ROSEVILLE, Calif.—I don’t know about you, but I marvel that, with a tiny device in my pocket, I can instantly hear the voice of any of my loved ones, any time, essentially for free.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. I’m old enough (nearly 37!) to remember when the phone would ring from overseas relatives and my parents would remind us to hurry to the phone: IT’S LONG DISTANCE! And yes, my parents used to pick up the phone and disrupt my dial-up Internet escapades.
But our contemporary landscape, replete with theoretically smart handputers, has an amazing past that extends well beyond my lifetime.
So, if you want to be dazzled at a free museum located just outside Sacramento, may I present to you what might be the nerdiest and most obscure free museum in Northern California: the Roseville Telephone Museum. It claims to have “one of the most extensive collections of antique telephones and memorabilia in the nation.”
How, pray tell, did I discover this tiny locale that only opens for four hours on the first Saturday of the month? I’ll be honest: it’s up the street from my new favorite brewpub in town—the closest one to my mother-in-law’s home. (Also, it’s across the street from Railroad Hobbies, for all your model train needs.)
Earlier this month, I stepped inside this small brick building, not sure of what to expect.
I was immediately greeted by a dazzling collection of “Brookfield Insulators”—tiny glass objects whose provenance I never would have guessed. There was a Stromberg Carlson Telephone (Type C-8, of course) from 1935 and an Ansafone Corporation Ansa Fone Telephone Answering Machine dating back to 1965.
The most amazing thing was that this collection just kept going, and going, and going. Everything was meticulously labeled and organized, largely in chronological order.
I was grateful for the docents who meandered about and were all too happy to not only answer all my dumb questions, but they were even enthusiastic about giving live demos of a more-than-century-old magneto switchboard.
Simply by plugging in a cable, an old phone just a few feet away would ring. There was even a mid-20th century automated mechanical switching box, which had replaced live human operators.
I could have spent hours in that little museum, but I’d arrived not too long before closing time. Maybe because I’d shown such interest in the museum, I was handed a large hardback volume from 1995: . (I hadn’t mentioned to anyone that I was a reporter, I swear!)
The book explained some of the local history that I hadn’t gotten from the museum: that for decades, Roseville Telephone grew from a tiny small-town telco to a decent mid-size company. As the book’s introduction explains:
In the early ‘50s, Roseville Telephone was among the smallest of the 5,000 telephone companies in existence. Today, it is the 24th largest telephone company in the nation and the third biggest in California, after giants Pacific Bell and GTE.
Roseville, originally named Roseville Junction, is a railroad town at its core: the town was named after the 1864-era intersection between the Central Pacific Railroad and the California Central Railroad. In 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved its main facilities to the town, and Roseville was incorporated three years later.
Roseville is, after all, the “last stop before heading up the long, steep grade of the Sierra Nevada.”
24-hour phone service, as provided by the Roseville Home Telephone Company, began on January 1, 1911. By that year’s end, there were 120 telephones in service, serving a population of more than 2,600 people. Today, Roseville has an estimated population of more than 132,000 people, none of whom lacks telephone service.
The book goes into excruciating detail about the evolution of the company, which eventually changed its name to SureWest Communications following the purchase of WinFirst Communications, and expansion into the greater Sacramento area.
By 2012, SureWest was acquired by Consolidated Communications, a company with a very similar and rich history that was founded in 1894 as an independent telephone company serving southern Illinois.
Just bear in mind, the museum will next be open on Saturday, January 5, 2019, from 10am until 2pm. Mark your calendars.