Imagine not being able to make a phone call because your neighbor is out feeding her chickens or chopping wood. Welcome to rural Sonoma County – or pretty much anywhere else in rural America – during the first years of the 20th century.
A reoccurring theme here has been describing how modern Santa Rosa began to appear in 1910 and 1911, as seen through its newspapers. There were several auto dealerships downtown showcasing next year’s models, and at least a portion of downtown was as brightly lit after dark as any big city; the Columbia Theater on the corner of B and Third had a big marquee dazzling with light bulbs “so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction,” according to the Press Democrat. Santa Rosa merchants began running ads in both local papers promoting the latest conveniences (hot water heaters in bathrooms, electric washing machines and gas stoves, for ex) as well as coveted high-tech gadgets (Edison phonographs and Kodak cameras).
But it was a different world for their country cousins. There was no coal gas service outside of town, so the kitchen range was fired by oil or wood and the stove also had to heat water for a hot bath. Unless the farm was on a major road there probably was no electricity either, so the house was lit at night by kerosene lanterns and lamps and dirty clothes were scrubbed by hand.
Far worse than the lack of conveniences could be the sense of isolation on the farm, particularly during rainy, cold winters. Trips to town were no impetuous thing when it involved harnessing up the ol’ grey mare for a slow buggy ride, and when mr. farmer arrived in the city it was difficult to find a place to leave the buggy; the hitching posts around Courthouse Square had been removed to accomodate parking. The farm family could try to stay in touch with the community and world by subscribing to the Press Democrat but there was no home delivery in the country; three days’ editions arrived twice a week by mail, rolled up in a brown paper wrapper. Too bad you missed your friend’s funeral.
For these outlying country people, having a telephone was a necessity – but the phone companies only served urban areas, so anyone outside of city limits was out of luck. Thus was born the wild ‘n’ wooly world of the tiny rural telephone companies.
Here’s how it usually worked: An enterprising farmer or a group formed a business which contracted with the local phone company to connect (for Santa Rosa it was first Sunset then Pacific Telephone & Telegraph, called hereafter just PT&T – see sidebar). The farmer then built a little network, and here “build” is meant in the most literal sense; he put up his own telephone poles, strung the wires and climbed the poles again when something went haywire. From the phone company office the line usually went directly to his home where it was attached to something like the 1910 switchboard shown at right, which could serve up to twenty lines fanning out to customer’s homes. A small system like this probably only operated between dawn and dusk, or whenever the farmer or another family member was around; larger switchboards that handled 50 or more lines came equipped with night buzzers to wake somebody up. To have the service a neighbor generally paid $12-30 a year plus up to 10¢ per call, out of which PT&T took a nickel.
There is no known list of the “independent” companies (as they were called) that offered rural service around central Sonoma County, but its a safe bet that there were dozens. Here are some names: Russian River Light & Power, the Sonoma Valley Co., the Valley Telephone Co., the Cotati Co., the Mark West and Santa Rosa Telephone Co. (which went as far west as Mt. Olivet, currently the intersection of River Road and Olivet Road) and the Kenwood Rural Telephone Co. Some were not even named, such as the one that served Fulton. The biggest and best known was the Guglielmetti Telephone Company of Petaluma, which reportedly had nearly a thousand customers.
Also unknown is how many of these operations were run in a businesslike manner or were more of a break-even hobby. We know they could be very territorial; Guglielmetti filed a complaint in 1912 against Chileno Valley Telephone Company for encroaching on Chapman Lane with its very few residences. The Chileno Valley company also got in trouble for offering a five year contract with an up-front payment of $25, which would have been significantly below actual cost. But truth is, almost all of these independents were borderline legal, in that only Guglielmetti and a couple of others were properly registered with the state of California.
The people who built and operated those small independent telephone systems had more than a little in common with today’s computer hackers. They loved the tech of it; there were magazines breathlessly reviewing the latest equipment and offering anecdotes and photos from readers, expert tips, and emotional editorial essays barking or sighing over small matters. In short, they had the same passions as Apple or PC fanboys demonstrate today.
And just as Internet users can be heard speaking with contempt about the cable companies that provide their network connectivity, the independents regarded with fear and loathing the telephone companies upon which they likewise depended. They had reason to worry; after all, the phone company could put independents out of business overnight by expanding its service area outside the cities, which was something bound to happen eventually. But that was more of an existential threat; what really had the independents upset was the possibility of the phone company shutting down their sole equipment provider.
Independents purchased most of their gear from a company named Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company. Kellogg stores sold everything they needed and provided instructions on how to put it all together – they even had the sort of crookneck electric lamp that was the perfect size to perch above your switchboard. In a pair of large display ads that appeared in the 1911 Press Democrat (shown below) Kellogg didn’t so much promote their brand as the wonderfulness of having a phone at all, which would be so very simple to set up, guided by their friendly illustrated booklets. It would not be too much of a stretch to call it a kind of Apple Computer for its day.
But in 1903, Western Electric – the hardware side of AT&T – quietly arranged to buy controlling interest in Kellogg. Once this became known, rumors began flying – either it was a conspiracy to shut down Kellogg and create a monopoly, or maybe Kellogg was in cahoots with the phone company to screw over the independents by price-fixing. Telephone Magazine offered a cartoon showing Mr. Kellogg holding down “the Kellogg customer” while the “Bell Company” roots through his pockets for change. In the same issue, an editorial hysterically called AT&T the “arch enemy” and insisted “buying of the Kellogg company is treason; it is furnishing ammunition and sympathy to the enemy in time of war.” Kellogg’s reputation was redeemed because minority stockholders sued to block the deal, but the lawsuit rumbled through the courts until the sale was finally prevented in 1909, causing five years of anger and turmoil in the little industry.
Even if the Kellogg stock battle hadn’t happened, the independents had reason enough to despise the phone company for how they were treated. In 1907 Santa Rosa, customers paid $21 a year to share a two-party line; although PT&T did no maintenance on the “farmer lines” or had other expense (aside from the few seconds needed for the operator at the central exchange to connect callers), the company charged the independents high per-user rates which meant rural customers paid about the same as city dwellers – except the country people had to share the line with twenty others, or however many were hooked to that independent switchboard. And even if you had a telephone in your farmhouse, you couldn’t make a long distance call; a farmer on Todd Road, for example, still had to go into Santa Rosa to call someone in Petaluma. There apparently was no technical obstacle preventing the call being made from an independent line; as part of the deal to settle the government anti-trust suit in 1913, the Bell System dropped the rule preventing long distance. It looks like they restricted the service simply because they could.
Independent operators were also required to collect PT&T’s 5¢ per-call fee. An internal company newsletter, Pacific Telephone Magazine from the years 1907-1909 shows the company often suggested better ways for them to pry those nickels loose from their neighbors. It urged independents to require a deposit from each subscriber, but no advice on how to handle any uncomfortable situation that might arise from demanding payment in advance – which a tight-fisted farmer might regard as an interest-free loan. But that’s a common refrain in the newsletter; any person or business with PT&T service was expected to have foremost consideration for the company’s wants. Drug stores were singled out as being particularly bad actors for letting just anyone walk in and use their phone free of charge. In a particularly rancid screed, the editor argued people with a telephone shouldn’t let others use it unless they could first verify the person was also a bonafide PT&T customer.
Sometime around WWI Pacific Telephone & Telegraph finally began adding more rural service, which was the death knell for some. That followed the 1911 purchase by California Telephone & Light Co. of the Healdsburg Telephone Co. and several other local independents. The longest to survive was rural Petaluma’s Guglielmetti Telephone Company, which was around until 1949.
A final word of caveat lector; there is no previous research into this topic – at least, that I can find. A few books have sketched a bit about the Kellogg suit and the overall independent history but no local historian has touched the topic; there’s lots available on the Sonoma County phone scene from about WWII onwards, but no mention of these interesting early days. There are not even any surviving regional telephone books prior to 1928. This article has been cobbled together primarily from old State Board of Equalization reports, legal notices, trade magazines and materials placed online by telephone equipment collectors. If anyone has more, I’d love to know.
Although there are no surviving early regional telephone books, some kind soul has made available the complete 1898 directory for the greater Bay Area. the section for Santa Rosa shows only 26 residences in town had telephones. Followers of this Comstock House blog will not be surprised to learn that one of those lines went to the home at 431 Tenth street owned by James Wyatt Oates, the man who loved having the latest technology and had to be in the center of everything.