Preserving the Past in a Northwoods Cabin

Jul 25, 2018

Jim Brown with one of his old fashioned crank style telephones.
Credit Jim Brown

As part of our new We Live Up Here feature series, we're telling stories about the people and culture in northern Wisconsin. 

Today, Northwoods resident Jim Brown has a story about how some old fashioned crank style telephones keep his family connected.

Crank callers were once considered a nuisance…but you might say my wife and I are proud to wear the title today.

That’s because a pair of old-fashioned crank-style telephones keeps our family connected in a very literal way. The grandkids love these things!

Now in our retirement years, Karen and I look forward to welcoming our children and grandchildren for summer visits to the Northwoods. They stay about a mile from our home in Rhinelander, where we’ve restored a 1940s cabin and bunkhouse on Squash Lake.

We started the project 18 years ago with the idea of preserving the charm of a bygone era. The place has become a favorite vacation spot for all the family.

When the grandkids first arrive, the car stops halfway down the driveway and they unload their luggage into the bunkhouse. It’s their own special place to play games, read and relax. They sleep there too, while the parents stay in the main cabin.  Grandpa and Grandma enjoy evenings with the kids in their bunkhouse.

Here we share a simpler life. There’s no TV or dishwasher. The furnishings are antique and we use old kitchen utensils like a hand-cranked meat grinder.

Outdoors, we tend an organic garden, propagate old apple trees, go boating on the lake, fish off the dock,  swim in the clear cool water and end the day with a campfire.  In the evenings, we have fun playing  board games.

Credit Jim Brown

In addition to preserving our old cabin, I’ve collected vintage radios and telephones to restore as a hobby in retirement….it’s another connection to the past.

When the grandkids were old enough to appreciate the crank phones, I thought, ‘Why not put some of these 1920s phones into our 1940s-era buildings?’

I read up on phone restoration, and through trial and error, was able to bring them back to life.  Surprisingly, most of the components were still in working order; all it took was a little loving care.

I cleaned the working parts, replaced a few broken pieces, rewired the battery boxes to accept D-cells and ran a line between the buildings.

Now we have our own private “voice network”!

The wall phones are a great way to communicate between the bunkhouse and cabin. The grandkids use them to wake their parents early in the morning, say goodnight before climbing into their sleeping bags, check on mealtimes and a hundred other uses throughout the day.

They love to crank the ringer and make up their own codes for rings (two longs and a short, for example), as were used by phone customers during party-line days.

The grandkids quickly learned how to use these phones. With a step stool to stand on, they mastered the technique for ringing, speaking into the mouthpiece and holding the receiver to their ears.

The phones are a great conversation piece for adult visitors as well. Several friends had phones like these while growing up on farms during the 1940s and ’50s. They enjoy sharing childhood memories of listening in on neighbors’ conversations and talking to the operator.

One friend showed me how he and his brothers would shock themselves by putting their fingers on the wire terminals and cranking the ringer. It’s pretty low voltage, but it catches your attention just the same.

Our cabin in northern Wisconsin has become a place for children and grandchildren to build memories by living in a place that harks back to the early days. This simpler life has largely disappeared….but not here on the lake!

Thanks to the cranks on some wooden wall phones, the good old days no longer seem so remote in our memories. In fact, they’re not even a long-distance call away.

Jim Brown is a Northwoods resident who has a hobby of restoring old radios and telephones to preserve the past.

This story was originally published in Our Wisconsin Magazine. It was written by Jim Brown and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. It's part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Some music for this story came from Podington Bear.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.