A New Home for the Antique Wireless Museum

Getting acquainted with the Voice of America equipment at the Antique Wireless Museum in Bloomfield are visitors Jim Pruitt, Chris Riedl, and Steve Dampoft.  Photo courtesy of AWM

More than 60 years ago, the Antique Wireless Association (AWA) started with nothing more than a collection of old radios and electronic equipment stored in a barn. Eventually, the nonprofit organization founded the Antique Wireless Museum (AWM). Following four moves, countless acquisitions and donations, and members who live all over the world, the AWA’s signal is being heard “loud and clear” from its spacious new museum.

Located on scenic Routes 5 & 20 in the town of Bloomfield in Ontario County, the AWM now has much more space to tell the story of how technology has been used to communicate and entertain. Curator Bruce Roloson and his staff have done an outstanding job in developing the many exhibits. There are radios and other artifacts as far as the eye can see, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. And speaking of icebergs, the museum has a replica of the Titanic’s wireless room. It’s filled with authentic devices from the Marconi Wireless Company like those used on the ill-fated transatlantic passenger ship in 1912. Why the wireless rooms on the ships closest to the Titanic were shut down when the superliner hit the iceberg is just one of the intriguing anecdotes revealed on a tour of the museum.

In addition to changing exhibits, there are 20 permanent exhibits complemented by colorful signage, thematic posters, and three-dimensional objects from the past. Listening to “his master’s voice” are several large models of Nipper, the iconic dog sitting near a gramophone. Right on cue, music from a bygone era wafts throughout the building to set the perfect mood for visitors to explore the past 200 years of communication.

Then and Now

In 2011 I wrote about the museum, which at that time was located at the Bloomfield Academy building, also home to the East Bloomfield Historical Society (lifeinthefingerlakes.com/antique-wireless-museum). From 1975 to 2013, the AWM occupied an unheated portion of two upper floors. After a rather steep climb, I was navigated through the somewhat cramped space by AWM’s Deputy Director Bob Hobday, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for the rare radio and electronic communications apparatus seemed limitless.     

But what a difference six years makes! Today, the number of visitors has quadrupled at the new ADA-accessible facility which opened three years ago. It is fully heated and air conditioned to provide a comfortable environment for year-round traffic. The space has expanded from 1,800 square feet at its former location to the current 7,000 square feet. Thanks to   AWA Director Tom Peterson, Jr., an entrepreneur from Cleveland, the AWA acquired buildings in Bloomfield located about two miles from its previous home.

“Back then we had the museum and a storage and work building,” explains Hobday. Today they have four buildings on five acres. “Before we could only display 15 percent of the collection; now it is up to about 30 percent, but the collection has tripled or quadrupled in those three to five years.”

The Dr. Max Bodmer Media Center is housed in a building separate from the museum. Another building provides storage, a staging area for exhibits and a workshop for repairs. On the north side of Routes 5 & 20, a fourth building is used as a conference center, offices and storage.

Voice of America

Some of the newest items in the collection came from the Voice of America (VOA) Delano Station in California. “People risked their lives to listen to Voice of America,” says Hobday of the historic shortwave broadcasts that have reached people, particularly where freedom is threatened, since 1942.

In 2007, after nearly 60 years of service, the California station was shut down by the government and the equipment was scheduled to be sold for scrap. Hobday was convinced this important piece of communications history should be rescued.     

“In May 2014 we got a letter from the General Services Administration with good news saying, ‘You can have it,’” recalls Hobday.

The bad news was that they had only two weeks to pick it up in California. Private donations had to be raised to fund the project. The VOA transmitter and control room weighed 38,000 pounds and required two trucks to move east. Since the AWA membership spans the country, those in the Midwest rallied to the cause, going to California to take delivery. To facilitate the acquisition, the AWM also collaborated with the Collins Collectors Association, a group dedicated to preserving Collins Radio equipment, the company that built the transmitters for the Delano Voice of America station.   

Within 12 months, AWM’s Hobday, Roloson, and a group of 30 dedicated volunteers had the equipment operating as an exhibit. Although there is no longer any broadcasting allowed, the exhibit appropriately has recordings of jazz music playing. “Jazz is America’s unique contribution to the world,” explains Hobday. “It’s free, innovative, and not stylistic.”

Davis-Wolf Station – East Bloomfield

Another engaging exhibit is a rare assemblage of Western Union equipment acquired from a Boston collector. The display presents a “fictional” Western Union office in East Bloomfield named for the individuals who acquired and donated these artifacts. Like the VOA equipment, it took many man-hours to prepare the equipment for shipment from a New England location. 

It is tantalizingly presented behind a large wall of multi-paned windows, suggesting an old-time shop front. The visitor can literally peek through the panes to see the old standard Underwood typewriter, a telephone, maps and other period ephemera, antique lighting, and the telegraph where Morse code was tapped out to relay messages.     

“Sparking” the Generations

Visitors of all ages will be amazed at such things as the size of the first cell phone displayed at AWM. Youngsters will also have a chance to hear from a parent or grandparents about their “first” radio or television as they peruse those on view. Anyone who was in the military where radio communication was critical to victory will see military radio artifacts that range from the World War I years to some of today’s latest equipment. 

A Discovery Center provides hands-on exhibits that include a working shortwave radio, a teletype machine, a computer to watch videos, and an artifact database.

The AWM’s popular 1925 Radio Store exhibit from the museum’s former location fills one long wall. Hobday’s own interest was spurred by visits to real stores where early amateur radio operators and experimenters could buy parts for building receivers and transmitters. 

Tourism Destination

Since arriving at its new location, the AWM is regularly a stop for motor coach tours bringing tourists to the area. 

“I believe the Antique Wireless Museum is one of Ontario County’s greatest hidden treasures,” says Karen Miltner, public relations manager of the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection. The county tourism bureau awarded Hobday a 2016 Tourism Ambassador Award. It honors an employee, volunteer or organization that passionately promotes Ontario County as a premier destination in the Finger Lakes and New York State.

“Most people don’t expect to find a museum on this topic in the Finger Lakes, and when they go, they are pleasantly surprised at how thoughtfully curated the museum is,” says Miltner.  “Bob does an amazing job of giving tours. I often take travel media there and always learn something new each time I go.”

What lies ahead for the AWM? Plans call for a 60-seat auditorium to be used for programming, and by local theater groups and outside groups for meetings and events. The building’s façade will be updated to take on the appearance of a very special 1936 Sparton blue and chrome art deco radio, just like one on display.

Antique Wireless Museum

6925 Routes 5 & 20

Bloomfield, NY 14469

Located on the south side of 5 & 20
just east of the State Route 444 intersection

Open Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The AWA Museum is closed holiday weekends
and on Tuesdays, if that day is a holiday. 

Adults: $7.00; AWA members free

Kids and Teens: free

For information about membership, group tours,
or to use the Dr. Max Bodmer Media Center,
call 585-257-5119 or visit antiquewireless.org.

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