Associated Press
Alan Drew, chief operations officer at the Northwest Lineman College in Meridian, Idaho, has organized a unique museum at the college dedicated to linemen.

MERIDIAN, Idaho — One of the stranger sights at Meridian's Northwest Lineman College campus is a photo of a power pole straddled by linemen wearing business suits.

"They wore leather shoes and homemade climbing gear back in those days," NLC student Brad Burkman of Blackfoot said. "Compared with what they did, we have it easy."

That sort of historical perspective is one of the reasons for creating the college's museum — one of only two lineman museums in the nation and one of the Treasure Valley's little known historical gems.

Step inside the lobby. One of the first things to catch your eye is a display of glass and porcelain electrical insulators. Some are small enough to put in your pocket; others wouldn't fit in the trunk of your car.

"Heroes of power" posters line a wall — Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and others. Prominently displayed are signatures of Edison and Tesla, pioneers of different types of current, and arch enemies.

A movie poster promotes "Slim," a 1937 film starring Henry Fonda as a lineman. Other lobby displays include linemen's tools, copies of all 11 editions of the Lineman's Handbook and ashtrays with drawings of power trucks, power poles, lightning bolts and, of course, linemen.

Continued in other rooms, the museum is a collection of seemingly anything related to linemen and electricity, from a coin-operated power meter for apartments to an LP of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" to Terry Lawrence's "Dangerous in the Dark," a lineman romance novel (No. 568 in the "Loveswept" series).

The force behind it all is Alan Drew, the college's chief operations officer. He started the museum in 2000.

"The basis of it is we like the students to know how we got where we are in electricity," he said. "In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error and accidents. We've come a long way."

Drew speaks from experience. He climbed his first power pole when he was 7, using metal climbers his father made for him.

"Most boys then had the mentality of wanting to be a policeman or a fireman," he said. "I always wanted to be a lineman."

Drew acquired many of the museum's oddments himself, a sometimes arduous undertaking.

That was especially true of a display telling the story of the 1901 construction of the 25-mile power line from Swan Falls Dam to Silver City.

"We went over every foot of that line," he said. "It was a three- to four-year research project, and it's still going."

A display on an 1891 hydro plant at Telluride, Colo., the first commercial use of alternating current, includes one of the transmission line's poles and cross arms. They might still be rotting away in the Colorado mountains if Drew hadn't walked the line and found them.

A display on the 1896 plant at Niagara Falls is a coup in the power world. It contains one of the plant's original insulators, one of only 11 still known to exist.

"We traded a guy for an insulator we had that he really wanted," Drew said.

Many of the collection's artifacts, such as tools and insulators, are strictly nuts and bolts. But its surprising diversity of non-hardware memorabilia will entertain even casual visitors.

You'll see a rare photo of a Civil War telegraph lineman. Reddy Kilowatt paraphernalia takes you down memory lane, as does a vintage Idaho Power serviceman's cap, brown and tan with Reddy at the ready over its military-style bill. Zane Grey's "Western Union" adds a literary touch.

A shotgun in a glass display case seems out of place until you realize that it belonged to William Wister Haines, the author of "Slim." His children donated it.

Gracing another case a few yards away are autographed photographs of Fonda and "Slim" co-stars Pat O'Brien and Jane Wyman, former President Ronald Reagan's first wife.

The impact on NLC students is powerful.

"I've learned a lot from it," Nampa student Andrew McFarland said. "It's made me realize how things have changed over time and how the industry has gone from nothing to what we have today."