Thanks to the collaboration and dedication of a wonderful librarian at the Meriden Public Library we know a little more about William W. Wheeler’s 1898 “Wireless-Messenger.” I first saw one of these almost a hundred years after it was manufactured when I visited another collector in 1997. She had a bunch and I traded her for a few. I promptly sent one to Gene Orlando at the Museum of Talking Boards. These little guys are the perfect travel sized talking board and the lip of the frame keeps the planchette from falling off the board. The planchette is, in my humble opinion, the coolest looking talking board planchette ever made. You wanna know what makes this board even cooler? It was made in Meriden, Connecticut which just happens to be the home town of friend and fellow collector, Calvin Von Crush.
In 2012 this little board became an even bigger mystery when Calvin and Mike Zohn from Oddities and Obscura Antiques scored a few at an outdoor flea market. Calvin pursued the seller which led him to an even bigger lot right in Meriden. Score! Turns out they’d been stored in the seller’s garage after being discovered some thirty years before while cleaning out a building on the corner of Hanover Street and Randolph Avenue. Since then we’ve wondered, who the hell was William W. Wheeler, where was his factory, besides publishing books on psychic phenomenon what else did they make, and how long were they in business? We know he made these boards in 1898 and they appear to be an infringement on Elijah Bond’s Ouija patent. Was he pushed out of the talking board business or did they just not sell well enough to keep making? Ah, if only these boards could talk…
When Calvin came to visit a few weeks ago we talked about how neat it was that he shared his home town with the “Wireless-Messenger.” Calvin had done some digging into its mysterious past but it wasn’t ready to give up its secrets. Brandon Hodge did some sleuthing when he’d come up from Austin, Texas to visit Calvin. I’d given him my contact at the local library who’d started going through city directories. They spent a few hours digging, found some addresses of what might have been Wheeler”s home or factory and gave him a map. Off he went, but only found a mechanic in a new building where he thought the factory was supposed to be! Reception was spotty and I even tried to guide him via google maps over the phone, but it wasn”t happening, so he spent the rest of the afternoon in the cemetery looking for Wheeler”s grave, to no avail. Turns out the board wasn’t saying too much. He did however discover one of the best steamed burgers Meriden had to offer. Yum!
Look, I have a LOT of time on my hands while recovering from back surgery. I may not be able to travel like I used to, but my mind is always going somewhere. None of this research is ever done by one person and without collaborating with others we’d know zippo. But, trying to inspire local boots on the ground isn’t always easy. I mean, yes, I’m obsessed with this stuff, but I know most people don’t give a rat’s ass about some random talking board. Feeling inspired, I called Meriden’s local library a few times and came up with bupkis. After being transferred from librarian to librarian I was finally connected with Melissa. Luckily for me, she not only found the entire story fascinating, she decided to take it upon herself to help find everything we could about William Wheeler and his company. Woo hoo!
I always try to start with city directories. That way we know when the person and company first show up and then look in each successive year to see if anything changes and when they stop being listed. Sounds easy right? Most local city directories aren’t indexed and they usually end up being big ole dusty volumes. Still, Melissa would not be deterred! She started in 1898 because we knew the company existed then, and worked her way backwards. The first time the William W. Wheeler Company appears is in the 1891 directory which means they were in business in 1890, William W. Wheeler is listed as the president, the address of the company was 191 Hanover, and the company’s description was mechanical photographing.
In 1898 the address, and description remain the same but now William is listed as president and treasurer. In 1916 no change in address and description, William is still listed as president, but August H. Riecke Jr. is listed treasurer, and Walter J. Rigney is listed as secretary. In 1938 same address, description is commercial photographers, Riecke is still the treasurer, Rigney is still the secretary, but gone is any mention of William W. Wheeler and the president is listed as Edward J. Gardner. 1952 is the last year the company is listed in the Meriden City Directory with the only change being they are described as photoengravers.
So, you see what I’m getting at? I asked Melissa to do something that sounds simple and in accepting she had to look up the company in SIXTY-TWO volumes, from 1890-1952 of Meriden City Directories. G-d bless Melissa!
Now that Melissa is completely invested, she’s roped in another librarian whose specialty is the people of Meriden’s past. Hopefully by the end of the week we’ll have a photo of William Wheeler and his obit which may give us some other interesting nuggets. I’ve asked the National and Connecticut Archives to look for any patent infringement cases against the Wheeler Company as well as to get a copy of the patent application, file, or registration and trademark which is mentioned right on the front of the board. By the way, 191 Hanover Street is at the corner of Hanover Street and Randolph Avenue. It appears the lot of boards Calvin and Mike scored did indeed come out of Wheeler’s factory!
Thanks to ancestry.com and find findagrave.com we also have a few more breadcrumbs to lead us on this wild goose chase. We know he was born in Middlesex County, Connecticut on January 11, 1853, married Emma Pelton on April 22, 1884, and died at sixty-three years old in Meriden on December 27, 1916. He was buried at Moodus Cemetery in Moodus, Connecticut about 25 miles away.
My goal here? To make sure Calvin has every bit of info out there on his hometown board so he can share it in his presentations and make sure this travel size board’s history doesn’t get lost again. Ok…I may end up owing Melissa dinner… and drinks, lots and lots of drinks!