The Alberta Regional Council
of Carpenters and Allied Workers

15 Minutes of Fame

The Phone Fixer

Bob Hugh’s quest to preserve history

For decades now, Brother Bob Hugh has been an unabashed lover of all things old, but most especially for old telephones and tools.

Local 1460’s Senior Business Rep has a garage full of literally hundreds of tools – maybe more than a thousand; even he doesn’t know for sure! – some of which are over 300 years old.

“I guess I started collecting in 1967 when my (millwright) father gave me a special monkey wrench he’d brought back from California. From there it led to an attraction to anything old, unique or different.”

Well, that love fixed itself at one point on old telephones, the wall-mounted, boxy wooden kind with a transmitter you spoke into and a Bakelite receiver you held to your ear, the kind with a big battery (jars of acid) in the lower portion of the phone.

Bob now has nearly 100 of the blessed things, each one lovingly restored, on display in his basement or sitting in his garage in various stages of pre-restoration.

“It keeps my mind occupied when I’m back a century and working on something that’s so beautiful,” he says. “This is my escape.”

“Not only does this work allow me to tinker with yesterday’s technology, but it has put me in touch with a really wide network of people all over North America, from Pennsylvania to Oregon, who are doing the same thing.

Bob’s interest in old telephones exploded when he connected with the old timers at the Edmonton Telephones Historical Centre. That led to an increasing involvement via phone and internet with members of the worldwide Antique Telephone Collectors’ Association.

“There’s a huge network of people out there, and an amazing array of resources that they connect you to. Online, you can download sales literature and whole service manuals for hundreds of specific brands and models of telephones, complete with high quality engravings showing every detail of how they’re made.”

Bob made his first big purchase in 2003 when he bought 54 old phones from an Arizonan, Steve Hilsz.

“I jumped in with both feet.”

"Steve and his wife Barbara are now among our best friends,” says Bob. “We holiday together, and our holidays usually involve dropping into various parts of the States to meet other telephone collectors.”

It takes Bob anywhere from 20 to 30 hours to restore a phone. He often starts by stripping several layers of kitchen wall paint to reveal the ‘exquisitely beautiful,’ quarter-sawn white oak grain pattern that lies beneath.

He smoothes and re-nickles the bells, hook switches and transmitter faceplates, a process which can cost $90 per phone. And then the fun really begins.

“A lot of these old phones were repaired along the way with non-original parts. Part of the challenge I enjoy is finding original parts, like ringer assemblies and receivers, to re-install. One of the hardest original parts to find for any telephone is the receiver, because so many of them got dropped and broken, then replaced with another kind. ”

Right now, he’s trying to figure out how to ship 2,000 pounds of old magnetos that he wants to buy from a man in Kentucky. “The magnetos are really cheap, but the freight cost is another matter.”

Two of Bob’s phones are really special to him. There’s an 11-digit Strowger dial phone, which Edmonton Telephones supplied in 1907 to customers who were part of North America’s first automated dial exchange.

And his Numero Uno piece, valued at several thousand dollars, is a Vanity telephone built into a writing desk that would have been located in a hotel lobby or in a high-end private home.

(Story posted October 2010)