's flagship collections of "telephony."
Don't let the name fool you. The Georgia Rural Telephone Museum exhibits rarities from the entire span of US telephony history. The museum, a tidy brick building -- former 1920s cotton warehouse -- sits across the street from its owner, the Citizens Telephone Company, an independent operation. It houses the collection of Tommy C. Smith -- Citizens CEO and curator of the museum -- claimed to be the "World's Largest Collection of Telephones and Telephone Memorabilia."
All tours require a guide, so our schedule-keeping twenty minute "drop in" is already jeopardized. The older woman at the front desk fetches the guide, retired civil servant James Hines. Can the tour be accelerated to less than an hour?, we ask after he greets us. James thinks a moment, then says "I'll see what I can do."
After he realizes we're videotaping, he stops us. "No picture taking allowed..." and puts a call into Tommy C. Smith himself, who is tied up in meetings and unavailable. The tour ultimately ends up lasting most of an hour, and we feel a little guilty for rushing our walking font of knowledge and phone trivia.
The exhibits, by the guide's estimate, feature over 1,500 phones. The Citizen Telephone Co. has serviced four local exchanges since the early 1900s, but the collection includes much, much more. The first exhibit is a glass case of all the early Alexander Graham Bell phones -- or at least, replicas. We pass a switchboard from the 1880s, and a rare wooden "double-layer" phone booth (for soundproofing).
There are endless lit glass racks of candlestick phones, box phones, rotary dial phones. James is quite proud of the McKinley telephone (1897), the type used to make the call to report that President McKinley had been shot over a century ago. "The President has been shot!" or something similar was shouted into a phone much like the one displayed here.
We search out some of the more novel designs: a fancy "flip-top" phone; a jukebox phone (for calling in selection to waitress), a Hush-a-phone (for private conversations), a desk Graba-phone. Not your typical crate of junk-in-the-garage stuff -- but real collector's items.
Colorful painted murals are backdrops for equipment displays, most created by a talented "black man from Cordele," among other native Georgia artists. There is a big toll switch, taken out of service in 1980, that still lights ups. It's a long dark expanse of knobs and plugs typical of central office equipment, somewhat dull, but there are amusing details. Yellowing cards taped to the console helped operators recall the phone numbers for the Poison Control Center and local funeral homes.
A few other highlights:
The Indian Room
has nothing to do with communications, except for some smoke signals painted in the backdrop. The "re-creation of a Creek Indian Village" is a a bunch of Indian mannequins and a wall arrowheads and other artifacts. Very popular with the kids, though.
Collection of Bell-shaped paperweights
A wall, a bell-shaped display at its center, shows off tinted glass commemoratives produced by Bell operating companies back in ancient Bell System days. Nearby are larger, tinted glass bell-shaped live line insulators, "which can also be used for paperweights," according to our guide. "However, you can not use the paperweights for insulators."
The museum has a special affection for the crossed-wires of telephony and local boy Jimmy Carter; his hometown of Plains is just down the road. Jimmy was a guest of honor at the museum's opening in 1995. In one display, you can examine the two switchboards used by President Carter in Plains during his 1970s Presidential campaign. The painted backdrop features a wacky scene in downtown Plains, with excited tourists and a leering Billy Carter waving a can of Billy Beer. Among the exhibit items, you'll find the red phone from Billy's home (direct line to the White House?).
Near the back, the museum displays items not so telephony-related, like antique clocks, and a 19th century organ from Atlanta's St. Marks Methodist Church.
We move into galleries devoted to more modern telephony, where the gadgets are lumpier, plastic -- the squat utility of late 20th century industrial design. A cheery replica AT&T Telstar communications satellite beeps overhead.
Newfangled wireless and Internet telephony have yet to be celebrated, and there's a whole world waiting of Prepaid Cards and cell phone faceplates. We're sure Tommy C. Smith will sort the good from the bad for future exhibits.
The end-of-tour payoff is a giant mounted grizzly bear wearing an operator's headset -- named Bubba the Bear. Overhead dangles a giant red phone handset. Dialing "1" on nearby rotary phones triggers the welcoming voice of "Bubba," to the delight of children of "all ages."
We have the place practically to ourselves, but James assures it's just a slow summer weekday -- crowds of "all ages" come on weekends and big school groups the rest of the year. He is heartened whenever he sees a busload of kids pull up, yet worries today's youth may be losing touch with their country's telephony roots. "All of this could be forgotten. Kids today can't even use a rotary dial."