My first (perhaps dumb) question when I ran across the Museum of Independent Telephony was this: What is telephony?
My next question: Why is it in this town best known for the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum?
First things first.
Telephony is the science of telephonic transmission. It’s an apt name for a tiny museum that tells the story of more than 100 years of phone history using scores of old phones, including some on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
I’d never seen a collection like the lineup along one wall — from bulky wall-mounted wooden boxes of the petticoat 1870s to sleek, colorful Trimlines from “The Brady Bunch” 1970s.
(You’ll have to explain to your kid texting on his iPhone what those things with receivers are.)
The museum is tucked at the back of the Dickinson County Historical Society’s heritage center, a little white building that stands next to the railroad tracks behind the more glamorous Eisenhower complex.
It’s here because of arguably the second-most famous man associated with this town. This man was never president. But to hear old-timers talk about all that he did for Abilene — including two of them who greet out-of-towners at the visitors center — he was a prince of a man.
His name was Cleyson LeRoy Brown, a successful businessman known as C.L. He put a lot of his attention and money into community projects late in his life.
He and his siblings formed the Brown Memorial Foundation to honor the memory of their Pennsylvania Dutch parents. Through the foundation they built the Brown Memorial Home for the Aged — today it offers affordable housing for senior citizens — and a public park of more than 200 acres.
The park was a Disneyland of its day, a destination spot with a zoo, golf course, camping grounds and a swimming lake with a huge ship in it where Scouts could practice sailing.
Brown wanted to see people enjoy the fruits of his wealth while he was alive. He made his money the old-fashioned way: He worked hard.
In 1889 he started an electric company, the seed of an eclectic business empire that included shoe stores, grocery stores, a grand hotel, insurance companies and oil concerns.
Brown also started a phone company.
One story goes that there were once so many phone lines strung on wooden poles around Abilene that Brown decided to bury them throughout the downtown area, a man certainly ahead of his time.
In 1880s America there were 6,000 independent phone companies. Over time, tiny companies merged to make bigger ones, and some of them are still around today.
That’s what happened to Brown Telephone Co.
Through name changes, sales of controlling interests and consolidations, the little company that C.L. Brown started in his own backyard became the cellphone company we now know as Sprint.
Museum of Independent Telephony
412 S. Campbell St., Abilene, Kan.
Hours: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $6 adults, $5 seniors (62 and older) and $2 for children (2-14)
Info: 785-263-2681; heritagecenterdk.com