Twenty years ago, David Thompson and Matthew Strong flew separately down to South America. The two Mainers rendezvoused in the small port of Mollendo on the Pacific Coast in southern Peru. They were on a mission to salvage a Swedish Ericsson AGF500 telephone switching system from a telephone company in the beach town near the Chilean border.
Strong, then a globetrotting recycler of obsolete telephone switching systems and e-waste, and Thompson, a Bucksport resident retired from Maine’s Eastern Telephone Co., sought the obsolete electronic system to connect telephone calls as an antiquity for The Telephone Museum in north Ellsworth. For the museum volunteers, getting the system to Maine was no easy feat. They were unable to transport the dismantled system by land to Peru’s capital city of Lima.
“It’s a big copper mining area,” Strong explained, referring to Mollendo. “At the port, they load bulk cargo carriers with copper ore and copper concentrate. But not containers.”
Still, Strong and Thompson found a freight agent who helped them secure a 20-foot container from the Peruvian navy base and load the container onto a Connecticut-bound cargo ship.
“At that point my Spanish was a lot better,” Strong recalled, laughing.
Visitors to 166 Winkumpaugh Road, where the telephone museum is located, can hear about Strong and Thompson’s often nail-biting adventures acquiring vintage telephone equipment over the years. Retired from his job as one of Eastern Telephone Co.’s central office technicians, Thompson gives tours, caretakes the museum and fixes some of the telephone apparatus in the collection. As part of the tour, visitors get to use metal cans, linked with wire, to communicate. They can call each other on multiple crank and rotary phones displayed around the front room. Just like a switchboard operator, they can plug in and connect callers.
At one point, Maine had at least 45 independent companies, one of which once served the far-flung island of Frenchboro off Mount Desert Island. Now the museum houses the old CX-100 relay switch that Island Telephone Co. donated when another phone service took over there.
Reminiscent of library bookstacks, the museum boasts aisles of towering crossbar switching systems that rattle and shake when a call is put through. There’s even a payphone or two on display. Thompson’s own orange hardhat hangs among others.
Through a collector’s association called CNET, the museum can communicate with other people who have their own switching equipment.
“We’ve had calls from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scandinavia,” Thompson said. “All over the world.”
Strong, also a volunteer, discovered the museum almost by accident. Driving by one day, he noticed a tractor-trailer filled with equipment.
“I pulled in and that’s when I met everybody,” he said. “And that’s when they found out that I was the guy taking out probably 90 percent of the [telephone equipment] in New England.”
Both Strong, who lives minutes away from the museum, and Thompson share a common desire to preserve the telephone industry’s colorful history and ever-changing telephone history. Since opening in 1984, their pursuit of obsolete phone equipment has taken them far and wide. In Peru, they once used llamas to haul gear. They braved a frigid ferry ride in the dead of winter.
Thompson remembers a road trip back from Minnesota. He was hauling a load of telephone equipment when the trailer almost unhitched from his vehicle. When he noticed the trailer start to wiggle, he floored the gas pedal.
Next thing he knew, Thompson was getting pulled over by the police. Luckily for him, the policeman agreed that Thompson had made the right move.
“I suspect we did not load it properly,” Thompson laughed. “But that’s neither here nor there.”
The Telephone Museum is located at 166 Winkumpaugh Road in Ellsworth. It is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through September. For more info, call 667-9491, email [email protected] or visit www.thetelephonemuseum.org.