One of the reasons to stay off the interstates is that you stumble into things like the Gridley (Ill., Population 1028) Telephone Museum. I was cruising across Illinois on Route 24 when I saw the billboard for it and had to stop. Unfortunately, the sign on the door said it was not open—but it connected to the town library and the nice librarians let me in and gave me my own personal tour.
The Gridley Phone Company was independent until the 1990s. It was started in 1900 when Ward Hiscrodt, owner of the town hardware and inventor, started stringing phone lines through the alleys of Gridley and hooking up phones.
In 1914 the company was bought by local guy Charles Hoobler who held it until 1970. Hoobler was quite a saver and town booster. Every phone he took out he kept—thus the museum is full of phones, some that no one else seems to have (an historian from California came to see one of the phones that he had only heard about but had never seen). During the Depression he and his wife ran the switchboard because there was no money for operators—they took produce, chickens, eggs, anything in payment so locals would not be disconnected.
He sold the system to Rogers Kaufman in 1970. Interesting fact—the switchboard was used until 1972. When they decommissioned it, they went straight to touch-tone phones, never was a rotary dial phone used in Gridley and it was the FIRST touch tone phone system in Illinois.
The museum is beyond what you can imagine. The switchboard is there, and the librarians used it to make calls to from one phone to another that I answered. There is the old directory assistance, a metal set of pages that the operators could find numbers on. I heard stories about how the night operator slept on a cot near the switchboard only to be disturbed in case of emergencies, how the town doctor would call the operator and tell her that he was going to lunch at the café in case anyone called for him, how the operators knew children by their voices and the kids only had to ask the operator to ‘call my grandma, please.’
The old office is fully set up as well. Including the phone booth for people who did not have phones and the oak bench where people would wait if they wanted to make an out of town call as there was only one line out of town (the service only connected people in town).
Oh, and there was also the safe that the town general store used…the merchant would take the train to Chicago every 10 days, buy $3000 worth of goods, bring them back, and then keep the proceeds in the safe until he had another 3K. People in the town asked if they could keep important papers and deeds in the safe, there was no bank and they worried about their house burning down…the proprietor got tired of opening the safe for everyone, so he just posted the combination on the door next to the safe.
It’s a great country full of treasures, get off the interstate and find one for yourself!