Calling All Collectors: Vintage Telephones Amass Devoted Crowd

Large collections, rare phones turn up at the annual Antique Telephone Collector's Assn. spring show


| June 2002



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This 1900 Swedish-American nickel-plated potbelly telephone is owned by Geoffrey Hillestad of Maplewood, Minn.

More than 100 years ago, a farm family in Riley County, Kan., set up a rural party line that connected everybody in town to a fence wire telephone system.

No telephone poles had been placed, nor was there money to set them. Instead, barbed wire fences served as telephone lines, ending in a grounded connection at each house. The system partly succeeded, but lightning, stray cattle and the occasional open gate could disrupt service.

Homesteaders built arches over gates to create better connections, but phone service remained sporadic. Despite the drawbacks, such homemade telephone lines operated for more than 50 years, bringing rural people closer to the urban world.

Wire fence party lines were typical of the awkward contraptions many farmers devised during the telephone’s infancy. Rural residents were some of the last people in the United States to receive commercial telephone service, but the delay encouraged them to experiment with their own systems.

Many homemade telephones and systems were devised with varying degrees of success in the rural Midwest until large, wooden wall phones became common about 1910 – almost 35 years after the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell.

Today, antique telephones and telephone systems are collectors’ items and remain an important reminder of the early days of telecommunication on the farm.

Vintage telephones and more were on display at this year’s two-day Antique Telephone Collector’s Assn. Spring Show, held in April in Abilene, Kan. Many farm-used phone models were there, including a J.R. Holcomb & Co. string phone manufactured in 1881 and owned today by Al Farmer of Lincoln, Neb. The device works just like a tin can and string: A wire is coiled up in the back of a wooden box to amplify a person’s voice, sending the vibration to the other end of a wire. Sawdust packing is stuffed in the box to reduce excessive vibrations. The string phone often was used from the house to the barn. Some people claim it could be effective up to two miles. Al says although he has never seen it, he has heard a string phone can turn up to a 90-degree angle and still work properly.

Al’s telephone collection began 40 years ago. He says Midwestern farmers especially had a need for communication because of the distance between farm houses, but were among the last to get commercially made phone lines. When Bell invented the telephone, he was issued a patent that initially made it impossible for anyone else to build phone lines in U.S. communities. “Bell had so much demand for business that he concentrated on building on the East coast in big cities,” Al says. “As a result, the Midwest didn’t start getting phone lines until after 1900. Acoustic (string) phones became popular as a result.”