Spotted it in a junk shop in Alton, Illinois, in 1973: An antique wall phone similar to one that adorned the wall of the kitchen of our farmhouse when I grew up in Floyd County, VA. Took nearly an hour of haggling with the shop owner before he parted with the phone and my wallet parted with $100. Took another week of cleaning to get the phone presentable for the kitchen wall of our circa 1817 row house in Alton.
One night, Jim Anderson, manager of what was then the Illinois Bell office in Alton, came over for dinner and admired the phone.
“How would you like to have it working?” The question caught me off guard. In an age of touch-tone phones I had no idea the old wall phone might work again.
“You can do that?”
“You’d be surprised what the technicians at Western Electric can do,” Anderson said. The phone came off the wall and Anderson shipped it to New York where Bell Lab workers wired the phone with a touch-tone pad and restored the connections to the mouthpiece and earpiece. Six weeks alter, Anderson delivered the phone to my house and an Illinois Bell installer wired it up. A note from Bell Labs apologized for not being able to get the old bells on the front to ring when a call came in. “Different voltage,” the note said. They did, however, get the bells to work again when the handle was turned and installed a new bell inside to ring on incoming calls.
I picked up the handset. Dial tone. I opened the door and dialed a number on the touch pad. The call went right through.
The phone stayed on the wall until a divorce from my first wife. She got the house. I got the phone. It went with me but stayed in a box until Amy and I married and moved into an 1835 townhouse that overlooked the Mississippi. As soon as we moved in, I unpacked the phone and mounted it on the kitchen wall. The phone became the centerpiece of a home filled with antiques. When I took a job in Washington, we gave up the town home and sold many of the antiques because they wouldn’t fit in a tiny condo in a highrise in Arlington. But the phone went into a box and a storage room in our condominium building and stayed there for 24 years.
The box came to Floyd with the movers earlier this year and we found it while moving boxes out of the garage over the weekend. On a trip to Roanoke Sunday I picked up some modular phone plugs at an electronics store and upgraded the wiring this week. When I plugged the modular plug into a kitchen phone outlet, the welcome sound of a dial tone flowed out of the handset. Amy cleaned up the phone Wednesday and it went up on the wall last night. I picked up the handset, opened the phone,dialed a number on the touch pad and placed a call. Success.
We need to pry open the plastic covers that covers the number on the keypad and replace it. It still contains the phone number from a home in Alton, Illinois, 32 years ago. Then we will find a place for two old-fashioned candlestick phones that Anderson also sent to New York for conversion into working phones.
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