Telephone museum lets you put the call through

Dave Thompson, retired from a career as a central office technician at Eastern Telephone Co., shows how to work an old switchboard. The museum boasts old switching systems from Ellsworth, Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor and other Hancock County towns. PHOTO BY RACHEL TAYLOR

Charles Galley remembers when his family got their very first telephone — a black Western Electric 500 rotary dial model — at their Winkumpaugh Road home in the late 1960s. They shared the phone line with eight other households. Each had a unique ring to listen for.

“It was busy in the summer and we shared a line with Camp Jordan,” the 71-year-old Galley recently recalled by phone from his home in Andover, Mass. “The phone rang many, many times and I had to get used to the fact that there was only a certain combination of rings that we would pick up on.”

Galley and fellow vintage phone enthusiast Charlie Dunne co-founded the Telephone Museum in North Ellsworth in 1984. An antique Ericsson AGF rotary switching system from Peru and other phone–related relics found a home in the Winkumpaugh Road farm where Galley had spent much time during his summer visits to Maine. He inherited the property from a cousin and the barn became the museum.

Volunteer Dave Thompson and other volunteers are always on hand to explain the function and history of various dial-up devices and all the other telephone paraphernalia.

Unlike some museums, where things are looked at, but not touched, Ellsworth’s telephone Museum is user friendly. Visitors can use crank phones — some date from the late 1800s — flanking the walls. They can play with dials, and take a seat at a manual switchboard from the 1900s, become an operator and put a caller through.

Galley, retired from a career running a theater lighting rental company, has always loved telephone technology. He describes it as “an outgrowth of my childhood fantasy.”

Dave Thompson, retired from a career as a central office technician at Eastern Telephone Co., shows people around through generations of telephone innovation at the museum. He starts with Nova Scotian Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the device in 1876 through today’s cell phone technology.

But Thompson’s tour is not all talk. The first interactive activity consists of two metal cans connected by a bright yellow string. The visitor, holding one can, stands in one room and hears Dave, the other can in hand, communicate.

The next stop is a crank phone and a switchboard. The panel, which has dozens of holes, looks complicated to operate. It’s hard to picture picking up the phone to discover someone else speaking on the line. Or, the idea of someone else placing your call for you.

Thompson shows how it’s done and then turns over the operator’s duties to visitors.

Elderly visitors may recognize this old dial-style telephone from their childhood.

Across the room, a wooden box hangs on the wall with a black metal transmitter sticking out of the front. There’s a receiver on one side and a hand crank on the other. Turn the crank and a bell will ring out on the switchboard. The operator answers, inquiring who you’d like to call. The phone connection then is made by inserting plugs into the appropriate jack on the switch board.

The nation’s last manual telephone switchboard operated in Maine’s Oxford County village of Bryant Pond until 1983 when the town of Woodstock, amid protests from half the residents, switched to dial phones. In Bryant Pond, the operator became knew the locals and their phone habits.

“The operator knows everybody, and you didn’t have to remember people’s numbers, you would just say, ‘Hey I want to call Dave,” and she would connect you,” Thompson related.

Today, many people are giving up landlines and using only their cells. As a result, the telephone book is rapidly becoming obsolete as fewer people are listed.

Thompson, who doesn’t possess a cell phone, says this trend is makes it harder to track people down.

“People are becoming more invisible than they used to be,” he said.

Even though cell phones are the preferred mode of communication, young visitors get a kick out of the old form of communication and how phones worked before they fit in their pockets.

“I’ve been thrilled at the number of people who come,” Galley said. “It’s a story that’s not told much anywhere else.”

The Telephone Museum is located at 166 Winkumpaugh Road (off Route 1A), Ellsworth. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays in July, August and September. For more information, call 667-9491 and visit thetelephonemuseum.org.