BEFORE MAW BELL - RURAL TELEPHONE
SYSTEMS IN THE WEST
C. F. Eckhardt
Graham Bell's patent expired in the 1890s, and as soon as it
did anyone could legally manufacture and sell a telephone.
Almost instantly both Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward
began offering telephone sets in their catalogs. Just
because you bought a telephone from Sears 'n' Roebuck or
Monkey Ward didn't mean you could use the thing. It had to
be hooked up, some way, to other telephones. That meant wire
had to be strung between houses that had telephones.
Across much of the west, to the west of old US 81 (present
I-35) in Texas--and not a small part of it east of that
demarcation--there was already a network of wire covering
most of the country, in the form of barbed-wire fences. Some
unknown genius discovered that if you hooked two Sears or
Monkey Ward telephone sets to the top wire on a barbed-wire
fence, you could talk between the telephones as easily as
between two "town" telephones connected by slick wire
through an operator's switchboard. A rural telephone system
that had no operators, no bills--and no long-distance
Most ranch perimeter fences joined at corners, and in most
cases the top wires touched each other or were even
interwoven for strength. Where it became necessary for a
telephone system to cross a road, all that was required was
two posts about 15 feet long, buried about 3 feet into the
ground for stability, and enough wire to go from one top
fence wire up to the top of the post, across the road, and
down the other post to the top fence wire on the other side.
It doesn't rain very often in the country west of I-35 and
east of the Sierras in California, but when it rains, it
RAINS! There's an old story about a Texas Panhandle county
judge who called the Governor's drought-relief office in
Austin to see when his county could expect drought-relief
money, since it hadn't rained a drop in 8 months. "Your
county's not eligible for drought relief," the Austin
bureaucrat said. "You've had 14 inches of rain so far this
"Yep," the judge agreed. "Sure did. I was here the night it
Rain--and large bulls with raging hormones--were the nemeses
of fence line telephone systems. A break in a fence caused
by a bull with a high threshold of pain and an intense
desire to make the acquaintance of heifers in the next
pasture could be quickly repaired when discovered. When a
gullywasher thunderstorm soaked both the ground and the
fence posts, it grounded the entire system and rendered it
unusable until the posts dried out.
That problem, though, was--as it turned out--easily solved.
Before Prohibition came in 1919 every town had at least one
saloon and most had several. Saloons discarded bottles--beer
bottles, whiskey bottles, wine bottles. You name it, if it
came in a bottle and could be consumed for pleasure, saloons
stocked it and, when the bottles were empty, discarded them.
Glass is one of the best electrical insulators there is.
Bottles were collected from behind the saloons, the necks
were broken off, wooden pegs were whittled to fit into the
broken bottlenecks, holes were drilled in the pegs, and the
"glass insulators" were nailed to fence posts. Wire could
then be strung along the insulators--either double-strand
barbed wire, of which ranches had plenty, or single-strand
"slick" wire like "town" telephones used. The wire was
either wrapped around the insulator or tied to it with that
old ranch-country standby, baling wire.
Anybody could hook into the system. All it required was the
purchase of a telephone set from a mail-order house and
stringing a strand of wire from the house to the nearest
fence connected to a property-line fence. However, the
system had some drawbacks. Since there was no central
operator, there was no way to direct calls. With twenty or
more ranches hooked into what was essentially a party line,
a system of "rings"--distinctive ringing patterns made by
turning the crank on the side of the telephone set--had to be
agreed on. Most systems agreed on "one long"--a single long
ring made by turning the crank rapidly five or six times--as
a "line call." A "line call" denoted an emergency. Everyone
picked up the telephone to hear what was wrong. Otherwise,
each ranch had a distinctive signal, a combination of long
and short rings, to indicate an incoming call. Since all
telephones rang when a call was made, it was considered
impolite to answer another's ring unless one happened to
know that the party being called wasn't available. However,
"listening in" became a prime rural pastime, and it was
unwise to discuss anything intimate on the telephone.
The system was completely independent. While you could call
a ranch twenty miles north of town from a ranch twenty miles
south of town, you couldn't call "town." The town's
telephone system didn't hook into the fence line system. If,
for example, you needed the sheriff, you had to call the
ranch closest to town that also hooked into the town's
system, and have your message relayed.
As telephone systems in small towns expanded they took in
the ranches nearest the towns. However, if you lived forty
miles from town you could have a very long wait before the
"telephone company" built a line to your front gate. Even
after it did, if your house was several miles from the front
gate--not an uncommon situation in much of the West--you had
to build, or pay the "telephone company" to build, a line
from their roadside wire to your house.
As a result, a number of "fence-line systems" became, in
effect, telephone cooperatives. They put in a switchboard at
a location close to town and paid the ranch wife who
operated it a small monthly cash salary to run the thing.
That switchboard would be able, through the "town" telephone
in the house, to hook the fence-line system into the town
system. It still had a disadvantage, though. Most ranch
families went to bed early, so the switchboard usually shut
down about 9 PM and didn't reopen until about half past 5
the next morning. It was nearly always shut down until 2 or
3 PM on Sunday so the family could go to church. Quite often
it also shut down on Saturday night if there was a dance in
Some of those systems were still in operation in rural Texas
in the 1970s. When I lived in the Dallas area and my parents
lived in Liberty Hill, north and west of Austin, trying to
call my folks was an adventure. Their telephone number was
37 outside the system, "three longs and a short" inside the
system. Operators in Dallas, accustomed to putting through
international calls on a daily basis, were completely
baffled by a 2-digit telephone number, and telling them
"three longs and a short" confused them even more. I would
call a Dallas operator and tell her I was calling Liberty
Hill, Texas. "Where is Liberty Hill, sir?" she'd ask.
"In Williamson County, about 35 miles north and a little
west of Austin."
"That's in area code 512, sir. You can dial that number
"No, I can't," I'd have to say. "Believe me, I can't. I go
through this regularly."
"Very well, sir. What is the number?"
"The number is 37."
"Sir, that's not a telephone number."
"It is in Liberty Hill. You'll have to contact an operator
in Austin. She'll help you get the call through." Eventually
the Dallas operator would contact an Austin operator, who
would tell her how to put the call through and I'd get to
talk to my parents--with half the town listening in.
That was not half the fun, though, that putting in a call to
my father's cousins in Briggs from Austin was. Briggs, a
tiny, unincorporated community in Lampasas County, still had
the remnants of what had been a fence line telephone system.
Briggs' main street was just long enough that you couldn't
quite throw a rock from one end of town to the other, though
you could come close. On the west side of the main--and only
paved- -street there was a small, white frame house with a
huge number of telephone lines entering through a
south-facing window in the front room. This was the
telephone office, where Sarah, the telephone operator, both
lived and worked. (It's gone now, incidentally--along with
most of Brigg' downtown.)
All calls to Brigg went through Sarah. I can still remember
Sarah's distinctive, somewhat nasal voice: "That you, Fred?
Thought 'twas. You're might near the only one ever calls
Sherman from Austin. They ain't home right now, but--no, wait
a minute. That's Sherman's pickup, just pulled up in front
of the domino hall. I'll ring him down there for you." And
all the while the Austin operator would be tearing her hair
out trying to decide if the call should be billed
station-to-station as originally placed, or person-to-person
since Sarah was ringing down to the domino hall to contact