Telephone Museum, Montrose

On a Michigan back roads day trip to Montrose the Telephone Museum is a must see.

Curators love to use terms such as “one of a kind” or “historic” or “incredibly rare” when describing items found in attics or stored in out of the way museums. Sometimes it is true and sometimes it is mostly true. There is a museum that can legitimately use terms like “historic” or “incredibly rare”. The Telephone Museum in Montrose really does have several one of a kind items, extremely rare objects and some of the largest specific category collections in the world. The museum is a town museum, genealogy center and a telephone museum. Yep, it is almost all telephones, but you have never seen anything like this.

string phone

In a world that is increasingly all digital, the analog and mechanical objects on display are amazing. For the very young, digital citizens, who have never seen a dial phone or lived in a world without Facebook, a trip to Montrose will be long remembered. Consider the legendary string phone, you played with them as a child. The classic set up was two empty tomato soup cans connected by a length of kite string. You would punch a hole in the bottom of each can and feed the string through from the bottom into the inside of the can. Then you would tie a shirt button, filched from your Mom’s sewing kit, to each end of the string. When pulled taut, that string would transmit sound. Your little brother would hold one can to his ear, and you could yell at him through the opening in the other can. It works. These toys were based on real phones, string phones, that were some of the first in use. String phones would work at distances of a mile or more when manufactured with the proper ear pieces and wire instead of string. A string phone was the first phone in Michigan, it was located in St. Ignace. That is just one of the rare objects on display in Montrose.

Just a few years after the string phone, technology had progressed to the point where the “Stoger Step Switch” was in common use. Basically, it worked like this. You would step into a phone booth and dial a number. As you dialed each number, a switch system would identify that digit and set the switch. When all of your digits had been dialed, the “step switch” would send the signal to the phone down the line that matched those numbers. At the Montrose facility they have a working Stoger Step Switch. Watch as someone dials a phone located inside a real live phone booth. The switching system sits next to the booth and you can watch the switches identify the digit and light up the number on a screen. When all the numbers have been dialed, a phone on a stand nearby will ring and you can answer the call.

There are thousands of antique phones and associated items on display. So many in fact that it is a good idea to take the guided tour. A popular exhibit for many visitors is the collection of “character” phones. These were a departure from the utilitarian black bakelite phones of the 50s and 60s. These were fun. There are super hero phones, Disney character phones and heroes from the old west. Easily the hands down favorite is the animated Tasmanian Devil phone. His ring tone is hilarious. These are all part of the largest public display of “character” phones in America.