Can you hear me? - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Our pioneer forbearers had limited means of communication. In the early days, messages and letters were carried by folk who happened to be travelling in the vicinity. Eventually post offices and a system of distribution was developed, but nothing improved communication like the telephone.
Alexander Graham Bell received the U.S. patent for the telephone in March of 1876. In three short years, Clinton had a pair of hand phones connecting the American Express and Dominion Telegraph office with the Glasgow, MacPherson and Co. Works. Blyth followed suit in 1880 when A. Lawrence installed a telephone connection between his store and the manufactory “at considerable expense”. The publication, Ainleyville to Brussels, Our Story, stated that the village had telephone service in the spring of 1885 when John Hargreaves had a switchboard installed in his drug and stationery store. Municipal areas were the first to make use of the telephone technology because of the closeness of the houses and businesses.
By 1910 and 1911, “one of the modern comforts” was becoming available to the folks who lived along the concessions and side roads of Huron County. In the various districts, local contractors took on the task of erecting the telephone poles and stringing the wires. One such person was John Webster of the St. Helens area.
To keep the distance between the poles at a uniform distance, he tied a rope around the rim of one of his buggy wheels keeping track of the number of revolutions thus marking the proper distances. The overhead wires that were strung on the poles were susceptible to damage from weather.
Telephone companies relied on their linemen to keep the system in operation. In Blyth, some of these employees were Richard Hoy, George Garniss, Frank Rogerson, John McGee, Don Young and Don Noble. Not until the 1950s were lines being buried underground.
Telephone companies such as the Blyth Rural, the North Huron, and the Brussels Morris and Grey, to name a few, employed operators who ran a switchboard. There, cords were used to connect the terminal of the caller to that of the person who was being called. In Dungannon, which was the switchboard for the Goderich Rural Telephone Company, the operator in 1919 was Miss Ella Stothers, who had free use of the phone company’s house and three tons of coal.
While urban subscribers had the luxury of private lines, rural customers were offered a party line system whereby multiple users were on the same line. Sometimes the number of households could reach up to 20. If someone wished to use their phone, they would lift the receiver and inquire “line busy?” And often that line would be in use, causing a situation that required patience, as not all people were inclined to give up the line. In the party line system, each household had its own distinctive ring, such as four long rings or three long rings followed by two short ones. Every subscriber on that party line would hear these rings too and would be very familiar with what ring belonged to which household.
To add to the mix, everyone who lifted their receiver could hear everything being said. The more receivers in use at a time, the less volume each person would hear. If one were to say “I can hardly hear you, there must be something wrong with this line” sometimes triggered a series of audible clicks as the listeners gave up their entertainment. One soon learned to avoid sharing secrets on the party line. Why would anyone subscribe to a party line? The answer is economics. It was cheaper to share a line with neighbours.
The equipment in rural use until the 1960s consisted of a rectangular wooden box that was mounted in one central location in the house. In the early years, this box contained the magneto batteries that provided the electrical current necessary to activate the system. On the front of the box were two bells at the top and a protruding mouth piece. On the right side of the box was a crank that, when turned, caused the bells to ring. On the left side was an earpiece or receiver on a hook. Also, on the left side was a button that, when depressed and the crank turned, allowed the user to connect with the operator at the central switchboard. From here, the operator could connect someone to another party line or to a switchboard in a location such as London, where an operator there would connect the call to a customer in that area.
Another function of the party line was the emergency call. If there was a fire or other such emergency, a person would wind the crank and keep the bells ringing continually. Neighbours would come on the line to find where the problem was. This was a very disturbing sound, but an effective one to rally help in short order.
Telephone numbers underwent a number of changes through the years. When telephones first came into use locally, the numbers assigned reflected the order in which the subscriber installed a phone. In 1931, Willis’ Shoe store in Wingham could be reached at #129; Sunnyvale Poultry Farm in Seaforth could be reached at 137r3 (a party line) and in the 1960s, when most of the area’s telephone companies were converted to dial phones, Blyth Meat Market’s phone number was 519-523-4551. If one was making a local call, the first three digits were unnecessary. All this changed in 1964 when direct dialing came into use. This region was assigned the area code of 519 at that time.
Fast forward to 2022 and almost a century-and-a-half has passed since the advent of the telephone. For better or worse, it certainly changed the ability to communicate.