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Johnny Vardeman: Telephones were talk of the town in early days
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You see so many people walking around or sitting, their heads bowed, their eyes staring into their phones. Not just young people, but all ages, seemingly soaking up the latest news, watching some outrageous video or communicating via voice or social media.

It’s hard to imagine a time when plain vanilla telephones were considered luxuries, and not many people had them.

The Gainesville Telephone Co. was organized in 1894, but it would be years before many homes had service. D.E. Evans had the first exchange in the loft of a livery stable on Spring Street. He started with 63 subscribers and strung lines between 125 poles around Gainesville.

In 1899, H.P. Farrow, who for a time was Gainesville postmaster and proprietor of Porter Springs health resort in Lumpkin County, built a telephone line from Gainesville to Dahlonega. Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph, organized in 1879 as Atlanta Telephone Exchange, built a line between Gainesville and Atlanta in 1900.

Meanwhile, little telephone companies were sprouting like daffodils in early spring. Prompted by Western Electric Co., which tried to corner the rural market, groups of investors were hooking up to the Gainesville exchange. “Give the womenfolks on the farm a telephone,” a Western Electric newspaper ad appealed.

Responding, R.I. Holland, Claude R. Thompson and others raised money to put a line from Gainesville to H.R. Kemp’s store in Lumpkin County, serving 20 customers over 20 miles. In January 1910, Oakwood Telephone Co. organized with O.A. Hughes, W.R. Barnwell, John W. Bell, Jim Sheffield, A.M. Light, U.S. O’Dell, W.F. Tumlin and J.A. Lathem as investors.

Also in 1910, several Reeds were involved in a 9-mile line in the Flat Creek area with a dozen subscribers. G.A. Barnwell was the man behind a telephone company bearing his name and running from Shallowford Road to his home, on the way connecting seven customers over seven miles.

Sugar Hill Telephone Co. formed in April 1914, serving south Hall County down Athens Highway, not the Gwinnett County Sugar Hill. The line ran from Gainesville through Tadmore to the Blackstock farm.

Clermont also had its own telephone company. Phone lines also reached Price, Murrayville, White Sulphur, Candler, Klondike, Chestnut Mountain and Flowery Branch.

The Gainesville News observed, “You can hardly go a single road without seeing telephone lines. Hall County should congratulate itself that it has set the pace in the use of the telephone in rural communities.”

Western Electric published a book on how to build rural phone lines and, along with Southern Bell, advertised regularly trying to educate people on how to use their phones. Some users to these new-fangled contraptions apparently didn’t have good manners. Advertisements appealed to customers about telephone etiquette, common courtesy and basics such as how to answer with a simple “hello” and ending a conversation with “goodbye.”

As with anything new, there apparently were considerable inconveniences. Callers would be cut off in the middle of a conversation. Operators might misunderstand numbers and connect callers to the wrong parties, or for whatever technical reason lines became inoperable.

Eventually all the little telephone companies would consolidate into Southern Bell or some other telephone company, such as Standard based in Cornelia. The Gainesville City Council apparently had fielded some complaints from residents who didn’t like intrusive practices of the telephone company. It passed an ordinance prohibiting the company from disconnecting service without proper notice and forbidding workers from entering homes without permission.

In 1914, Gainesville counted 650 subscribers, and 605 rural customers were connected to a telephone exchange. By January 1917, the Bell company was upgrading with a more modern system. It had received approval for an increased rate, 30 to 40 cents for three minutes, plus a dime for each additional minute.

That new revenue would help build a new telephone office to house operators and administrators. That building was located in the block where the former Regions Bank main office was on South Green Street. At that time, a majority of telephone subscribers and the Railroad Commission, predecessor of the Public Service Commission, would have to approve expansion plans.

The News heralded the improvements by praising the phone company for putting its wires underground downtown instead of on poles. The newspaper optimistically predicted the end of all overhead wires.

It’s a good thing that long-ago editor can’t see today’s wire-to-wire landscape.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.