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The Capehart Communications Collection, owned by Western Electric retiree Don Capehart and his wife, Rita (and operated out of an old Coca-Cola bottling factory next to their home in Corsicana, Texas), is a unique collection of communications equipment, telephones that span many ages from the end of the Victorian Age to modern times, media sources such as magazines, posters, and records, and other trinkets and gadgets used throughout the history of communication. The Collection shows the history of a major company, Western Electric, and its vital role in developing the telecommunication business.
Begun in 1984, the collection has grown into one of the nation's largest privately owned museums of its kind. Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. From sewing machines to switches, telephone booths to toilets -- the Capehart Collection contains examples of many items manufactured by the Western Electric Company through the years. It also includes artifacts, documents, and memorabilia from Bell Labs and AT&T.
As impressive as the collection is, the real treat is the personalized tour given by Don or Rita. The stories of ingenuity and invention behind the artifacts make history fun for young and old alike.
Please browse around our website and enjoy yourself. Tours are per appointment only and you can find how to set one up by contacting the owners.
Article taken from Lucent Magazine,
March 1997, p. 16 - 17. originally written
by Ollie Hartsfield.
What do a 1917 sewing machine, an 1889 switchboard, a 1920 motion-picture sound system and a nickelo-
deon have in common? They all were once made by Western Electric, and they're all in Don Capehart's house. Capehart, who was a Western Electric (and later Network Systems) installer for 28 years, began collecting old telephone paraphernalia 12 years ago.
What started as three small displays with a few company pins, trophies and installer's tools has become an 8,000 square-foot treasure trove of Western Electric history.
Capehart believes his museum - the Capehart Communications Collection - is the largest of its kind owned by an individual. The collection contains thousands of items, including 25 switchboards, 701 PBXs, and hundreds of installer's tools and test sets.
The museum is located in half of an old soft-drink bottling warehouse in Corsicana, Texas. Capehart and his wife, Rita, renovated the building and turned the other half into their living space. When he isn't at work (he's currently a contractor for MCI), Capehart often can be found working on one of the displays in the museum.
The collecting bug bit Capehart one day in 1984 as he was removing one of the last manual coded switchboards being replaced by electronic switches. "I realized we were throwing our history away, and we wouldn't have anything to show for it. I got permission from the legal department to buy the old equipment," said Capehart.
Capehart soon was collecting pieces of Western Electric's past from all over the country. He even found some items during trips to Europe and South America. By the time he retired in 1990, the museum collection had swelled to fill a 3,000 square-foot area. That's when he and his wife moved to a bigger space in Corsicana. Six years later, the Capehart Collection is still growing.
The museum receives about 1,000 visitors a year. Producers of a PBS documentary on Alexander Graham Bell contacted him to use some of his material in their program.
A Disaster Switchboard
One of Capehart's favorite finds was U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's "disaster" switchboard - a switchboard from an Austin, Texas, telephone office designated to handle the president's calls in case of national disaster. The most important piece in the museum, Capehart feels, is a Model 1800 switchboard that may have been the first one used in Texas. Other notable items on display include switchboards used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the telephone switching gear used on the USS Missouri, the battleship aboard which the United States and Japan signed the peace treaty that ended World War II.
Telephone equipment isn't the only hardware in the museum. At one time, Western Electric made almost everything that required electricity - vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, washing machines, lamps - and the Capehart Collection contains many of these items.
Then, there's the paper collection documenting Western Electric's history; letters of agreement establishing the first Western Electric workforce, Western Electric catalogs, and more than 300 magazine pictures chronicling the growth of Western Electric.
"I want people to know what Western Electric was and what it contributed," said Capehart."
Don and Rita are looking to sale the entire museum. Their hopes are that someone will buy the museum and perhaps be able to bring it to more people to see the history of the telecommunication industry.
The collection has spanned three decades of collecting and displaying generations of telecommunication equipment and memorabilia but it is time for it to move on for others to see.
If you are someone who is interested in buying the museum as a whole, please contact Don and Rita Capehart.