Telephones connected neighbours

It was expensive for government-run telephone companies to connect every homestead, so farmers did it themselves

The next time you slip your cellphone in your pocket and leave for the day, give a nod to your predecessors who worked hard to get any kind of communication to farms.

For the first 100 years or so of settling the West, farmers’ only communication to a neighbour was by sending someone on horseback or walking with a message on paper.

What a gift to now have instant communication, a lifeline in an emergency, and the glue that builds community spirit out of a collection of farms.

Telephone service slowly crept west beginning in Manitoba in the 1800s. Winnipeg, Fort Garry and neighbouring St. Boniface across the river represented the gateway to the West.

A telegraph operator and electrician named Horace McDougall gave Winnipeg its first telephone in 1878. Telephones were so new, they were considered novelties. His forward thinking moved them to a position of serious use. He had his installed in his home and from there to the telegraph office. He charged new subscribers the steep price of $60 a year for installation and service. The phones were primitive, awkward devices that only worked in pairs, each only communicating with one other one. The wish to talk was indicated by tapping the receiver, making a noise at the other end to attract the attention of the person receiving the call.

By 1880, McDougall sold his interests to the new Bell Telephone Company and the next year, the first switchboard arrived, enabling connection of many homes in Winnipeg, now boasting 26 subscribers. Telephone lines were run from roof to roof. Poles weren’t used unless there was a shortage of roofs and each person whose building was used was paid a fee for “roof privileges.”

Each office was called an exchange and over time, the Winnipeg exchange included three switchboards. It only operated during business hours, staffed by boys.

Since the days of Morse code, it was common for boys age 12 to 14 to work in telegraph offices, so it seemed natural to install them in telephone exchanges. They were called telephone men.

However, the different environment caused problems for many of the young men. Telegraph offices were installed in train stations or businesses, where customers and staff milled about.

The new telephone exchanges were located in rooms where the boys worked alone all day, frequently communicating with private homes. During leisure times, the so-called telephone men often became bored and amused themselves by playing pranks on each other, as well as on their customers. Sometimes this led to shouted arguments over the lines, which were heard out on the streets, and ended in challenges to “come up and fight like a man.”

That led to the hiring of women. The “voice with a smile” created a new culture of emotional attachment for customers. Some subscribers refused to deal with any but their own operators and sent them flowers or candy at Christmas or for a special service, such as waking them in the morning.

In the days before radio, operators supplied information such as weather, the time, hockey scores, and important news. The lines were flooded with anxious inquiries during Sir John A. MacDonald’s illness and death.

The British television series Home Fires also shows an operator performing her duties on the switchboard. The switchboard on this series is in its own office, but in small villages across the Canadian Prairies, an operator frequently worked at home with the switchboard installed on an outside wall.

At Marwayne, Alta., in the 1950s, the switchboard was situated in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, who shared the job. I remember as a child going with my mother to drop something off and seeing Mrs. Lucas sitting at the switchboard wearing her earphones and mouthpiece. She turned to talk to my mother but soon was interrupted to answer a call.

One operator on the Home Fires series also demonstrates how they could listen in on a conversation unbeknownst to the callers. We like to think that most operators were scrupulous and they were in fact, trained to respect a caller’s privacy. However, across the Prairies, some bored housewives also learned the art of rubbernecking, or listening in on a neighbour’s conversation. It was a hazard of party lines. Only those connected on the same line could rubberneck.

Canadian Bell’s patent expired in 1883, leaving open a chance for other companies to move in. The result was chaos. When a company moved into a community already serviced, residents had to own as many phones as there were companies. Competition provoked destructive activities, such as the linemen of one company knocking down lines or chopping down the poles of a rival.

The high fees charged by Bell, as well as inconsistent service and complaints from customers, resulted in the idea of publicly owned telephone service. Legislation was enacted in 1906, 1907 and 1908.

Government-owned telephone service solved one problem but not all. The Prairies’ open spaces with sparse population made it expensive for governments to run wire out to every farm and they were reluctant to do so.

Homesteaders realized if they were going to connect with each other, they had to do it themselves. As the newly invented barbed-wire fences snaked across the Prairies, a second use was discovered. It was found that the steel wire would transmit telephone signals.

With phones bought from the Sears catalogue and smooth wire connecting the house to the fence, party lines were created among neighbours or in some cases, the switchboard.

As with regular party lines, all phones on the line would ring simultaneously when a call was made, regardless of who was receiving it. Code rings such as three short rings for one home, one short and one long for another, and two shorts and a long for third, were agreed upon. This connecting of distant neighbours changed the nature of life on the Prairies. It saved lives in an emergency and in general made life simpler. It became easier to ask a neighbour for a favour when they went to town and also provided relief from the isolation and depression that sometimes resulted from living in sparsely populated areas.

However, the fence phone wasn’t without problems. The signal would be disconnected if grounded by a wet stalk of grass touching it or if a bull rubbed against it. During a lightning storm, the phones would jingle constantly. As well, lightning was occasionally reported to shoot out from the phone and across the room.

A benefit of a party line before the age of radios was its ability to respond quickly in emergencies or community gatherings. Entire lines of people could be informed of a fire or of a social event with one long ring signaling a call for everyone.

In the 1930s, governments gave farmers the option to form their own phone companies. Each area formed a company when they felt ready to take on the responsibility and expense.

One example, the Marwayne Mutual Telephone Company, was first formed in 1934 at a meeting on a farm outside Marwayne. It bought Circuit Number 1 Rural Line from Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) at the cost of $324.30, which included 17 poles.

Over the next three years, two other areas, including the hamlet of Marwayne and one other circuit, joined the company so by 1945, Marwayne Mutual had become large enough for its own central office. This is the typical story of early rural telephone service on the Prairies.

The invention of dial phones and direct distance dialing eliminated the need for switchboards but some operators were kept on to assist customers.

Underground lines appeared in the 1960s on the Prairies. AGT took over all telephone service in Alberta and began installing underground lines in 1967.

In 1989, the first cellphones arrived, enabling people to connect with other people instead of locations. We may always have problems with our cellphone service, but it’s come a long way from the days of delivering a note by horseback.

About the author


Stories from our other publications