You rang? Telephone Museum dials up memories

David Thompson demonstrates how to use a hand crank telephone. Thompson, 81, previously worked for the Eastern Telephone Co. as a central office technician. PHOTO BY MADALYNE BIRD

“The trick of it is, if the string isn’t tight…” museum staff member Chad Perkins begins, holding one of the two tin cans that have been strung together using a pink wire.

“It don’t work,” museum Treasurer David Thompson finishes.

The cans, which once held asparagus spears, need to be aligned with the wire in order to function properly.

This is a common, interactive beginning to a tour at the Telephone Museum, which is located off of Route 1A in north Ellsworth.

In an era in which landline telephones are rapidly vanishing, this rustic barn-turned-museum takes folks back to another era.

This payphone by Western Electric Co. was one of the first of its kind. The working antique is one of many at the Telephone Museum in Ellsworth.  PHOTO BY MADALYNE BIRD

This payphone by Western Electric Co. was one of the first of its kind. The working antique is one of many at the Telephone Museum in Ellsworth.

Thompson grew up on Massachusetts’ North Shore. As a teenager, he began dabbling with telephones, which eventually led to a career with Eastern Telephone Co. There, he worked as a central office technician.

Thompson and Perkins are genuine historians, imparting years of knowledge into an hour-long tour.

In the museum, a wide variety of items can be found: crank phones, old pay phones and pay stations. Visitors can see how a late 1920s Fort Kent Telephone Co. magneto switchboard works and what it was like to be an operator during that time.

On the wall hangs a Coca-Cola phone that plays an old Coca-Cola jingle as its ring tone.

The Telephone Museum was founded in 1984. Functioning as a nonprofit organization, the museum’s fundamental purpose is to educate.

“There are half a dozen museums like us around the country…but we are probably the biggest that is hands-on,” Perkins said. “Our mission is more of an educational and interactive experience, where people go through and find something that interests them and they dive in and play with it. There is learning in doing here. We have kids who come in here and you get them up in the chair, you put the headset on them and they have a blast doing it.”

Everything in the museum is either restored or in working order.

“We expect when you come in here you will be using it,” Thompson said. “You’ll be the operator and you will use the telephones… [People] can learn what happens behind the scenes when you use the telephone. You can see what was involved in making a telephone call. They can see this is still viable equipment.”

In recent years, museum members has been working hard to raise funds in order to provide a visitor’s center for guests. Last fall, the center was put together and about $4,000 remains to be raised to complete the job. They were able to build the center after receiving a $60,000 grant from Independent Telecommunication Pioneer Association and numerous private donations.

The visitor center will feature a restroom, kitchen, meeting and storage spaces and more importantly — heat.

“This is going to be a real big help in not only facilitating off season engagements but also for volunteers to be able to have a place to come and be warm and have a lunch in the colder months,” Perkins said.

The museum even has a small gift shop where it sells Zulu wire baskets. The baskets, which are made in Zululand, South Africa, are made from an annealed steel core wire, which looks very similar to telephone wire. Other items for sale are books, T-shirts, phones and more.

The Telephone Museum

Where: 166 Winkumpaugh Road in Ellsworth

How much: $5 for children, $10 for adults

Hours: July-September, Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment

Contact: 667-9491; [email protected], www.thetelephonemuseum.org

Kansas City native Madalyne Bird was a 2014 summer intern for the Ellsworth American working primarily for the paper's summer guide to Downeast Maine, Out and About.