SUNNY CAL JOURNAL - Crank'em Up Phones Were "High Tech"

(08/02/2017)

By Bob Weaver

We've been thinking about Calhoun's early phone systems. Crank'em up phones hooked to single "grapevine" wires strung through the woods and tacked to the trees and poles.

Customers were connected by "switch operators" who answered the calls in their living rooms, except in Grantsville where they had an official office.

Former Grantsville resident David Hathaway said he recalls the Citizens Telephone Company. "A man named Charley Shanks was responsible for keeping the lines up and the system working. The 'central' operator was Lida Hayhurst and the switchboard was located under the Calhoun County Bank," he said.

Later it was moved to the upstairs of the Terminal Restaurant and Bus Station, located behind the Calhoun courthouse.

Hathaway's grandfather, W.T.W. Dye, MD,, was an early subscriber but he didn't move from Tanner to Grantsville until about 1890. Hathaway still has his Western Electric wall telephone with its original parts and finish.

"It hangs on the wall in my basement and is hooked to the local telephone grid. The bells ring when it is cranked but, of course, that circuit is isolated from the lines. Numbers can be 'dialed' by clicking the receiver hook the proper number of times to match the numbers," he said.

Batteries and parts for these telephones are available, because this style of telephone is still used in small mining operations.

Al Ball of Greenwood, Indiana, formerly of Barnes Run, a suburb of Hur, wrote to say everyone was on a party line, often 15 to 20 subscribers. "Our number was two longs and a short, made possible by the cranking of the phone. One long connected us to the Hur switchboard operator," he said.

The party lines were "community oriented," a more correct term than gossiping neighbors who liked to "eaves drop," a phrase meaning to listen in on what others were saying. Ball said it was common."There weren't a lot of secrets in those days."

At Hur we had an "eaves drop switch" which disconnected the battery, saving power. Then you could listen all you wanted, and they couldn't tell you were on the line.

Ball recalled that the end of phone wire was bent into the shape of a large fishhook. "Whenever a thunderstorm threatened, we would unhook the line and throw it out into the yard. After the storm passed, the hook was reattached to the large loop in the wire that connected to the phone in the house," Ball said.

If you failed to un-hook the phone from the line, lightning would strike, bells would ring and fireballs would fly from the device.

In the dry summer, it would be necessary to pour water around the phone's ground pipe, to talk a little better.

Ball said "Down on Barnes Run, whenever anyone spotted a rabid dog (we called it a mad dog) traveling on the road, they would phone everyone in the community, advising them to stay off the road. With such a warning, an occasional brave man would grab a rifle or shotgun and head for the road in hopes of eliminating the menace."

He said whenever gypsies were spotted traveling by foot on the road, the phones rang like crazy, warning everyone to get into their house and lock the doors after securing farm lot buildings and gates.

It was common for gypsies to travel from Grantsville to Spencer via Mt. Zion, Barnes Run down to the West Fork to Rocksdale and then out the ridge to Spencer.

Gladys Stump told of the Citizen's Phone Company being located on a second floor near the old Terminal Restaurant. The single telephone operator had a pretty good view toward Main Street and could glance up High Street if need be. The Stump's had a service station across the street and the family lived upstairs.

She said her son Charles Albert called home from the Navy at the end of World War II. The operator said "There's no need to ring her because her lights are out. She went down to the A & P to get some things before she goes to choir practice." The long distance operator on the other end said "Well, OK!"

Telephone companies in Calhoun sprung up early after Bell's invention in 1876, at least for a rural area like Calhoun. A photo of Main Street Grantsville shows phone or telegraph lines in the 1880's and accounts say a telephone line ran into Calhoun in 1882, a system operated by a Pittsburgh company. The first telephone in Grantsville was placed in the J. W. Pell Store.

Grantsville and all the independent companies were originally one-wire, crank phone systems. The Grantsville system updated to a two-wire system that did not carry a noisy hum, a buzz known well to rural phone subscribers.

A few oil and gas companies operated private telegraph systems in the county. An early telegraph post was operated at Freed by W. Hall in 1890 and others were maintained at Chloe, Millstone and Letherbark.

The Auditor's Office of the State of West Virginia wrote County Clerk S. W. McClung in 1906 requesting the names and addresses of the parties hooked to the following phone systems: Arnoldsburg and Doddrell Telephone Company, Staten and Doddrell Telephone Company, George Griffin, Jr. Telephone Company, S. J. Wayne Telephone Company, Dr. Lowe and Ralph Bennett Telephone Company and Farmer's Telephone Company.

The Hur Company operated from about 1900 to about 1963, and was the largest exchange beside Grantsville. Wires were strung to Richardson, Egypt Ridge (Roane Co.), Rocksdale, Altizer, Barnes Run, Rowels Run, Cremo, Creston, Joker and Annamoriah.

Hur subscribers were asked to attend a quarterly telephone meeting and pay their "dues." In my youth, the quarterly payment was $3 to $6, but subscribers were expected to keep up the lines and walk the trunk line to Grantsville when a tree broke the wire.

The single-wire "trunk line" was Hur's connection to the Grantsville switch and the outside world.

Through many of those years, Hur businessman and politician Will Sturm operated the switch office using his daughters. Leona Sturm, Will's daughter-in-law was the faithful operator during the 30s and 40s. Eulah Smith Parker, daughter of Ruby and Lona Roberts Smith, had a turn in the early 50s, but long after Uncle Will had died, his elderly daughter Lona Sturm Starcher was at the post when the old crank system saw its last hurrah in 1963.

It was big time!

Calhoun then went to straight to dial in the early 1950s, mostly to ten-party lines, unless you could afford a costly private line.


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