Early Telephones

~by Julia Pearson

In 1929, there were three telephone offices in Brown County: Nashville, Belmont, and an office in New Bellsville. In early spring that year, Monte and Martha Weddle moved to the Nashville telephone office with their six-month-old son, Jack, where Martha was replacing Mrs. Clyde McDonald as operator. It was located on West Main Street between the bank and Miller’s Drug Store on the corner—now the Hob Nob Restaurant. The “business” part of the new home was the telephone office with one switchboard in the front room. A boardwalk on the east side of the building led to a booth holding a phone, which could be used when the office closed after 5 pm. For a monthly salary of $30 and housing—which included lights and wood, Martha was on duty seven days a week. She sent and received all telegrams, collected payment for all phone bills, and received all trouble calls
The domestic arrangements provided a living room with wood stove and bed for the Weddles behind the office. Next to that was a kitchen, with a privy outside behind the woodshed. Nashville had no running water in homes at that time, so Martha or Monte carried water from pumps at the courthouse or the Village Green for all their personal washing, cooking, and laundry needs. Help was hired at the phone office for 10 cents an hour when Martha needed to be away.

All long distance calls went through Morgantown, and then were completed in Martinsville, which was Nashville’s “toll center.” There were two lines to Morgantown and one to Martinsville. Morgantown, Nashville, and Martinsville used the same line for long-distance calls to and from Martinsville. It was not uncommon for calls to take one or two hours to be completed. This required the Martinsville operator to keep the party being called on the line until she could get the line to Morgantown and then to Nashville. The two lines between Morgantown and Nashville were also used for local calls.

There was an unwritten rule that people only use their phones for emergencies after 9 p.m. in the wintertime. But farmers would start their calls as early as 5 a.m. if butchering was to be done. It allowed time for those helping with this cold weather chore to get fires burning and water sufficiently heated.

The summertime found farmers starting their phone calls at 4 a.m. to arrange trips to Indianapolis markets for their hogs, eggs, and produce.

There were often fifteen telephones on one line. Each party was assigned a special ring. A night bell could be turned on if the operator left the switchboard for a short time. Most calls came in the early morning or early evening. Private lines were few in number and were in businesses and doctors’ homes.

Sometimes telegrams were received for individuals having no phones. The operator would have to locate where the person lived, and then arrange for the message to be delivered. The telegraph company would provide payment for the delivery, anywhere from 25 cents to a dollar.

Jo and Amelia DeWees moved to Brown County and settled east of Gnaw Bone in 1947 and found phone service was not available in their area. When they were unable to interest the Bell Telephone Company office in Columbus to provide service, and a committee of several neighbors joining them still brought no action, Joe obtained some army field telephones and wire. He proceeded to string the wire through trees and vegetation from the DeWees residence to Fort Joseph Koons, an interior decorator business a quarter mile away. A third hook-up was at the Albert Kemp house on the next hill west. When Joe died on January 15, 2012 at the Brown County Health and Living Community, he was over a hundred years old. What an amazing leap from his self-made three-way wiring to the mobile smart phones in pockets of those attending his funeral.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was the first to be granted a patent in the United States for a device that clearly replicated the human voice. Others further developed this device, making it the historically first instrument that made it possible for people to talk directly with each other across large distances. If Joe DeWees and Bell run into each other at the Pearly Gates, what would their reaction be looking down on the wire-less phone towers dotting the American countryside today?