Collector Keeps The Line Open For The Old Ones To Call

Historian Is A Walking 'One Book' Of Phone Facts

September 15, 1991|By Mike Nortrup | Mike Nortrup,Contributing writer

WESTMINSTER — Did you know that a German scientist claimed to have invented the telephone about the same time as Alexander Graham Bell?

And, how about that mainstay of modern communications, the touch telephone: Were you aware it was invented way back in 1892 by a Kansas City druggist?

Did you know that Bell visited Westminster around 1885 to meet Mary B. Shellman, the city's first telephone operator?

Chances are, you didn't.

But if you want to learn more about these historical snippets, or virtually anything else about telephones, stop by Ed McElwain's place some time.

The 44-year-old McElwain, antique phone collector, restorer and historian extraordinaire, will gladly tell you anything you want to know.

Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Finksburg, McElwain now lives in Westminster with his wife, Marla, sons Brian and Victor, and mother-in-law, Helen.

He said his interest incollecting antique phones stems from his desire "to remember the good things of the past."

"I guess I want to own at least a limited part of history," he said.

He has a lot of such parts, including about 100 restored, working antique phones -- some of which he has usedas intercoms in his home.

The oldest is a 1901-vintage Western Electric wall phone in a walnut case. He has dozens of early 20th-century pay phones and standing "candlestick" phones of the kind you see in 1930s movies.

In those days, before the dial phone, the caller gave the number directly to an operator.

McElwain also collects phone-related memorabilia, such as watchbands, necklaces and tie-bars decorated with Bell Telephone and Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. logos.

A favorite treasure is his 6 1/2-foot, 600-pound, oak hotel phone booth, which he picked up at auction years ago.

McElwain saidhe didn't intend to buy it until he overheard an onlooker say what awonderful wine rack it would make.

"A wine rack!" he exclaimed indisgust.

McElwain remembers feeling indignation like that of an art enthusiast who hears that the Mona Lisa is about to be used as a place mat.

"It would have been ruined," he said.

His most prizedrelic, though, is a 9-inch-high blue lamp shade with "Bell System" printed in white letters.

He bought it, broken, for $5; a friend repaired the delicate, porcelain-like material, and now it looks like new.

"I guard it with my life," said McElwain proudly, noting that it's the only one of its type he's ever seen.

McElwain said his interest in things mechanical began as a boy. He recalls a time when his curiousity led him into misdeed.

"I remember taking apart my parents' fancy clock," he said with a chuckle. "It was pretty valuable, but it didn't have much value when I was through with it."

McElwain also recalled a youthful fascination with an old wall phone at his

great aunt and uncle's Pennsylvania farm.

About 15 years ago, he went back to the farm to search for it. He found its remains in a junk pile.

Restoration "took years," McElwain said. "It seemed likeforever to find the parts."

But that effort kindled a fascinationwith antique phones that still burns.

McElwain, who then maintained C & P office equipment, used his connections to develop his phone collection.

"I talked to a lot of old phone men who told me where to go for old phones and parts for them," McElwain said.

In those days, he says, collecting old phones was easy and cheap. Some, in fact, were still in use in parts of Western Maryland in the mid-1970s.

You could pick one up then for $50, McElwain said. Now, old phones average $450.

The avid collector often visits nearby states in hiscurrent job as a maintenance engineer for Glory, a coin-counting machine company. The trips give him a chance to check out the local fleamarkets for new finds.

But they're harder to come by now, he said, because of competition from other collectors and the fact that it'shard to find collectibles he doesn't already have.

In the bargain, he must outwit the sharpies.

"When you buy (an antique) phone, get a statement in writing that the piece is antique," warned McElwain.

"More people are trying to sell you phones that are 100 percent fake. Some dealers even try to combine two old phones into another, and say it's a rare model," he added.

McElwain said he's made some good deals over the years and missed out on others.

His most frustrating moment came when he trekked to Virginia for an auction where 3,000 antique phones were to be sold, just in time to watch a tractor-trailer haul the lot away for a big collector.

McElwain also has dabbled in collecting old oil lamps and sewing machines.

"I appreciate the workmanship that went into these things. Then, they were intended to last," he said.

He chronicled the decline in product quality, saying that phones of the 1940s and 1950s were intended to last 40 years, those of the 1970s to hold up for 20 years, and the new onesonly five.

Future collectors will have little interest in today'stelephones, he said.

"They'll find a junkyard full of plastic phones, and none will work," McElwain said with disdain.

He said someof his interest in collecting has rubbed off on his two teen-age sons, who play in the Westminster High Marching Band and collect old musical instruments.

He and the youngsters have also taken to refurbishing old cars.

But telephones are still foremost in his mind.

His cellar is filled with old phones waiting to be restored. Some will go into his collection and others will be sold.

"I have to support my habit," he said, laughing.

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