Call History: Phoenix Museum Celebrates Telephones Of The Past In A Smartphone Present

By  Stina Sieg
Published: Monday, August 8, 2016 - 6:58am
Updated: Monday, August 8, 2016 - 6:34pm

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
At the Pioneer Telephone Musuem, glass cases are heavy with telephonic history. Above, a group of visitors who were alive well before the advent of the cellphone peruse the place.

Our relationship with the telephone is changing. Quickly.

There are now more cellphones than people in the United States. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say nearly half of homes don’t even have a landline anymore. But as we race toward an all-digital, all-wireless future, there’s still one place in Phoenix that celebrates old-school telephonic technology.

At the Telephone Pioneer Museum you don’t just read about history, you hear it. Like the ring of an old Trimline phone or the clatter of a teletype— a message-sending machine that eventually replaced Morse code. But the best vintage sound in the place has got to be tour guide Joe Hersey.

“We can only blame ourselves for all the crime and violence today,” he said, reciting a poem sitting in one of the museum’s many glass cases. “We removed all the phone booths, and now Superman has nowhere to change.”

Historical photos are all around, so are rotary phones and a full-scale switchboard, the kind you see in black-and-white movies. Hersey explained this place is all about celebrating the vision that began when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876.

“From the simple fact of trying to put voice on a wire,” he said, “to being able to carry around a phone in your pocket, a thing stuck in your ear— Bluetooth— and you’re communicating with the world.”

Hersey had a hand in that. The 81-year-old is still a proud “Bell head,” he said, who began working at the Bell Telephone Company more than 60 years ago.

Eventually, the federal government busted up Bell, but that didn’t break the Telephone Pioneers, who began this museum and a few like it across the country. The national organization is made up of telephone employees past and present, Hersey included. There’s just one problem.

“There’s not many of us left,” Hersey said.  

At least not in Arizona, where Hersey estimates only a few hundred active members remain. The group— often called simply “Pioneers” now— still has about half a million members in the U.S. and Canada. And they still do the kind of charity work Pioneers have been doing for generations, like building parks and making baseballs that beep for blind people.

But like a lot of service organizations these days, they’re having to remake themselves to appeal to one important demographic, young people who might not recognize that sound of a coin plunking into a phone booth.

The Telephone Pioneer museum can be a tough sell for the younger crowd. But not for 86-year-old Coralee Yaeger, who was smiling at a shelf of novelty phones shaped like a pickle, Garfield and a Volkswagen bus.

“Girls! French fries? Is that a telephone, the French fries?” she asked, laughing.

Yaeger was there with a church group of delighted-looking retirees, who weren’t wanting to be introduced to the old days but to relive them. When I told Yaeger that some young folks might be not be as enraptured by all this, she was incredulous.

“Why would they say it’s boring?” she said. “It’s absolutely exciting. I mean, think of where we’re going to be 20 years from now?"

Joe Hersey has a theory about that. “I personally think they’ll inject a chip in you, and you’ll click your teeth and Google will appear in your eyeballs,” he said.

As for the future of this local chapter of the Pioneers, Hersey is less sure. CenturyLink has pulled its funding for the group nationwide so this museum must soon move from company’s building.

I ask Hersey if that’s proof of how much the country has changed from the days when the Bell Telephone Company was king. That might be true, Hersey says, but he’s at peace with it.

“You know, they got rid of the gladiators,” he said. “They got rid of the knights.”

In other words, you can’t fight progress. “That’s history,” Hersey said.

And come this fall, all this telephone history Hersey so loves will have a new home— the Pioneer Living History Museum, north of town near Anthem. Whether or not Hersey will be leading tours remains to be seen. Or heard.

For more information on the Pioneer Telephone Museum, including tours, which are still available before its move, visit pioneertelephonemuseum.org.

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