Madison Telephone Company, A Vintage Vignette

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Madison Telephone Company
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
December 28, 2009

Alexander Graham Bell's attorney filed a patent application for the telephone on February 14, 1876, beating Elisha Gray's patent caveat application for a similar device by only a few hours. In 1878 lengthy patent litigation by the Bell Telephone Company against the Western Union Telegraph Company and Elisha Gray began. While Gray lost the telephone patent, he gained over seventy patents in his lifetime, founding what became the Western Electric Company, a “great-grandparent” of Lucent Technologies today.

Use of telephones grew rapidly in cities, but rural areas were slow to acquire the technology, due to the need for a large customer base to cover the cost of wires and poles to carry the signals. All calls in the early days were “operator assisted” in making the connection to the right party. In my own case, growing up on a farm roughly 20 miles north of Natchez, Mississippi, our family did not get a telephone until about 1954, a year or so before we got our first television set. I was around ten years old at the time, but I didn't use the new device until I was about fifteen. Even then my usage was quite rare and very brief. In those days, telephones were for adults and not used by children for casual calls. Phone conversations were not about trivial things. They were generally limited to checking on ill relatives or neighbors and coordinating major events of life.

Most rural people who had a phone (not all did) in the mid-fifties were on a “party line”. It had nothing to do with celebrations and enjoyment. It meant that multiple families shared a line, with only one at a time being able to place or receive a call. Each privileged family would have only one phone in the house, usually in the family room or dining room. Most “telephone books” in those days were a sheet of paper on the wall by the phone to list the other parties on the line, along with their ring set. Telephones all had the same ring tone, with no variations other than “long” or “short” rings of a bell. A unique sequence and combination of rings was assigned to each family on the party line, but everyone on the line heard all of the rings for each family. You were supposed to answer only your own code of rings -- like maybe two shorts rings or a long ring plus a short ring, followed by a longer pause before ringing the code again. Of course, “nosy” neighbors would sometimes listen in (or even talk) after waiting for the specified family to answer. (In that sense, maybe there were some verbal “parties” going on.) Some would answer for the other families and offer to deliver messages later, if they thought nobody was at the called home. There were no message recording devices.

Madison got its first telephones around 1919. The Madison Telephone Company's Articles of Incorporation were approved on March 4, 1919. The company was established by James E. Williams with partners D. N. and S. R. Teague. In 1938 Robert Edgar “Pud” True and his wife Gladys McFarlen True purchased the telephone company from Mrs. Woodie Collier Cain in order to provide a job to Pud's aunt Viola from Gurley. Annie Viola (“Vidy”) Styles Keel moved to Madison with her two sons Ralph (“Buddy”) and Percy (“Tootsie”) Keel to become the switchboard operator in the company's office. It was located on the second floor of the Humphrey-Hughes Drug Store at 200 Main Street. Vidy slept on a cot beside the switchboard so that she could answer calls at night.

There were still only two telephones in Madison in 1938. One was in the drugstore, and the other was in the home of the pharmacist, Walton “Doc” Hughes. By 1960 the Madison Telephone Directory consisted of eight total pages, with only two pages of subscriber listings. One page was devoted to instuctions and tips for using the rotary dials as all numbers in the town were put on the “772” prefix.

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