Our Telephone Heritage

By Bill Schuette

      Today we have cellular and smart phones, private lines and touch tone telephones.  We can communicate almost instantaneously with anyone in the world by simply pushing a few buttons.

Baraboo Operators ca. 1916

Baraboo Operators ca. 1916

      But before Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 invention, the fastest means of communication was the telegraph, and the telegrapher still had to locate and hand-deliver the message to its recipient.  Mr. Bell's device, however, allowed people to communicate one on one with no long delays between sending a message and receiving an answer.

      In 1887, Dr. F. D. Hulburt installed the first telephone in the city of Reedsburg. Shortly thereafter, another 25 astute businessmen connected to the same phone line. 

      Dr. C. A. Rood, in 1896, had installed a line from his office to Mr. Young’s drug store. A news article of the day reported that “it talks like a thing of life!” Another item noted that through his perseverance, Dr. Rood was attempting to impress upon the citizens of Reedsburg, the benefits of a telephone exchange. A phone had been installed at the depot and the writer noted that “...the more [that] are put in the more demand for them...seems certain the switchboard will soon need to be enlarged, and then will come connection with Baraboo, Madison, and the rest of the world.”

      As Reedsburg grew, more businessmen, and private individuals too, came to realize the necessity of instantaneous communication, and the convenience it offered.

      In June of 1896, a new hundred-drop switchboard was installed to accommodate the growing numbers of telephone subscribers. A toll line had recently been run from Baraboo, through North Freedom, Rock Springs and on to Reedsburg, to connect these outlying communities.

      Ed and William Stolte installed a switchboard at their hotel in 1898 and formed the Reedsburg Telephone Company.

      Before the 1920s, if you wanted to call someone else, you had to go through a switchboard and an “operator” would connect the call for you. Each party had a “jack” on the board, and when someone called the operator, a little metal flap dropped down above the jack. The operator would place a metal tipped cord into the jack and answer your call. She—they were usually young ladies—would then place another cord into the jack of the party you wished to call and ring them up. If they answered, the two jacks would be interconnected.

      The telephone was still a luxury during the early 1900s and only large businesses and doctors could afford them. 

      As the century matured, lines were strung throughout the state and then into rural communities. The party line allowed more than one person to share a line thereby negating the necessity of stringing private lines to each residence.

      However, by the early 1930s, the Depression undid much of the progress that had been made, as subscribers dropped their phone service. Less than a third of American homes had telephones by 1933.

            It seems normal today, to initiate a phone conversation by saying, “Hello”. But in 1910, Bell’s Telephone Engineer magazine decried the use of that undignified greeting. The article went on to say, "Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out ‘Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?’ No, one should open conversations with phrases such as ‘Mr. Wood, of Curtis and Sons, wishes to talk with Mr. White...’ without any unnecessary and undignified ‘Hellos’”. The company ultimately relented and dubbed their operators “Hello Girls”.

Reedsburg Operators ca. 1940s

Reedsburg Operators ca. 1940s

            Eventually, the telephone became a necessity, much as electricity did by the late1930s. Friends and neighbors could communicate by simply turning a little crank on the side of that marvelous wooden box, and speaking into the mouthpiece. To call up another party on your line, you had to consult the phone book for their “ring”. A small crank was connected to a generator inside each phone box, and when turned, it sent out a low pulsating voltage which rang your party’s phone.  Each subscriber had his/her own special “ring”.  For instance, one party might be alerted by a long ring and two short rings.  Or someone else might answer to three shorts and two longs.  Of course, all phones on a party line—six to eight—rang when someone wanted to contact another party.  It was not nice to listen in on the conversations of others, however it was a pastime which most could not resist.  These listeners were dubbed “rubbernecks”, and it wasn't long before everyone knew everyone else's business.  There were no secrets on party lines.

      A poem, entitled “The Rural Telephone” published in the Reedsburg Free Press in 1903, elucidates some of the pitfalls that might arise when one lifted that receiver and dared to listen in.


Neighbors not far from here,

      Put in telephones last year;

Farmers all "talked up" fine,

      And were heard along the line.


All you had to do was ring,

      Every bell went ting-a-ling;

One for Sampson, two for Boggs,

      Long and short call for old Scroggs.


Every neighbor has his call,

      Twist the crank and that was all.

Mighty nice when work was through,

      To gossip for an hour or two.


With your neighbors, one by one;

      Mighty nice but lots of fun.

To hear some other two

      Telling what was not for you.


Every time the signal rang,

      To the phone each farmer sprang.

Slyly grinned and softly took,

      The receiver from the hook.


Other people's secrets dear

      Poured into his large red ear;

Slapped his leg and said, "I swan,

      Telephonin's lots of fun."


Somehow in a week or two,

      Troubles then began to brew;

Farmer Jones got fighting hot,

      Heard Scroggs calling him a sot.


Farmer Scroggs got angry too,

      Heard Smith telling what he knew;

Smith heard Johnson telling lies;

      Paid him off with two black eyes.


Johnson heard young Isaac Boggs,

      Underbid him on his hogs;

Boggs overheard a sneaking churl;

      Talking love to his best girl.


Women, too, were in the muss,

      Every one from Scroggs to Jones.

In glass houses throwing stones.

      Now the line has silent grown,

Wires rusted, poles o'er thrown.


      Twenty friends were deadly foes,

Each one full of grief and woes.

      Each too mad to speak a word,

'Cause of things they overheard.