Family wants to disconnect from its phone inheritance
A Turtle Lake, Wi., man who literally always got the phone, left behind his huge collection and a serious storage problem.
Bill McAuliffe
Star Tribune
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The departed sometimes call in strange ways. Robert Prosser, for example, seems to be doing it by telephone.

Twelve years after Prosser's death, a niece, a nephew and a longtime employee are trying to figure out what to do with his legacy -- a collection of telephones so vast it fills five buildings in his hometown of Turtle Lake, Wis., as well as barns on relatives' farms and corners of their homes.

Thousands of phones. Hundreds of thousands. Maybe a million.

"You count 'em and tell me," said George Pearson, a longtime employee of the Prosser family.

Many of them are stacked in buildings in Turtle Lake, Wis. -- buildings that some village residents are eyeing for redevelopment.

The phones fill a former gymnasium, a decaying former creamery and three small outbuildings in downtown Turtle Lake.

Once featured in "Ripley's Believe It or Not," the inventory is something beyond even a phone-crazy teenager's most fevered dreams.

Piled up to 10 feet deep in Pearson's hand-built bins or in huge shipping crates, separated by narrow walkways or stacked in small rooms, the phones represent -- in voluminous, repetitive detail -- most of the history of wired conversation. There are old-fashioned "candlestick" phones, tank-like bakelite desk phones from the mid-20th century, wall phones, pay phones, phones from Belgium and Argentina, rotary phones, touch-tone phones, Princess phones and Trimlines.

It's a family connection

For Prosser's niece Becky Rongstad, a retired dairy farmer from Osseo, Wis., and her brother, Lance Gore, a 3M engineer from River Falls, the piles of phones are a direct connection to their family history.

Their grandmother, Ruth Prosser, owned the Turtle Lake Telephone Co. and raised three kids in the apartment behind the building on Maple Street. The children worked the switchboards, cleaned and repaired phones, and made a good living.

As a child, Becky Rongstad worked cleaning Turtle Lake's three phone booths before her family moved to Osseo to run a phone company there.

When Robert Prosser returned from World War II, he followed a hunch that the recently retired hardwood phone models would someday be in demand as nostalgic items. Sure enough, the old phones ultimately started selling for hundreds of dollars. (Prosser's gambling impulse later made him a well-known figure in Las Vegas and helped bring a casino to Turtle Lake.)

As technology and deregulation brought new models, Prosser bought phones by the truckload, once having five boxcars full of phones shipped from Belgium to Turtle Lake.

There were always more phones

In her later years, Ruth Prosser would sometimes sit in front of the family farm along Hwy. 8 near Turtle Lake selling the fixed-up wooden phones.

"She'd say, 'That's the last one we have,' and then she'd go up in the barn and get five more,' " Gore said.

Prosser's phones seem to have a self-reproducing quality to them. In 1980, he sold the creamery and its contents -- more than 20 semitrailer trucks full -- to Ron Knappen, a Galesville, Wis., man who was getting started restoring and selling old phones.

"He said, 'Ron, I'm going to make you a millionaire,' " Knappen said. That hasn't quite happened, Knappen said, but his business, Phoneco Inc., now has 23 employees. In the meantime, Knappen gave the creamery back to Prosser, who promptly filled it again with phones.

"He'd say, 'I like looking at 'em,' " Gore said.

Gore and Rongstad said that for many years their uncle flew to Las Vegas monthly -- often at casinos' expense -- and that at one point he was worth $26 million. The family farm now serves as overflow parking for the St. Croix Casino, but much of Prosser's wealth, Gore said, came from a long-distance calling card he once produced.

Gore and Rongstad see the phone inheritance as both a problem and an opportunity. They want to sell it but aren't sure of its worth. There are valuable antiques and novelties in the collection, some of which they have in their homes -- a delicate, apparently hand-painted model from Sweden, a full oak switchboard, an airplane-shaped phone with the dial mimicking the propeller, and of course, a Mickey Mouse phone. But most of the phones are modern and of questionable durability and appeal.

And no, there's not a cell phone in the bunch.

Calling for redevelopment

Meanwhile, some residents and the officials in the village of Turtle Lake are angling to make over the old downtown and would like to see the former high school gymnasium restored as a community or history center, perhaps known as Prosser Memorial Hall.  As for the creamery, ideas include preserving the building's front with its curved roof line and broad carved nameplate, while razing the nearly s structure behind it and redeveloping it.

But the creamery, with its roof caving in and dripping water on the phone inside, also contains deteriorating asbestos insulation, uncapped wells and an underground fuel tank.

Working with the family, as well as state commerce and natural resources officials, village Administrator Bill Bell has applied for grants to help with demolition, cleanup and possible site preparation.  The price tag could come to about $300,000.

Right now there's no deadline to get the phones out of the buildings, which is a good thing for Gore and Rongstad.  They'd like to get a good price from one buyer or have an auction, but that could take months.

Or they might auction the phones off in small lots on eBay, the Internet auction site, a process that could take a while.  Recent media attention in the Wall Street Journal and on the "Inside Edition" syndicated TV show might help their efforts, they said.

One sister, who lives in White Bear Lake, MN, is not participating in the sell-off but has made it clear she wants the situation resolved, Rongstad said.

"How many uncles would leave something like this to their nieces and nephew?" Gore said.  "Sometimes the dream is more important than the end result."

Said Rongstad:  "He calls it a blessing.  My idea is that it's a lot of work."

Bill McAulifffe  -  612-673-7646