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!
Hey all, I am on the road again, headed west and just traveling until I get tired of myself. Of course, one of the best parts of a road trip is road food—if you avoid the chain “restaurants”. That can be hard on the interstates and on day 1 I just wanted to make time so when it was time for lunch, I found myself on I70…luckily near exit 137 in eastern Indiana where I knew Café Neo was waiting.
I had stopped here before, they serve great coffee (fresh brew every cup) and Lokmas—a Greek donut. But today I decided to do more than drive through. Charley had to wait in the gas station parking lot, Café Neo is attached to a Shell station. Its location is one of the few exceptions to food writer Michael Pollan’s rule never to eat at a gas station.
Eli Alafogianis (the name is Greek for John Deer, really!), one of the two brothers that own the place, cheerfully greeted me after I told him about previous visits. “OK, my friend, today I sit you down to the best sandwich on any interstate!” I ordered a turkey and swiss; “I get the meat from a local guy,” he called from the back as he prepped it. “And this is real swiss cheese, I hand cut each slice.” Perfectly grilled, the cheese melted just right, turkey piled high…this will be lunch tomorrow as well.
I also had to order a box of Lokmas. Little pillows of warm pastry served up with a variety of toppings. Eli told me how he made them, the dough imported from Greece. We talked more about his place as I sipped the rich Greek coffee he had made for me. “Why here, at a gas station?” I asked. “You gotta start someplace,” he swept his hands around. “Thousands of eyes on our billboard on the highway. Who knows what could happen???” Plenty of stories followed—the history of Greek independence from the Turks, how on Café Neo’s first day in Feb 2020, the power went out in the area shutting them down, how his family name evolved, the village his grandfather immigrated from.
Taylor, his assistant for the day, got in on the action. She’s 15, it’s her first job, “I feel like Dolly Parton, you know, working 9 to 5…. except I got here at 6.”
There will be more about Eli and Café Neo when the Positively No Outlet podcast returns for this season. But in the meantime, if you happen by I70, exit 137, in Lewisville, Indiana, get off the road and stop by and see Eli. Tell him George sent you….
“Living In Harmony”
Positively No Outlet Podcast, Episode 2
An Unplanned Stop on the 2020 Pandemic Road Trip
Week two of my pandemic road trip found me in southeastern Minnesota headed to Preston. Located on the Root River, Preston claims to be either Minnesota or America’s Trout Capital, depending on who asks. A twenty-foot fiberglass brown trout is displayed at the edge of town to prove the point. I was twelve miles from town and about one hundred and thirty miles south of where George Floyd had been killed by police officers six weeks earlier when, at the intersection of state highways fifty-two and forty-four, I spotted the Welcome to Harmony, MN sign. I was tempted to stop. But just because a town is named Harmony didn’t mean it was getting through the summer of 2020 any better than the rest of us. Besides, it was getting late and I hate setting up “Charley”, my travel trailer, in the dark. I headed north on fifty-two and left Harmony behind. At this point in my travels I still thought I was on a fishing trip.
“People Might Think We’re Not Nice”
Positively No Outlet Podcast, Episode #1
An Introduction to the 2020 Pandemic Road Trip
“What can you tell me about the signs?” I asked. I was in Cooke City, Montana buying coffee and pastries at Pilot’s Perk Café. Signs proclaiming “Cooke City United Against Racism” were in store windows, front yards, nailed to a pickup truck with a load of firewood for sale. Kara, the owner of the café, looked up warily from the cash register. “Don’t get me wrong,” I added quickly. “I like them. I’m just curious about them. I noticed you have one in your window.”
“Yes, we do.” She smiled and looked relived. “It was after the George Floyd killing and all the protests started. We were afraid that, being a small town that’s almost all white, well, people might think we’re not nice.”
“You mean racist?” I asked.
Kara laughed, “Right, you understand.”