Overlooked Lincoln: The Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum
Editor's note: "Overlooked Lincoln" is a series profiling unique and under-the-radar museums and personal collections in the Lincoln area. If you have a suggestion, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Marcia Claesson
That’s the question Allison (played by Zooey Deschanel) asks in the movie Yes Man, as she and Carl arrive at the Lincoln airport.
“Well, clearly, we should go there,” responds Carl, played by Jim Carrey, pointing to a sign that reads, “Come to the Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum Today!”
The short clip that follows has brought unexpected publicity to the tiny museum, which Wally Tubbs, one of the founders, calls “the best kept secret in Nebraska.”
“We have folks who saw the movie and noticed our little museum, found our website, and then called us and said they’re going to be in Lincoln and can they come see it,” he said. Tubbs estimates that at least two out of ten visitors mention the movie.
The museum chronicles the history of the telephone from the first idea to the cell phone, and includes more than 500 telephones and related items. The first room displays several telephone switchboards that were first installed in the early 1900s and remained in use until the 1960s. The next room displays early telephones, starting with the early upright desk telephones, dubbed “candlestick” phones. Impressive wall phones demonstrate that the telephone was often considered a piece of furniture in the early days.
“At that time in history, only the affluent could afford phone service,” Tubbs said, “So the wooden phones were made out of walnut or cherry. As the more common individuals needed or wanted phone service, most of the phones were made out of oak, because oak at that time was most plentiful.”
This trend is also evident in the candlestick phone display. The earlier phones were usually nickel-plated and elaborate in their design. An 1897 phone was called “Roman Column” because the center section resembled a column from ancient Roman architecture. But as the general public began needing phone service, the manufacturers went to simple brass designs painted black.
The back room includes displays of toy telephones and modern phones, including the bizarre Ericofon, which Tubbs calls “the world’s worst telephone.” Cell phones (including the clunky early designs), pagers and telephone devices for the deaf are on display, as well.
The museum also includes pay phones, telephone pole insulators, a 1929 Chevrolet Installers Truck and other items used by the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company (now Windstream). Kids enjoy the dial demonstrator, an interactive exhibit that shows how the switches operated when a phone was dialed.
The museum is named for Frank H. Woods, who founded the telephone company in 1903. The collection was started in 1929, when employees gathered items for the 25th-anniversary celebration of the company, Tubbs said. The collection was maintained by the Frank H. Woods Pioneer Telephone Association (a nonprofit group made up of present and former employees of the telephone company) and was displayed on the 8th floor of the main telephone building at 1440 M Street.
For many years, the association simply collected donated items, Tubbs said. In the late 1980s, members became more aggressive in acquiring items to fill in gaps in the history of the development of the telephone. Then, in 1994, when remodeling plans threatened the space used for the collection, the association requested the unused building at 2047 M St. for their collection. Two years later, the Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum opened.
“We’re not museum folks,” Tubbs said. “We’re telephone people. But all of us have been to museums, and so we basically plagiarized every idea we could think of.”
Since its opening, nearly 8,000 visitors have signed the guestbook, but Tubbs estimated that about twice that have actually visited the museum. Visitors have come from at least 29 states and several Canadian provinces, as well as Mexico, Australia and Scandinavia.
“Most of the time, people say they didn’t realize Lincoln had anything like this,” he said. “They’re kind of shocked that there’s this tiny little museum that sits on M Street that people drive by daily and didn’t have a clue what it was. They’re also kind of amazed that we were telephone people that put this thing together, not professional museum folks.”
People also ask him if he met Jim Carrey during the filming of the movie. In truth, Jim Carrey has never been to the Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum. The museum scene was filmed in California, using artifacts sent by the museum.
And the sign in the airport? It was “dummied up” for the movie, and the airport scene was actually filmed in the Omaha airport.
“That sign does not exist,” Tubbs said. “We really wish that it did.”
The Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer Museum is located at 2047 M St. and is open Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. It is closed on all major holidays. Admission is free. Special tours are arranged upon request. Call 402.436.4640 to make arrangements. For more information, see their website.