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Despite tiny budgets in a big-budget world, three little museums optimistically struggle to make sure their contributions to Richmond's history are never —completely — forgotten. 

Keeping It Quaint

Would it ever occur to you to spend even one lazy day of summer in a back room of a Bell Atlantic building or on a train car near the south bank of the James or in the state's oldest steamer house in Jackson Ward?

For most the answer is no. The guest books at three of Richmond's tiny museums prove it. And even though the Virginia Fire and Police Museum now teems with kids from day camps and sundry summer programs, soon schools will summon them back, and its halls again will be empty. The Old Dominion Railway Museum makes do with sporadic weekend visitors and its popular walking tours of Richmond's nearby floodwall. Plus, it's got the occasional birthday party held on an otherwise empty caboose - a bargain for just $25. But at the Virginia Telephone Museum, volunteers have a darn time just getting telephone company employees who work in the building to stop in on their lunch break.

Still, none lament what mightier museums would chalk up to indifference. Instead it's merely the fact that in Richmond, when it comes to tiny museums, there are at least three degrees of small.

At a time when other local museums start and finish monster-sized expansions, the Virginia Fire and Police Museum, the Old Dominion Railway Museum and the Virginia Telephone Museum prove that when it comes to sharing history, all you need is blind optimism. And as for the history, the more obscure the better. Especially if it's how much paraffin wax was used 70 years ago to protect copper wires carrying conversations more precious than gold.

Volunteers and workers are caretakers, not curators. And each day they spend their time archiving a part of history largely forgotten. For some, it's what they spent their entire lives doing, so much so, it' s as necessary as air. For others, it's the chance to see a childhood passion developed.

It's somehow almost fitting that the Virginia Telephone Museum isn't listed in the phone book. Most don't know it exists, yet many pass it every day. Twice a month the Virginia Telephone Museum at 3520 Ellwood Ave. opens for visitors. And sometimes one comes.

"We're in the process of adding another day a month," says Elaine Cramme, one of four volunteers who work at the museum on the third Wednesday and first Friday of every month. Soon, she hopes to open an extra day each month to see what kind of turnout the museum gets.

"We've got something here worth millions of dollars," she says of the thousand telephone artifacts that inhabit a large room on the back of the Bell Atlantic-soon-to-be-Verizon building facing Nansemond Street in the Museum District. Since 1992, Cramme and her husband, Carl, along with Tom and Eleanor Harris — all members of the phone company's Pioneer Club — have taken up the museum as their pet project. It's also a way to reminisce and display the memorabilia from their more than 100 combined years working for the phone company.

"We haven't been that lucky," confesses Cramme about receiving visitors. Some of that she blames on the lack of visitor parking during the week when company employees use the lot. "And now that Bell Atlantic's changing I don't know what to expect." Still, she insists, she hasn't heard anything about plans to change the museum. And because they don't outright ask for donations, it's important that the museum make a good impression with the new company. The museum depends on the phone company to house it and pay for its heating, air conditioning and electricity. Still, Cramme says it's not the same. "It's called Verizon," says Cramme incredulously. "There's no Bell in it at all." "We don't even have a budget here," remarks Tom Harris, lamenting the fact he forgot his toolbox today. Searching for a screwdriver, he adds, "If we need some money, we'll sell hot dogs, cakes and candy."

About 200 guests visit the museum each year. They've even had one from as far away as Missouri. Harris notes a guest from Stockbridge, Ga. "That's my brother," laughs Cramme.

Looking around the room Harris is proud of the company he keeps. Crank-style phones are mounted on walls, and thanks to his help, most of them work. Cramme and Eleanor Harris mimic their old jobs at the manual switchboard, showing off how they managed headsets and toll tickets for long distance calls. "Operator, number please," says Mrs. Harris smiling, just like it was yesterday.

"These are now novelty items," says Tom Harris. "You'd be surprised the number of youngsters who've come in who've never used a dial phone," he says. "Then again, I'm not all that familiar with fiber optics."

"Did everybody learn something good?" asks Sarah Jennings, sporting braids and a camp counselor's smile, but most importantly, a fire-engine-red Virginia Fire and Police Museum shirt. There is a collective holler of "Yes!" from the group of 5- to-12-year-olds from Shalom Baptist Church.

The gang checks out everything from a 1927 American La France Pumper Engine to a retired 1982 Honda Shadow Police motorcycle. Goodie bags filled with fire safety booklets and escape plans dangle from little hands that long to touch, and even climb onto, each shiny red display. Some like the puppet show best while others vote for their scurry through a model-sized smokehouse during a make-believe fire. But all agree Pogo, the real-life possum that lives in a bagel warmer is the "coolest" attraction.

"We're more than just a fire-safety show," exclaims Vicki Mollenauer, the museum's director educational programming. It's what she and her five fellow coworkers at the Virginia Fire and Police Museum in Jackson Ward hope will one day spread like wildfire.

Steamer Co. No. 5, built in 1849, is not only the state's oldest standing firehouse, it also houses props — hose testers, alarm bells and life net trampolines — that once helped stomp out city blazes and rescue Richmond residents long before hook-and-ladders rushed to the scene.

But with an annual budget of just $288,000 there's little money for added exhibits and even less for glitzy advertising. That's why the VFPM has taken on a new strategy - one where creativity and a smidgen of desperation are the best bets to catch attention. When it held its Open House last month, announcements were sent out signaling a message unabashedly direct: "WE NEED YOUR ATTENTION!" If this autumn is like the others, attendance could drop to the four to five walk-in visitors it sees daily.

"We're really kind of lost with the milk bottle revamping now," says Mollenauer of the current construction opposite Marshall Street where the old Richmond Dairy is morphing into upscale apartments. "We need money and some recognition."

Whether or not visitors show up, attorney Dick Hogan considers himself lucky. He spends his weekends up to his ears in trains. As a volunteer with the Old Dominion Railway Museum just south of the Mayo Bridge on Hull Street, Hogan works to preserve the legacy of Southern railways that helped put Richmond on the map.

"Just like the Wild Wild West, Richmond had holdups," says Hogan to hook a listener. But the intrigue of local train history hardly ends there. Hogan tells of the Sunday night ride on April 2, 1865, when Richmond burned and Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Army used the line to retreat to safety. Henry Box Brown, the famous stowaway slave, traveled what's now the Norfolk Southern to find freedom up North. And the old railroad used to run smack down the middle of Broad Street. It's these and other little-known facts that delight train buffs and put boyhood dreams into the context of history.

"We're all nuts," laughs Hogan about the museum's 50 volunteers who take turns manning the train-car museum on weekends and also help with its $277,000 restoration of the old Hull Street Station.

Built in 1910, the Flemish-bond structure of Hull Street Station served railroad passengers from 1915 to 1957. Sooner or later, it'll be home to the expanded museum. It's hard to believe most Richmonders once knew its address as well as their own.

"Most people have never been on a caboose," says Hogan. In 1976 the Old Dominion Railway members restored what is now the only steam locomotive in the country that runs and it's Hogan's dream to see it take a trip again. "We're the only player now that rolls," he says. "But I think of it as a big old used car. It could eat you alive," he muses, with seemingly endless repairs. When the state sold Main Street Station to developers, the Old Dominion Railway Museum purchased for 50 cents apiece the abandoned boxcars that now house the museum. It took $3,000, two cranes and three low boys to move them south of the James.

For the first time, thanks largely to City Council approving $200,000 in federal money, the Old Dominion Railway Museum has the seed money to renovate the old Hull Street Station building that has stood as a veritable shell since Norfolk Southern donated the building to the museum. "All museums lose money," explains Hogan. The work will likely take six to nine years to complete. "At the rate we were going we had decided our grandchildren would be working on it," he says.

"We've had a reluctance to honor industrial history," says Hogan. "But it's precisely what knit the states together. And when we set our watches, we can thank the railroads for that - standardization."

Back at the Virginia Telephone Museum blue glass insulators sit atop a telephone pole that Tom Harris says looks funny without the wire attached. Some people don't know the glass cap insulators, resting like birds, are valuable. Cramme has seen them go at yard sales for a quarter. "That's a shame," she says, summing up the value each of these tiny museums sees in the relics of their slices of history. "What they've got there is a real treasure to
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