To the Heirs' Dismay, Mr. Prosser's Calling Was Old Telephones; His
Legacy Overruns a Town, Which Wants It Cleared; Collectors vs. the
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 10, 2005
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
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.
A portion of Robert Prosser's phone collection piled up in a former
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
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
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
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
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
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