Retired Southwestern Bell workers unite to preserve telephone history in new St. Louis museum | St. Louis Public Radio

Retired Southwestern Bell workers unite to preserve telephone history in new St. Louis museum

Sep 1, 2016

Sometimes it is best to learn your history from someone close to the history itself. That’s certainly the case with the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum, which was created and is run by retired telephone workers, many from the St. Louis branch of Southwestern Bell (AT&T).

The museum opened earlier this year, in May, after 13 years of careful planning and collection by a group of locals operating under the umbrella of the Telecom Pioneers, a non-profit telephone company employee service organization.

Located in Jefferson Barracks, the museum is in a building on the National Register of Historic Places and used to house military officers. Volunteers spent over 65,000 hours renovating the space which now houses things like operator switchboards, a working step switch, a telephone pole and climbing equipment as well as 300 telephones (ranging from candlestick phones to novelty phones).

The location itself holds a bit of history: the original long distance line from downtown St. Louis to Jefferson Barracks was established in 1898, one of the first in the country. Yes, a distance of 10 miles was considered “long distance,” back then. Troops being deployed from the barracks often didn’t have the right amount of supplies, so the line was established in order to contact the quartermaster downtown with more accurate supply requests.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh discussed the museum and the history of telephones as part of our recurring segment on the St. Louis area’s quirky and small “hidden museums” operating on a tight budget and with a slightly smaller inflow of visitors that some of the area’s monolithic museums like the Saint Louis Art Museum or Missouri History Museum.

Carol Johannes, executive director, Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Joining the program were the museum’s executive director Carol Johannes and assistant director Ken Schaper. Both former Southwestern Bell employees, the two said they felt the museum is necessary as landline telephones fade from collective memory in favor of smartphones and cell phones.

“We have roughly 140 years of history from the oldest phones to the latest,” Johannes said. “That history is going away. Everyone today knows what a cell phone is. We have kids who come in and look at a rotary dial phone and have no idea how to use it. We just think it is so important to tell people: it took us this long and here’s what we had to go through to get to that cell phone you have.”

Remember the party line?

Listeners throughout the program called to share their memories of old-time telephones. David, for example, called to share about growing up in the country during the early ‘70s, when four houses all shared a party line. Party lines were a local loop telephone circuit that had multiple subscribers and a specific ring-tone for each subscriber. They weren’t private, though, and neighbors could listen in to each other’s phone calls, usually denoted by a telling click in the signal.

“Mother would get a phone call from her friends and they would hear a click,” David said. “They would ad lib a soap opera on the phone and this person would eat it up.”

Ken Schaper, assistant director, Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Schaper said they hear a story almost daily of people listening to others’ phone calls and spreading the gossip.

We also heard from Monica, who asked what the phrases “off the hook” and “operator standing by” meant.

Johannes said that “off the hook” refers to the hook switch that is engaged when you pick up a landline receiver.

“Operator standing by” refers to the switchboard operators that people called to connect them to other telephone lines (here’s a video of how that worked). Johannes said there are still 800 operators in business today. Interestingly, men originally dominated the phone operator career path but were replaced by women, when men were found to “talk back” to people who made the telephone calls, Schaper said.

Listen as Schaper and Johannes take us through the evolution of the phone, from its early incarnation as a wooden box on the wall, to the candlestick phone, to the cradle phone and eventually to where we are today:

Want to visit the Telephone Museum yourself? The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 12 Hancock Ave. in Jefferson Barracks County Park. Admission costs $5 for adults, $4 for seniors 60 years and older and $3 for children ages 5 to 12. Children 4 years and younger and active military members are admitted free. Group tours are available.

We want your input finding other “hidden”museums. Have you seen any quirky ones recently? What should we explore? Email producer Kelly Moffitt at kmoffitt@stlpublicradio.org with your ideas.  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.