- Associated Press - Saturday, September 16, 2017

FOOTVILLE, Wis. (AP) - Not so long ago, phones were only as smart as the people who used them.

They involved party lines that had nothing to do with having fun, the Janesville Gazette reported .

And they never let you know who was calling unless you picked up.

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Kay Demrow knows children and teens have a hard time understanding the idea of a phone without a touchscreen.

But she has proof of a time when people got along just fine without apps and Internet access on their phones.

Step inside the small brick building at 115 W. Center St. in Footville.

Demrow will be happy to give you a tour of the Footville Telephone Museum, highlighting more than 60 old phones, at least two 20th-century switchboards and telegraph equipment.

For some, the outdated way of communicating will stir memories.

For others, confusion.

Demrow has seen kids put their fingers in the wheel holes of rotary phones and unsuccessfully try pressing the numbers.

“They say nothing works because they don’t know how to use them,” she said.

Children are clueless because push-button phones largely replaced rotary phones in the 1980s.

At 91, Demrow has lived through a lot of telephone changes.

She is treasurer and archivist of the Luther Valley Historical Society, which owns the telephone museum.

“I don’t remember any of us being on the phone,” she said, recalling her childhood during the Depression. “Telephones were used for special conversations or emergencies, not for visiting. We didn’t have time to talk to anyone.”

During her youth and for many years after, homes had only one phone. Yes, one phone. And you did not make long-distance calls unless it was really important because they were expensive.

Demrow grew up with a party line or a telephone circuit shared by more than one phone user. She had a party line after she married her late husband, Kenneth, in 1948 and still had one in the 1970s.

Each family on a party line had a different sounding ring to determine when to pick up. One ring might be long. Another might consist of two short rings or one long and a short.

Demrow said some people who visit the museum point to the mouthpieces of old phones. They tell how their parents had circles on their palms from holding them over the mouthpieces while listening in on party-line conversations.

She does not think eavesdropping was necessarily a bad thing.

“When there was a fire or someone was hurt, they could help,” Demrow said. “People were curious to know what was going on.”

She credits Myron Bohn for starting the “hands-on” telephone museum, which opened in 2001.

“I like history and restorations,” Bohn said.

The Luther Valley Historical Society bought the 1914 telephone building for $1 in 1993. Renovation began in 2000.

“We had information on what the building previously looked like,” Bohn said. “We restored the leaking roof and wooden floors.”

About a decade later, Chris Ricciotti of Rockland, Massachusetts, made an extended visit to the museum and connected several of the phones to the 16-drop switchboard.

His visit allowed the historical society to demonstrate how the equipment works.

At first, most of the phones at the museum were on loan from phone collector Blaine Snyder. Now, about 60 percent of the phones are owned by the historical society, Demrow said.

The collection includes an 1893 wall phone. In 1890, fewer than three telephones existed for every 1,000 people in Wisconsin.

The collection also contains an early mobile phone from 1991, costing $666.

It also has designer phones, one in the shape of a turkey and another in the shape of Garfield the cat, dated 1979.

A Western Electric telephone booth from the 1950s is also in the collection.

Demrow believes in saving the history of how we once communicated.

“It’s important to know how the telephone evolved,” she said. “It’s almost a lost art to know how to operate a telephone.”


Information from: The Janesville Gazette, https://www.gazetteextra.com

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