Morro Bay couple has quite the collection of telephones and thermometers

Gary See collects phones, these candlestick models are from the early 20th century including an honor payphone that suggests dropping a nickel into the box. The one at the right was designed in the mid-20th century.
Gary See collects phones, these candlestick models are from the early 20th century including an honor payphone that suggests dropping a nickel into the box. The one at the right was designed in the mid-20th century. The Tribune

When Gary See was in junior high school, his grandfather bought him a Western Electric candlestick telephone.

While an unusual gift, that brass, upright phone -- something people would have used between 1890 and 1930 – proved to be a perfect choice, sparking a lifelong hobby.

“He knew I was this kid that was tearing apart old TV sets and having fun with electronics at 13,” said See, of Morro Bay, who went on to become an electronic engineer. “And so he brought that to me.”

Now 45 years later, See still has that phone – plus hundreds of others.

“We put a lot of them in storage,” he said.

When The Tribune solicited local collectors to share their hobbies last winter, See noted his collection of phones and phone gear. But he wasn’t the only See to respond to the fetcher. His wife, Pam, also sent a note about her collection of commercial thermometers. Their two children, Julie O’Daniel and Eric See, could have sent a note, too. Julie collects patterned casserole dishes and miniature chairs, while Eric collects dishes and clocks.

Their hobbies make gift giving easier and provides the family with an easy activity to enjoy – perusing flea markets and antique stores.

“We know when we get together there’s something we can all agree on to do,” Pam See said.

Gary’s collection, however, is the most intricate. Because not only does he collect phones, he also puts them to work.

“I heard about this group called the Collector’s Network, which is part of a telephone collectors association that started hooking everything up through the Internet,” he said.

With the aid of the Skype-like Internet technology, Gary See hooks his phones up to a World War II era automatic switch in his garage. That way, he recreates the process phone companies once used. And callers can hear the distinct rings of old-time phones as they dial up others in the network.

“We’re recreating the old central offices and old phone equipment,” he said, “but using the Internet as what the old long distance network used to be so we can all connect our toys together.”

Gary, who “had a nice talk with a guy in Norway” recently, has several old phones in the house, including phones used in different eras. And in his living room, he boasts an old switchboard.

“This is typical of a hotel or a hospital switchboard,” he said.

Also in the living room is a pay phone, which belongs to his son, Eric, and a small collection of candlestick phones. One of the candlesticks comes with a small metal box, asking callers to chip in five cents in an old communications honor system.

“That was the original pay phone,” See said.

Not far from that switchboard are 30 of Pam’s thermometers. The thermometers – she has over 100 total -- are connected to ads for grocery stores, real estate agents and funeral homes.

“Back in the 20s, 30s and 40s, they were most popular,” she said. “The local hardware store would send you one every year, and Grandma would hang it in the kitchen and then throw it away because she’d get a new one.”

One of her calendars comes from the Zizik-Kerns Funeral Home in San Antonio, Texas. Others come from Dick & Esther’s Place (a restaurant), Oakes Foodmart and Beard’s Scientific Brake Service. While most thermometers include an advertisement, some also include calendars. One – from a dentist in Los Angeles – features a calendar from 1939.

Pam See’s mother was a glassware collector herself. And as a child, Pam collected some Coca-Cola items. But her thermometer collection began as an adult, roughly 30 years ago.

“I had a girlfriend, who had maybe five of them,” said Pam, a counseling secretary at San Luis Obispo High School. “And I bought her one for her birthday and couldn’t give it away. So from that, I started.”

Most of her thermometers are in the living room, a bathroom (along with a small collection of doll house toilets) and a closet.

“They’re cute, ya know?” Pam said, while showing off her collection.

While they stop far short of being hoarders, the Sees do collect other things as well. In the living room, they boast two wooden pinball machines from the 1950s and a gum ball machine. In storage they have a juke box, along with a slot machine and other amusement machines.

“We just like all that stuff – I don’t know why,” Gary said.

Just as Pam’s mother passed on her collecting habit, the Sees influenced their own children.

“When we were little kids, we would go to the flea market with our mom,” Julie said.

While the family shares an affinity for collecting, they do have different tastes.

“I like electronic gadgets,” Gary said. “I get bored with, like, thermometers.”

His wife, hearing the comment, had a quick counter.

“Yours takes up more room than mine,” she said.

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