If you call the Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum, no one will answer.
Lincoln’s only telephone museum closed its doors — was disconnected, so to speak — after its last day Sunday, ending years of history and memories that won’t be on display again, at least for the foreseeable future.
“It’s very sad,” said museum association president Roger Harris. “There’s so many of us that have put our hearts and souls into this place. The little kids are going to be the ones not benefiting from this.”
Schoolchildren, retirees and researchers have toured the museum to see the wide variety of artifacts. The contents of the museum will be sold this week, with the fate of the phones still up in the air.
Pastel phones, M&M phones, gigantic plastic phones, wood box and crank phones line the walls of each room. Visitors can also see dial candlestick phones, telephone booths or operator cord boards among the hundreds of exhibits.
The free museum couldn’t sustain the cost of being open. There just weren’t enough donations. After Speedway Properties and Nelnet announced redevelopment plans for the area, the museum association and board tried to find another location.
“We looked all over Lincoln for another building that would be conducive to our needs,” Harris said. “Everything was too expensive.”
The museum was incorporated in 1994 and officially opened in 1996. It was named after Frank H. Woods Sr., who founded the Lincoln Telephone Company in 1903. Local members from the Independent Telephone Pioneers Association helped start the museum and ran it for the past 22 years.
Dee Cummins of Lincoln was a telephone operator in 1966. The manual cord board she worked with is still in the museum, along with two of the headsets she wore. She helped paint the museum walls and bring in artifacts.
“Working for the telephone company is an experience no one can imagine,” Cummins said. “All of my education was free and the company invested in my retirement, so I was able to retire at age 49.”
All but one of the 22 museum volunteers are past employees of the Lincoln Telephone Company. People from all 50 states and 45 countries have visited the museum. About 150 visitors came last week after learning of its pending closure.
“We have been trying to come down here for a while,” said Aaron Nordyke, who visited with his wife, Lynda, on Sunday. “We grew up with a lot of these phones. You used to pick it up, crank it and ask the operator, ‘One, two, three, please!'”
The most popular attraction seemed to be the manual cord boards, some dating to the 1800s, Harris said. Women that had been operators used to visit just to spark memories. The long, dark boards used to be mounted in the front room of a house, and the operators would sleep in front of them.
Jerry Hutchison has been a volunteer for three years and was a telephone company employee for 33. When he first started at the museum, Hutchison volunteered every couple of months on a Sunday, but soon came in multiple days a week as the chance of the museum closing became more real. Now he doesn’t know what he'll do with his spare time.
“This is a history of Lincoln,” Hutchison said. “We’d like to keep it going, but it’s hard to do when we are all getting old and there’s no monetary support.”
Many books were donated to an international telephone museum in Hinesville, Georgia. A collection of phone books from each major Nebraska town was given to a genealogy agency in Lancaster County.
The rest of the artifacts will be sold to a buyer who might or might not keep them in Lincoln. The funds received will be dedicated to a scholarship program.
It’s hard to keep a museum going when younger generations don’t understand — or care. The years of having a phone on the wall are long gone. Some don’t even recognize old phones.
“Because it’s a historic museum, we thought it was valuable that students always come and we never asked for a dime,” Harris said. “I told some people that at the end of (the museum’s last day), they could find all of us volunteers outside crying."
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