Madison Telephone Company History, A Vintage Vignette

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Madison Telephone Company History
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
June 27, 2010

An undated article written by Cleve Earnest, Public Relations Manager of South Central Bell, states that “Telephone service came to Madison, Alabama in 1910 when D. N. Teague and T. G. Riddle opened the Madison Telephone Company. The exact number of telephones that were in operation when the system was established is not on record. However, it is believed that there were some 35 to 40 phones in service at the time. The magneto (crank telephone) system was the first type of telephone service to be used in Madison. This system remained in operation until 1935. In 1920 the telephone exchange was purchased by J. E. Williams, who operated the company for eight years.” Yet, Madison County Corporation Book 2 on pages 407-409 documents the Articles of Incorporation of the Madison Telephone Company on March 4, 1919, by Madison businessmen James E. Williams, D. N. Teague, and S. R. Teague. Williams held 12 shares of the stock, with the Teagues holding 10 shares each. T. G. Riddle is not mentioned in the Articles of Incorporation of 1919. There is no known record of an earlier incorporation in 1910.

The Bell South article states that “L. E. Collier became the owner of the Madison Telephone Company in 1928 and maintained ownership until 1939.” The notes of Percy Keel, who worked in the telephone office from 1939 into the 1950s, tell that it was Mrs. Woodie Collier Cain who sold the company to Robert E. True in 1939. In the census of 1920 Elizabeth Woodie Pauline Latham Collier was listed as the wife of Eugene J. Collier, whom she married in 1914. In 1930 she was listed as a widow, meaning that Mr. Collier had died before that census was taken and before the telephone company was sold. Woodie L. Collier married J. H. Cain in 1937. Her son Joseph E. Collier was the operator before True bought the company. Percy wrote that when “J. E.” Collier wanted to go out on a date, he would connect the switchboard to the drugstore's phone downstairs. If calls came in, pharmacist Walton “Doc” Hughes would answer, or if he was occupied at the moment, then anyone in the drugstore would take the call. This was the period when the switchboard was located where Percy Keel and his mother and his brother later lived in an apartment on the second floor over the Humphrey-Hughes drugstore. At the time of the sale of the company to True, Percy noted, there were only two phones in town. One was in Doc Hughes' drugstore and the other was in his house. However, there must have been a number of telephones installed soon thereafter, because Percy noted that True's rates were $1.50 per month for a residence and $2.50 for business phones. Pastors, doctors, and school teachers were not charged for anything except their calls. That policy suggests that pastors and such must have also had phones.

Percy's mother Viola Styles Keel was the switchboard operator from 1939 to 1950. In the later years of True's ownership, the switchboard was moved into a small tin-walled building behind the Humphrey-Hughes drugstore. That building had served for a time as the town's post office before the switchboard move. By 1950 True tired of climbing poles and maintaining equipment, so he sold the company for $1000 to John Paul Martin after increasing the number of subscribers to about 70 customers. Martin became president of his own telephone company while also being an employee of Southern Bell for over nine years prior to the purchase. He maintained both occupations, while his wife's parents operated Madison's equipment. Carl James was the installer and repairman, as well as night operator on occasion, whereas his wife was the daytime operator. The old magneto (crank-type) switchboard was used until 1955, when a new common battery system was installed for the 104 telephones in service, still using the manual operator greeting of “Number, please?”. By 1960 the company was sold to Southern Bell by Martin, who was living then in Cullman. In July of that year Bell instituted the dial system with toll-free service to Huntsville.

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