Local History and Genealogy

Saturday, December 11, 2010


   It was in the days when hitching rails encircled the well known square in Angola and horse and buggies transported many of Angola's some 2500 citizens to the popular Croxton Opera House, that the first telephone came to town.

   Although Mr A.G. Bell's "talking box" had been making its debut throughout the United States since 1876, it was in 1895 that the idea of taking two people, two telephones and one line to communicated between homes and towns really sparked the interest of persons living in the area.

   Edsen A. Wilder and Lorenzo Taylor were the first "Mr Telephones" of that era.  Their excitement must have been great that day in the mid 1890's  when a line was extended from Wilder's hardware store in Orland to Taylor's farm home one and one-half miles away so that the two men could talk to each other.

   Not long after the Wilder-Taylor line made its grand entrance into Steuben County, the two men formed a partnership and the Steuben County Electric Telephone Company came into being with Taylor as president and Wilder as secretary-treasurer.  Other persons making up the organization included Floyd Averill, Dr. J.E. Waugh,  Doan Somerlott, Sol A Wood and N.W. Gilbert.

   The telephone exchange office in Angola was located in the Gillis block in the same building where Bassett's Restaurant now operates (across the street west from the courthouse).  Their "night girl" and the "day girl" operators kept the flow of telephone talk running smoothly as possible from their second floor location above Thomas Gillis's grocery store.

   A 45 year telephone career for the late John Carson of Angola began in 1898 when he became the company's chief lineman. John Sutton and George Griffith who both had worked for telephone companies in the east, turned to their hometown of Angola and put their knowledge to work with the local company.  Telephone lines and poles were beginning to become familiar sights in the town and the surrounding area.

   Orville Stevens of the Gooddale Abstract Company reminisces on the two summers he spent, 1902 and 1903, working as a lineman in Angola.  "In those days everyone did everything," he laughed, meaning that the work connected with putting up the telephone lines and poles made a very good day's work with variety-plus for all telephone people. Wages for a "beginner" were about $25 a month or $1 a day.  But, Stevens recalled, it was possible to work up to a "top" wage of $40.00 a month!

   And this money came for the hours he, and undoubtedly others spent in swampy land cutting tamarack trees and preparing them for use as telephone poles - for digging the holes and setting sometimes 35 of them in the 10 to 20 hour working day - stretching the wire over many miles - and, of course, "the trouble-shooting" (trying to find telephone trouble on the lines) sometimes into the darkest hours of the night.

   Even though the "newfangled" type of vehicle four wheels instead of four legs began appearing in Angola in the early 1900, Stevens recalls that the telephone company still relied on its horse and wagon combinations to carry plant equipment from here to everywhere. in the area.

   In 1911, the company bought a two story house on the corner of North Wayne and Gilmore and although it didn't move to that location until several years later, the barn that accompanied the house was used immediately for housing horses, wagons, and equipment.

   Ten o'clock in the evening was "zero" for placing telephone calls, with the exception of emergencies, in teh early days of telephone service.  And the operators were on the job again bright and early when the farmers having telephones began their "wee 'o the mornin' calls!"

   Edson Wilder's son, Harry, became the company's secretary-treasurer in 1904 and later its general manager.  The firm had a healthy and hearty growth during 20 years under his leadership.

   Although the company grew, this does not mean its growth was unrivaled.  From 1906 until 1912, a firm organized and managed by farmers in the area competed with the Steuben county Electric Company for the telephone customers and this competitor. The Farmers' Telephone Company, was well-represented with lines in exchanges throughout the county.

   The two-company competition must have had it humorous episodes-and maybe some annoying ones, too, especially for persons in business who needed both telephones in order to get all the calls from residents.  One of these two-telephone owners, Clinton Ernsberger of Orland, can remember well some of the situations caused by the dual system.  "When both telephones rang at the same time, I'd answer one, tell them to wait just a moment, answer the other, tell them the same thing, and them take care of them both as fast as I could," he says with a laugh.  Apparently he acted as a "middle man." too, between residents who were on one line who wanted to contact undertakers whose telephones were on the "other" company's line. He recalls receiving many such calls and usually during the night.

   In 1912, though, the cost of maintenance and service became to much for the Farmers Company and the investment was turned over to the Steuben County Electric Telephone Company.  And in 1913, this company, with John Carson as its plant manager, changed its name to the Home telephone Company.

   Miss Anna Wert of Angola, began her telephone "tour of duty" as an operator in 1916 with the Home Telephone Company and can remember the days when operators pay averaged $3.20 each week.

   Angola's doctors, lawyers, merchants, and undertakers relied on the telephone operators in those days to keep their patients, clients and customers advised of their location whenever they were going to be "out."  Apparently doubling as secretaries as well as telephone operators was rewarding.  Miss Wert, recalls that when working on holidays the "hello girls" were served meals and other delicacies by various companies and professional people.  "There was no way to tell when people had finished talking," Miss Wert said, "so we would have to monitor the calls in those days."  She added, too, that the job of telephone operators, even though the hours were long, appealed mostly to young girls of high school age.  Women older that 45 were not hired.

   In 1920, the Home Telephone Company was reorganized and became the Steuben County Telephone Company.  Harry Wilder remained it's manager.  And in 1932, another change took place when the Steuben County Company was sold to the Indiana Associated Telephone Company, a part of what is now the General Telephone System.

   A new exchange office was built on the corner of North Wayne and Gilmore and the company moved from the Gillis Block to 201 North Wayne during the following year.  This move also "introduced" more modern telephone equipment to the Angola residents when the very latest common battery manual equipment was installed in the new building.

   One of the Steuben  first owners of the new telephones was Claude Morse, who became bookkeeper of the company in 1922 and in 1929 was names its manager.

   When Indiana Associated took over the company in 1932, the employee who had begun his Angola telephone days "way back in '98" -- John Carson -- was names district manager and held this position until his retirement in 1944.  This district included Fremont, Hamilton, Orland, and Pleasant Lake.
    In 1952, Indiana Associated was renamed General Telephone Company of  Indiana, Inc., and during that year the investment in local telephone plant and equipment was nearly tripled.  Where one "hello girl" operator back in the 1890s handled the telephone traffic, it now took 45 operators and work shifts that included every hour of the 24 - hour day.  And that $3.20-a-week pay for operators and $40-a-month for plant men had increased considerably, for the company's annual payroll amounted to $221,000.
    How times changed from the days when Orville Stevens remembers a solitary telephone line was extended from Angola to his home town of nearby Metz (if Metz could provide it's own telephone poles that is),and
the operators had about 20 or 25 lines to handle calls for!
    The 1960 days in Angola's telephone history are finding progress, as well as history, being made in the exchange,  Dial telephones, and the million and a quarter dollar investment in the Angola area, which makes their arrival possible, will soon enable Angola customers to dial their own calls.
   operators handling calls to locations not accessible as yet to direct distance dialing will "man their posts" at the company's new building on West Broad Street, after the conversion. a far, far, cry from the original "traffic room" on the second floor of the Gillis Building.  Customers are already able to order service and pay their bills at this location, and what a change from the early days when receipts were kept in a cigar box in the Gillis Building office!
   Telephone history is currently being mad every hour in Angola, but certainly a speical "portion of praise" should go to men such as Carson, the WIlders, Morse, and operators Mary Denny Boots and Cora Sickles, among others, who in their time helped build the "foundation" on which General Telephone is building today.

Steuben Republican March 7, 1962