PlantTel Museum Exhibit to Open at ABAC’s Georgia Museum of Agriculture on April 15th

Staff Report

Friday, March 17th, 2023

A stunning and unique collection of over 538 artifacts, including antique telephones of every variety imaginable, forms the heart of a new exhibit at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College’s Georgia Museum of Agriculture.

A grand opening for the GMA’s new PlantTel Museum Exhibit will take place at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 15 during ABAC’s 2023 Homecoming weekend. The grand opening will include guided tours of the exhibit, a “cord cutting,” and a reception.

The collection was donated in early 2022 by Danny and Beverly Sterling of Plant Telephone Company to the ABAC Foundation.

“The ABAC Foundation is delighted to accept the donation of this wonderful collection of telephones from the Sterling family,” said Dr. Deidre Martin, ABAC’s Chief Advancement Officer. “Spanning almost an entire century, this collection is truly a treasure. The collection's new home in a permanent exhibit at ABAC's Georgia Museum of Agriculture ensures it can be enjoyed and appreciated by many for years and years to come.”

According to ABAC’s Curator Polly Huff, curatorial staff at the museum spent the rest of 2022 obtaining the large collection, re-designing the exhibit, writing copy for the exhibit’s interpretation, and carefully installing each one of the 500 telephones. The PlantTel Museum Exhibit will be permanently housed in the same building as the village printshop in the historic village. The space was refurbished by the Sterling family and designed to be reminiscent of the original PlantTel Phone Museum at the company’s Tifton headquarters.

“The collection represents the historic evolution of communications beginning with a model of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 telephone, and chronicling the next hundred years of improvements of one of the most important communication devices of our lifetime,“ said Huff.

The five-generation story of the Plant Telephone Company began in 1895 in the rural farming community of Doles, when Ben Gleaton connected a magneto telephone from his home and commissary to the farm home of his wife Lula’s parents. Neighboring farmers soon heard of the device and wanted a telephone of their own. A Western Electric switchboard was installed in the commissary where it was operated for daytime service. Gleaton was on to something, and the expansion of the telephone followed the development of many small independent telephone companies in isolated rural America.

In 1919, Henry Perry Gleaton moved to Warwick and soon purchased the inoperative Warwick Telephone Company with one switchboard, 23 telephones and the poles and wire. The Warwick exchange grew rapidly, and Warwick became the first Georgia telephone exchange to have automatic dialing with less than 100 lines. In 1937, the Gleatons reacquired the Doles exchange with service to Isabella, near what is now Sylvester. In 1946, James Perry Gleaton inherited the growing telephone company from his father. J.P. had moved his family, wife Allene, and three daughters (Betty Chloe, Beverly and Barbara) to Tifton as he was employed by Southern Bell to learn the telephone business as a lineman.

The Omega Telephone Company was acquired in 1946 and the name was changed to Plant Telephone Company. At the time, Omega was known as the “Starter Plant Capital of the World,” and the company was incorporated in 1948. The Lenox exchange was acquired in 1949 and the company offered long-distance calls through Southern Bell Trunk lines in Tifton.

In 1950, J.P. Gleaton purchased the Pearson and Willacoochee telephone exchanges for $1 and the assumption of notes. Plant Telephone and Power Company Inc. was formed in 1951 to include the Warwick power dam and to expand the Pearson and Willacoochee exchanges. The Pinehurst exchange was purchased in 1954; the facilities were in such disrepair that a note on the door read “Office Closed, Key is in the River.”

The company continued to expand its service in each exchange and began converting all systems to rotary dial service. In 1956, Mr. Gleaton purchased the Soperton exchange in central Georgia, which is the largest exchange in the company. During this time, the company was headquartered in Tifton on Highway 41 in several buildings. In 1966, Beverly Gleaton married Danny Sterling and they continued the tradition of working at the family business. In 1978, J.P. Gleaton passed away, leaving a legacy of telephone expansion and modern technology to rural communities.

Under the leadership of Danny Sterling, Plant Telephone continued to grow while upgrading to the newest telephone technology, including electronic switches that provided the highest quality service and features. In 1983, Plant opened its new headquarters on Highway 82 West. Services were expanded to offer business phone systems, security systems and internet service. As the demand for internet access increased, PlantTel built a fiber optic network to rural customers across South Georgia.

In 2009, CityNet was purchased from the City of Tifton, allowing PlantTel to provide telephone, internet, and television to customers in Tift County. Over the years, the Sterlings received numerous awards for business leadership and contributions to South Georgia communities.