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Phone museum is blast from communications past

POSTED: October 15, 2010 11:32 a.m.
Photo by Patty Leon/

An exhibit at the ITPA museum features a mannequin working an old-fashioned switchboard.

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The Independent Telecommunication Pioneer Association found a new home for its national organization in Hinesville about three years ago in former Sen. Glenn E. Bryant’s house on Highway 84.

The house sits on 150 wooded acres known as Bryant Commons. Ponds and canals dot the property. Inside the home, the stories of the telephone and the telecommunication industry are revisited through historic, donated exhibits.

"ITPA started about 90-something years ago and it was for local, independent telephone companies — your mom and pop operations, not your Bell South," said Stacey Yarbrough, the organization’s national administrator.

She said the association was made up of hardworking men and women who revolutionized the telecommunications industry, either through invention or the grueling work of running above-ground phone lines and manning the old-fashioned switchboards.

When ITPA needed a permanent home a few years ago, the administrator said, the Bryant home appeared to be the perfect fit.

"We moved down here because this used to be Sen. Glenn Bryant’s house and he started what is now known as CenturyLink but used to be Coastal Communications," Yarbrough said. "He had his house and said, ‘Here, do you want to use it?’ and we said, ‘sure,’ and we moved down here."

Bryant bought the Hinesville Telephone Company in 1946 and later acquired Coastal Telephone Co. in Richmond Hill. He merged the two under the name Coastal Utilities, known today as CenturyLink.

The house is now a treasure trove of unique phones, memorabilia and communications paraphernalia used in the early stages of mass telecommunication.

"On the back wall we have an exact replica of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone," Yarbrough said. "We got that through a private collector who donated it to us."

An old telephone relay switch system, switchboard equipment and even some of the first voice mail recorders are on display at the museum, which is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free.

"When all the big phone companies came in and started buying up the little phone companies, employees would take an acquire bits and pieces of it so that is how we got a lot of our stuff," Yarbrough said. "And we use them to preserve the history. We have old telephones that date back to the early 19th century. We even have an old pay phone on the wall and, as you know, there really aren’t any pay phones around anymore."

Yarbrough said the exhibit includes the pen used by President Richard Nixon when he signed the Telephone Act.

"One of the telephones we have was used by the astronauts when they first stepped on the moon," she said.

The administrator said children often are amused when they see the first marketed cell phones. The phones are about three times bigger than modern cells and usually were toted in bags.

"They are huge, and my kids would look at it and say, ‘That’s a cell phone?’" Yarbrough said. "We also have an interactive kiosk that dates the whole history of the telephone and the telecommunication industry."

Although ITPA has a few large corporate sponsors such as Sprint and CenturyLink, Yarbrough said several small operations, like Darien Telephone, belong to the organization.

The ITPA carries out Bryant’s philanthropic mission by aiding communities and other groups through its charitable foundation. The association also oversees regulations for ITPA charter clubs.

Although admission to the museum is free, Yarbrough said donations are accepted to help with building maintenance and upkeep costs.

She said the museum is focused on preserving the history of the telecommunications industry through education and interaction.

 

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