Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Little-known museum keeps Tacoma connected to telephone history

Tacoma Telephone Museum rings true for history

Collection at city's best-kept secret spans decades of evolution
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Collection at city's best-kept secret spans decades of evolution

Bob Annon remembers the day a woman walked through the Tacoma Telephone Pioneer Museum and stopped in front of an old switchboard, staring.

“She said she’d worked one just like it in the Midwest when she was a girl,” Annon said. “She worked from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., alone at the switchboard, and then she’d set it so only one line — the emergency line — could ring after hours.”

The problem, the woman told Annon, was that she had to be in her room down the hall to hear the emergency line ring.

“She said she worked 23½ hours a day — she got a 30-minute lunch break — for room, board and $5 a month,” Annon said.

Not all the memories produced in the museum are quite so jarring.

Tucked into about 1,100 square feet on the first floor of a downtown building owned by AT&T, the museum has been open since 1991.

“We’re the best-kept secret in Tacoma,” Carol Bartle said.

One of the best, certainly. Not only is the museum an unadvertised gem you have to seek out, it’s only open one day a week for four hours.

It’s run on a mixture of love and devotion, pride and memory.

Like everyone who works for the museum, Annon and Bartle are retired telephone company employees who worked in an era when the most important aspect of the job was service.

Take a tour guided by them, and the museum is a wonderland of technology, every bit as stunning as the high-tech industries of today.

Why? Because it worked — and at the time, that was a wonder.

There’s a hand-cranked telephone from 1907 and one of Tacoma’s first telephone books, dated 1891. The oldest switchboard on display was used in 1928.

“When we give kids a tour, I like to show them this,” Annon said, pointing into a display case. “It was the first-ever flip phone, and it was made in 1918.”

The phone in question was carried by workers who were testing lines. It could be flipped opened when listening for dial tones or static, and flipped closed when not in use.

Bartle was a switchboard specialist hired as a long-distance operator in 1962. Think the world has changed?

“They brought me down to this building to see if I could reach from one side of the switchboard to the other,” said Bartle, 71. “Before they hired me, they sent someone to my home to talk to my mother.

“Apparently, they’d had trouble with women working switchboards making dates over the telephone. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t that kind of girl.”

In fact, the telephone company was so worried about its employees being courteous and pleasant (but not to the point of romance), that it used a little-known service board that could monitor noise on any line.

It also could listen in on conversations.

At the time, that wasn’t quite as diabolical as it sounds. What monitors wanted to know wasn’t what customers were talking about.

“They’d listen to their operators to make certain they handled each call the way they were supposed to,” said Annon, 80.

If you used telephones in Tacoma in the 1980s, you probably knew Bartle’s voice. You almost certainly didn’t like hearing it.

“I taped the message people heard if long-distance lines were busy,” she said.

She still can deliver it: “I’m sorry. The number you dialed cannot be reached at this time. Please hang up and try again. …”

As late as the 1960s, the telephone company in Tacoma was run on fuses and lines that could be switched off if the call volume got too heavy. It almost never did. Almost.

“When JFK was shot, I came into work and stood in front of this machine,” Annon said, pointing. “We’d blow a fuse, I’d replace it, and 20 minutes later we’d blow another. That went on all day.”

Along another display case sit specialty telephones that became popular as fads came and went. They’re shaped like Mickey Mouse, Goofy or a pair of M&M candies. Push a button and they ring. Then the mouse or the piece of candy will tell you the phone is ringing and that you have a call.

Out in a small hall are a pair of old wooden telephone booths, both of which saw duty in Tacoma. Now, each seems small, cramped. And when younger visitors see them, they have no idea what they’re for.

“Some of them think they’re toilets,” Bartle said.

About the museum

Location: 757 Fawcett Ave., Tacoma.

Hours: Thursdays, 8 a.m to noon.

Admission: Free, but donations accepted.

To call or leave a message: (253) 627-2996.