Off the beaten path in Montrose, there’s a quirky, little museum – the Montrose Historical & Telephone Pioneer Museum. And according to Joe Follett, President, it is the first of its kind in Michigan. Housed in a building that was once the Public Service Telephone Company of Montrose, the museum features almost every kind of telephone and telephone equipment, going back to the dawn of telecommunication. It features all makes and models, from old operator switchboards to the dawn of the cellular phone. The building is also home to the Montrose Area Historical Association’s museum. But what will catch your eye in this collection is the dazzling array of phones in colors and shapes you probably didn’t know existed!
According to Follett, the building was originally owned by Wyman Jennings. When he decided to sell it, Jennings didn’t want it to be bought by a large corporation, so he sold it to his best friend, who also had an independent telephone company. His friend sold it to Century Telephone Company and made a $10,000 profit. Century took all of the equipment and moved it next door and the building remained empty. Jennings went to the owner of Century Telephone and got him to sell the building and the land to the Montrose Area Historical Association for $10. Jennings then donated his telephone collection, which was used to start the museum. The Wyman and Edith Jennings Foundation continues to provide a grant each year to help keep it going.
As you walk into the museum, the first thing you will see are the many antique wall phones, in every imaginable color; a yellow banana-shaped phone, a blue clown phone and even a lime green Kermit the Frog phone. The exhibits also include many operating displays of authentic equipment, much of it from Wyman Jennings’ private telephone collection. “Ninety nine percent of the telephones and the telephone equipment here has been donated,” Follett states.
The museum started out with a small display of just 25 telephones. “It has taken on a life of its own since then,” Follett says. Now, there are over 600 – the newest being a smartphone and the oldest dating back to the late 1870s.
The museum is very proud of its latest addition – the Willard Acoustical telephone. “It is the very first telephone used in Michigan!” Follett exclaims. The Willard was patented in the U.S. in 1879. The small wall instrument has a mouthpiece and a “snapper” signaling device used to notify the central control station that a connection was desired. Established in St. Ignace, this was the first acoustical telephone and the first acoustical telephone exchange in Michigan.
You will also find a display of foreign phones including an Eiffel Tower replica, and others from countries including Japan, Sweden, France and Austria. They even have the first electric telephone that was built in 1892, and an original telegraph sounder from the late 1880s. A display of children’s phones includes Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Alf, Bozo the Clown, and many more. “Kids love this place!” Joe exclaims. There are some hands-on displays kids especially enjoy, including the experience of listening to a party line. “We have the largest caricature telephone display,” Follett reports.
Museum visitors will see some very unique phones, such as the Sports Illustrated sneaker phone and an AC Spark Plug phone. There is also a phone booth, which was donated to the museum by the parents of former Lt. Governor, John Cherry.
Follett enjoys working at the museum with many dedicated volunteers, as well as adding to the collection. “It’s unique, and it’s getting more and more so. We’re always looking for more telephones!”
Photography by Eric Dutro
Joe Follett, President of Montrose Historical & Telephone Pioneer Museum