When Alexander Graham Bell exhibited his telephone invention in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, a Texas gentleman by the name of Colonel A. H. Belo became very interested. Belo was the publisher of the Galveston News and later the founder of the Dallas Morning News. He could see the advantage of the telephone and installed the first line between his newspaper office and his Galveston home. This telephone was, according to the Texas State Historical Association online, one of the first 1,000 telephones installed nationwide. Other Galveston residents requested phones, and this led to the construction and installation of a switchboard to move calls from one line to another.
Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company was organized in 1881 to operate exchanges in Arkansas and Texas. A Dallas exchange opened with forty subscribers. The Waco exchanged opened with forty-five subscribers on October 1, 1881, and the following year 14 more Texas cities opened telephone exchanges.
Before researching this article, I would have assumed Gatesville would have been one of the last small towns to have a telephone system. I would certainly have been wrong. Coryell County had its first phones by 1885, just 9 years after being invented by Alexander Graham Bell.
Between 1885 and 1911, the Gatesville Telephone Company provided telephone service, with R. T. Oldham as its president. In 1911 the telephone office was located on the north side of the public square over the Beard and Warren Drug Store. In 1912 the office was moved to an upstairs location in the Burt Building on Main Street, and later, because of a fire, the telephone office was established in the R.E. Powell Hardware and Implement Company. In 1936 the Gulf States Telephone Company moved to its new building at 1104 Main Street. In 1911 there were a total of 445 telephones, and by the 1960’s the total was 3630, certainly a considerable amount for a small town.
On July 19, 1883 general telephone offices were established in Austin Texas. About a month later there were 2,344 subscribers statewide: Galveston, the largest exchange, had 330 subscribers; San Antonio, 323 and Fort Worth 168 plus several other cities. In 1884 because of unreliable service, the company introduced women as paid operators instead of boys. These boys were previously given to rude remarks to customers and had erratic work practices that annoyed the telephone customers. The practice of using women as operators was soon established in all exchanges. By 1906 the telephone company reported 102,443 telephones in the state of Texas. By 1955 two million telephones had been installed.
Coryell Museum has a switchboard made by the Kellogg Switchboard and Supply of Chicago. It is similar to the kind that actress Lillie Tomlin would sit and say “One ringhy-dinghy”. It has 36 top plugs and 20 lower plugs and switches in nice wooden cabinet shaped like a small desk. There is also a nice display of a variety of wooden wall phones by Western electric.
A friend of ours remembers his mother being a switchboard operator in 1948 and having the switchboard described above, in their home, located about 10 miles east of Lampasas in Rumley. This was not uncommon in the rural areas and party line service was provided to the community. Our friend remembers she would have a call come in and connect the party by moving plugs on the switchboard. She controlled the ring of shorts or longs to indicate which person on a party line was receiving a call. If she had business in church or in the community she called the Lampasas switchboard and asked them to answer the calls for her. This was one of the first paid jobs for women in their homes. Our friend recalls that his father took care of the phone lines between Lampasas and Rumley. These lines were strung on 10-15 foot cedar posts and he could do most of his work from a ladder.
One of the funniest aspects of telephone usage was on country phones. My aunt and uncle did not get telephone service until about 1966 out on Coryell Creek, and it was a 6 or 8 party line. Everyone’s phone on the same party line would ring, but each home had their specific rings such as two shorts and a long. You soon learned exactly which neighbor was getting a call and many ladies were delighted to listen to their neighbors supposedly private conversations. You had to be very quiet to be undetected. A sneeze, a barking dog or crying child would reveal your sneaky eavesdropping. Sometimes a person would receive a call, and ask everyone else to get off the line and then hear 4-5 phones hang up.
Come to Coryell Museum and see our switchboard and collection of telephones. The Texas State Historical Association online has much more information about the history of telephones in Texas.