Thursday, February 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Place a call to the past at phone museum

The Associated Press

If you go

Eugene's Telephone Pioneer Museum is at 112 E. 10th Ave., Eugene, Ore. Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays, or by appointment. Free. 541-688-3211.

EUGENE, Ore. — On the first floor of a 77-year-old building in downtown Eugene, there are phones, lots of phones, all around you.

Pink Princess phones, yellow phones, orange phones, beige phones, brown phones, a red phone from Chicago melted by a fire and black metal phones.

Desk phones, wall phones, business phones and private phones. Dial and touch-tone. A 1980s-era cellphone as heavy as a brick.

If you've never been to Eugene's Telephone Pioneer Museum, you're not alone. But you really should go, and marvel at the phone. Then phone home. And tell others to come see all the phones, too. You'll get a history lesson and take a step back in time.

It has been around for 22 years now — the museum, not the phone. And what in the world would we do without the latter? Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell.

"I get kids in here all the time and they always ask, 'Where's the redial?' " says Fred Wiechmann, a retired phone-company employee who worked first for the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., before it became Pacific Telephone Northwest. The company was called Pacific Northwest Bell when he retired in 1975.

"And I tell them, 'There's your redial, right there!' " Wiechmann says, holding up his right index finger.

Yes, believe it or not, kids, once upon a time you actually had to dial — not push in — a phone number, letting the dag-blasted thing spin all the way back before dialing each successive number. As recently as the 1970s, in fact. Or even today, if your folks own one of the relics.

The quirky museum is open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Thursday, or by appointment — such as for school field trips. The museum volunteers — all retired phone company workers — marvel that so few folks come by.

"There's a lot of people that don't even know it's around," says the 80-year-old Wiechmann, who started as a janitor in 1949 with the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. before moving into several other positions, such as splicer and lineman.

Wallace Donnelly, also a retired lineman, started the museum and ran it until he died in 1993. Donnelly collected phones and other gear during his career and didn't want to see the history of one of mankind's most important inventions lost to time.

The retired volunteers who staff the museum are part of a larger group — the Telephone Pioneers — that grew out of Chapter 31 of the Telephone Employees Activities Association, born in 1931. They still hold monthly meetings at the Elks Lodge.

The phone museum is in the same building that houses the Eugene branch of the phone company Qwest, which bought US West in 2000. Although the four-story brick building looks fairly modern, underneath is the original brick of the building constructed in 1928, Wiechmann says.

The museum is filled with fascinating things, from replicas of Bell's harmonic telegraph transmitter (the original produced the first sound transmitted by phone on June 2, 1875) and his tuned reed receiver (the original received the first intelligible speech transmitted by phone on March 10, 1876), to a switchboard used by the Shaniko Hotel in Eastern Oregon from 1907 to 1947.

There's a replica of the first commercial desk phone, used by a Boston banker in 1877; a one-page list of all the subscribers of the Portland Telephone Co. in 1878; and one of the first touch-tone phones that came out in 1964.

If traffic at the museum is still slow after all these years, it's not for want of things to see. Folks still bring items in, such as the guy whose father once worked for the phone company, who recently brought a box of old cable records showing where underground cables ran.

"I have stuff down in the basement that I'd like to bring up here, but I've got no room," says Wiechmann.

Oh, well. Until the museum can find the room, those who come will have to settle for what's here.

And there is a lot to see, including a glass case that contains newspaper articles about the 1975 earth slide in Canyonville that killed seven phone company employees who were splicing broken phone lines during heavy rains and flooding.

And old photographs of phone exchanges in places such as Marcola, Drain, Junction City and Harrisburg. And the old, brown wooden phone booth that contains a sticker reading: "In honor of the 37 college students who died cramming into this phone booth."

No, it didn't really happen.

The Telephone Pioneer Museum, however, honors the history that really did happen.

It's really here and it contains a little "splice" of life from the good ol' days, before college campuses and shopping malls were peppered with cellphone-chatting youngsters, when a telephone was a practical thing, not a material thing. When Ma Bell was just a babe.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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