His Legacy Overruns a Town, Which Wants It Cleared; Collectors vs. the Landfill
By Christopher RhoadsStaff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Updated Oct. 10, 2005 12:01 am ET
TURTLE LAKE, Wis. — In a dilapidated former creamery here, Becky Rongstad edged her way down a tight passage snaking through 20-foot-high mountains of telephones.
Thousands of tan plastic rotary-dial phones reached to the roof in tangles of cords. Piles of more distinctive models, such as phones affixed to beanbags or shaped like a genie’s bottle, tumbled into the narrow walkways. Some phones were covered in dust, others wrapped and unused in their original boxes.
“It’s more than anyone wants to deal with,” said Ms. Rongstad, a 62-year-old retired dairy farmer.
When the collector of the phones, Robert Prosser, died in 2003 at the age of 81, Ms. Rongstad, his niece, and her three siblings inherited the unusual collection — and a problem: what to do with it.
Around this town of 1,089 people, the heirs now own a half-dozen other buildings, including a gymnasium, full of similar heaps of mixed-vintage phones — more than 750,000 in all. At its peak, the collection numbered more than a million phones, making it the largest private phone collection in the world, Mr. Prosser claimed. “The next guy has about 10,000 phones and he bought them from me,” he once boasted to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Now, the town wants the phones gone so it can restore some of the rundown warehouses, such as the 1928 gymnasium, as historic buildings. Ms. Rongstad’s brother, Lance Gore, co-executor of the estate with her, thinks the collection is worth more than a million dollars and wants to hold out for a single buyer. Ms. Rongstad would like to be rid of the problem, even if that means dumping some of the phones in a landfill.
Aghast at that idea, antique phone buffs want to pick over the sprawling collection for rare models and parts. “I’d like to have the rotary dials out of there,” says Ronald Knappen, who started his own antique-phone business, 130 miles south in Galesville, Wis., with inventory he bought from Mr. Prosser in the early 1970s.
Mr. Prosser got hooked on phones while growing up during the Depression. His family owned the Turtle Lake Telephone Co., which provided service to about 600 homes in a nine-mile radius of town. His mother, Ruth, worked the manual switchboard as the town operator. The family lived in a small apartment in the back of the phone office.
At the time, there were more than 5,000 such tiny, independent phone companies across the U.S. But big phone companies were buying them up, in the process modernizing equipment and rendering huge numbers of phones obsolete.
Mr. Prosser began collecting these castoffs after reading about a man collecting Ford Model T cars and parts in the 1930s. The collector was betting the vehicle would become valuable one day.
Just out of high school at the time, Mr. Prosser figured the same would be true of old telephones. He began with wooden wall-phones, including many that his family’s company was replacing with newer models.
After the war, he took over the family phone company but left enough time to travel extensively to acquire rare models. Among them were an ornate crank-operated Eiffel Tower phone from France, a cradle phone with Arabic lettering that Mr. Prosser claimed was owned by the last sultan of Turkey and a 1903 phone made of iron.
He also bought phones in bulk. With European governments revamping their damaged phone systems after the war, more unwanted phones became available. Mr. Prosser gobbled them up, once purchasing 60,000 phones from the Belgian government. That acquisition required five boxcars to ship to Turtle Lake, about 80 miles northeast of Minneapolis.
“He has telephone-itis,” proclaimed a 1988 “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” comic-book feature on him and his burgeoning collection.
Nostalgic customers around the U.S. converted Mr. Prosser’s wooden phones for use as planters, spice racks and liquor cabinets. The well-built devices also still worked as phones, making them popular in remote areas without phone service. Farmers, lumber companies and miners could string up their own private phone systems for their working needs.
The 60,000 phones that Mr. Prosser bought in Belgium, which cost him 40 cents apiece, were initially resold for $1.50. By the late 1980s Mr. Prosser was charging $300 for them.
A private collection in his basement included more-valuable models, such as an explosion-resistant military phone, a 14-carat gold Swedish phone and a “Silver Princess,” which had a head of a princess that split open to reveal a phone.
Between used phones and the family phone business, sold in 1991, Mr. Prosser grew wealthy. That fueled other hobbies. After his wife, Erma, died in 1983, he began spending more time in Las Vegas, says Connie Chumas, who was Mr. Prosser’s stockbroker for 30 years and lives in nearby Eau Claire, Wis.
“He loved the dice,” says Mr. Chumas, who occasionally traveled with Mr. Prosser on gambling trips. “It was not unusual for him to have $50,000 to $100,000 on a table at a time.” Ms. Rongstad says she still receives letters from several Las Vegas casinos demanding payment on his debts.
But Mr. Prosser never stopped buying phones, believing even the latest models would become valuable some day, too. The collection grew to the end of his life: While he was on his deathbed, two truckloads of phones arrived from Canada, says Ms. Rongstad.
“I once asked Bob what we’d do with all these phones if something ever happened to him,” says Ms. Rongstad, who as a child cleaned phones for her uncle for 25 cents apiece. “He told me that if we didn’t want them, he’d give them to someone else. We should’ve told him to do that.”
At the old gymnasium, stacks of phones blocked dormer windows. To move them from the loading area to the second floor, a conveyor belt had been run through a hole cut in the upper floor. One large wooden bin alone, with names like Trendline and Contempra scrawled on the sides, contained more than 30,000 phones, estimated George Pearson, 69. Together with his wife, Fern, 89, he had categorized and unloaded all the phones that Mr. Prosser bought.
“People would ask me what I do for a living,” said Mr. Pearson, who quit his job as a fireman in the 1980s to work for Mr. Prosser. “I told them if they didn’t see it they wouldn’t understand it.”
Ms. Rongstad is working with the town to apply for a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to clean up the sites. The creamery, which the town wants to condemn, may be contaminated with asbestos. She’s talking with a Boston-based exporter who has expressed interest in buying the collection. And she’s wondering whether there’s potential as a tourist attraction.
“You have to come up with something really creative, like building a huge phone out of all the phones,” suggested William Bell, the town administrator, to Ms. Rongstad in his office. He quipped that such an attraction would not be so farfetched, noting “there is a troll museum in Wisconsin. Write to Christopher Rhoads at firstname.lastname@example.org