Langley’s next quirky tourist attraction could be a pink Princess telephone.
With a rotary dial.
And a cord.
Attached to a wall.
Showing how telecommunications connect people and places — from party lines to Princess phones to iPhones — is the goal of Whidbey Telecom’s historical museum that could open by summer.
It’s to be housed within the company’s small, original office known as the “Little Red Building” that’s been sitting up on blocks for a decade on the corner of Third Street and DeBruyn Avenue.
“It will be an interactive museum using authentic and accurate period pieces to show people how phones connect communities,” said Whidbey Telecom Co-CEO George Henny. “Starting with switchboards, it will take people through to fiber optic cables and Gigabit internet service.”
Henny recently told the Langley City Council he’s received all necessary permits to move and renovate the original building, constructed in 1913. It originally was painted white and located on Anthes Avenue next to Langley’s first bank, which is now Rob Schouten Gallery.
The museum will be located adjacent to the company’s Big Gig office and next to the South Whidbey Historic Museum at the corner of Anthes Avenue and Second streets.
The red structure has sat vacant for years, prompting numerous complaints for being an “eyesore.” It’s actually two separate buildings; the original 105-year-old telephone office and a second half built to resemble it in the 1970s for a photography studio and hair salon.
There have been numerous suggestions about what to do with the not-so-old section, Henny said, but a decision hasn’t been made.
A museum devoted to telecommunications may not ring everyone’s bell, so to speak. But Langley Mayor Tim Callison sees it as a unique way to teach the cellphone generation about a time before texting, back when party lines were shared by 16 different households who all listened in on each other’s conversations.
Back when women working the switchboard knew everyone’s business and wives called them asking if they could see their husband’s car parked at the local bar.
Back when phones were stuck to walls and phone numbers didn’t have area codes but prefixes that used letters.
“My grandparents’ was STate 5-1245,” Callison recalled. “Our neighborhood prefix was DIckens and then when we moved it was EMpire. If you wanted to make a long distance call you had to dial zero and then tell the operator where you wanted to call.”
Henny pointed out it’s fitting to put South Whidbey’s original telephone hub on the street named after Jacob Anthes. In 1893, Anthes installed the first telephone to connect his Langley store with the Langley dock, which he also operated.
George’s father, David Henny, purchased South Whidbey’s phone service at age 23 after scouring the country for a small telephone company he could afford. Growing up in Philadelphia, David Henny loved telephones and even had a working switchboard in his basement as a boy.
“There were 6,000 small telephone companies back then,” George Henny said. “He always told me he had to find one broken down enough so he could buy it in 1953 for $20,000.”
One of David Henny’s first order of business was changing the name from Whidby Telephone Company to Whidbey Telephone Company after learning that Whidbey with an “e” was the proper spelling of the English Royal Navy man Joseph Whidbey, who sailed the 1792 Vancouver Expedition.
David Henny is often called a visionary. In 1961, his was the first phone company to place all cables underground as a safeguard against Whidbey’s frequent high wind storms.
As his son turned into the company’s tech-guru, the company switched to all digital in 1989, a first in the nation for an independent telephone company.
In 1994, Whidbey Telecom connected South Whidbey schools to the internet, the first telecom company west 0f the Rockies, and the beginning of the company’s ultra high-speed digital connectivity, known as “the fastest community in the state.”
When pay phones became obsolete, the company decided to leave dozens of telephone booths in place with free working service for local calls. South Whidbey residents with a dead cell phone in hand know where those 35 booths are located. It’s one of many examples of the company’s community ethos. Annually, Whidbey Telecom’s philanthropic contributions reach anywhere from 70 to 90 charitable organizations.
When David Henny died in 2001, his wife, Marion Henny, was named president of Whidbey Telecom. She is now chairwoman of the board.
Sixty-five years ago, David Henny connected far-flung rural residents from Possession Point in the south to Classic Road near Greenbank. He started with 500 subscribers, six employees and 7,000 miles of telephone wire.
Whidbey Telecom now employs about 100 people and has more than 76,000 miles of wire. It serves 10,000 households, including Hat Island and Point Roberts, with phone service and broadband internet access, or both. It’s also added WhidbeyTV, security alarm systems and a cloud data service to its ever-growing enterprise.
In 2011, it refurbished a vacant mall in Freeland into WiFire Coffee House, customer service center and retail technology store.
A plan for a museum that intertwines the stories of a family-owned communications company with South Whidbey’s communities has been in the works for more than a decade.
“It’s always been my mother’s idea to honor Whidbey Telecom, its company history and my dad, who took it from a small independent telephone company to one of the leading edge telecommunications businesses in the nation,” said George Henny, who shares CEO duties with his sister, Julia Henny.
The only merger David Henny ever considered with monolithic telephone companies, such as AT& T or the former Bell Telephone, was with Marion Fay, whom he married.
Fay was an upper management service representative for Bell Telephone in Philadelphia, where Henny had grown up. Their fathers had been friends at Temple University.
In a video that Whidbey Telecom produced in 2008 for its 100th anniversary, Marion Henny recalled her first conversation with David Henny.
“His mother set us up. We were in New York City on a blind date at a Christmas opera,” she said. “I asked him, ‘What do you charge for colored telephones?’”
Bell had just launched the sleeker, smaller Princess pink telephone with rotary dials that lit up in the dark. It was all the rage among teenage girls.
“He told me, ‘Well, we include different colors of phone with the service.’
“I thought, ‘Wow. He had out-Belled Bell.’”
This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.