The history of Independent telephony is preserved in a small building on a quiet street in Abilene, Kansas. Here you can go back in time to when telephony was in its infancy, to the days of the old crank-type phone in its large wooden box and to when telephone poles, made from gnarled trees, were set by the sweat of men digging with only a spade and a “spoon”.
The Museum of Independent Telephony was established in 1973 by United Telecommunications, Inc., of Kansas City to acquaint the public with the Independent telephone industry and to preserve its history of accomplishments. These Independent (a term meaning non-Bell) telephone companies, at one time over 6,000 strong, sprang up all over America after the expiration of Bell’s original patents in 1894.
Because of the need for telephone service in rural areas not provided by the early Bell company, many citizens banded together to form single exchange companies. These small companies, which at times used barbed wire fences for poles, grew until they now serve half of the geographical United States.
The many exhibits at the Museum illustrate the pioneer spirit and ingenuity of these early Independent companies. The Museum includes displays showing the progression of changes and improvements in telephone equipment. In addition, it includes a large collection of historical manuals, books and publications, and a collection of telephone company histories. A special slide program narrates telephone history and the unique and often amusing ways that linemen and operators were said to have acted.
Beginning with examples of the first commercial phones from the Smithsonian Institution, a display shows the chronological evolution of the telephone to the present time.
Outstanding in the collection are rare telephones with primitive wet cell batteries and outside wiring to both the receivers and the transmitters.
The display showing the progression of telephone poles, from the days of open wire and glass insulators, is appreciated by the linemen, as is a new display of the evolution of cable from 1885, with a single wire conductor and a ground return, to the new fiber optics.
A recreated business office from the turn of the century era of the crank telephones and magneto switchboards fills a corner of the Museum. The manager’s rolltop desk is authentic, as is the iron cot where the switchboard operator napped between calls at night. The working switchboard gets its power through the open line on the telephone pole display and is connected to telephones in the Museum on which visitors enjoy talking.
The Museum exhibits several fine examples of early pay telephones. The craftsmanship of bygone days is shown by their beautiful cabinetwork and brass hinges. The high cost of early toll calls is evident by the five coin slots on the telephones, one each for nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars. These silver dollar pay phones are said to have the most beautiful tones of any pay telephones made.
There are even miniature phones to delight the children. And, for the music lover, there is a display of telephone-related sheet music dating from 1905. Telephones are provided for listening to a recording of these early tunes.
This exciting adventure into the world of telephony is conveniently located just east of the popular Eisenhower Center. It is open daily from April through October. Group tours can be arranged anytime during the year by appointment. There is a minimal admission charge.
Kansas Telephone Historical Highlights
1877 First telephone installed at Lawrence.
1879 First telephone switchboard at Topeka. Within three months, the Topeka exchange had 52 subscribers. Only eight of the telephones were installed in homes, while the rest belonged to businessmen.
1879 First rural line established in Riley County. Its lines were strung on barbed wire fences for several miles.
1881 First Long Distance telephone lines were constructed when a pole line six miles long was built from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Wathena, Kansas.
1901 One of the nation’s first dial systems was installed at Russell. These dials would not spin back by themselves, but had to be pushed in each direction by hand. A knob like one on an automobile steering wheel was attached to the dial to turn it. The dial bed had 99 buttons in it. The caller pushed the dial around until it touched the desired number then pressed another button to make the called telephone ring.
1905 Exchanges had been built in virtually every village. Rural lines line had been constructed connecting farmers to these exchanges. It was not unusual to have two different telephone companies in a town. Customers often had two telephones so they could reach all other telephones in the community.
1913 Bell companies agreed to allow the Independent companies (such as United) to connect to Bell System Long Distance lines.
1918 Construction forces worked 10 hours days, six days a week, with no overtime pay. Switchboard operators worked nine hours a day with a starting salary of about $20 a month.
1930 There were 366 separate telephone organizations in the state operating 738 exchanges. Competition between two telephone companies in one locality had been nearly eliminated.
1955 First Direct Distance Dialing equipment installed at Lawrence.
1967 McPherson was offered the state’s Touch-Tone service.
1974 First began offering telephones with personality allowing customers to choose sets matching the décor of a room. They ranged from old-style candlestick varieties to modernistic phones in cases resembling jewelry boxes.
You can get a glimpse into the history of rural telephone service in Kansas by visiting the Museum of Independent Telephony in Abilene. Located at 412 South Campbell, just east of the historic Eisenhower Center, the museum offers a look at the evolution of communications equipment and its role in connecting Kansas to each other and the world around.