In 1881, people in the City of Xenia had an opportunity to own and use a telephone when the first telephone company opened. The notable part of this event was that the telephone had only been invented about five years previously, so Xenia was a fore-runner in the communication business.
The Xenia Telephone Company opened for business in a room over the Fleming Hardware Store on Public Square. Only a few people were needed to install and repair phones and a limited number of operators was required to maintain the switchboard.
The first switchboard was about the size of a modern filing cabinet and could accommodate about 200 customers, although there not that many at first.
Some businesses were interested in having the service. One of the first to utilize the new service was E.J. Forsythe who owned a lumber yard. Soon there were about 15 subscribers. The main problem was when those businesses who had phones were answering for those who had not yet subscribed.
In 1880, just before phone service began in Xenia, the following was published by J.R. Holcomb & Co – “A telephone line may be made perfectly safe from the effects of electricity during thunder storms by properly attaching two ground wires or lightening arresters – one at each end of the line. Dig a hole three feet deep in the moist earth; throw in a few scraps of old iron letting a wire run among the same. Then fill up the hold and attach the branch wire to the main line ear the telephone, just outside the building, letting it hang from the same with as little tension as possible. . . ”
At first, young boys were hired as operators, but being boys, they had a tendency to irritate and now and then even curse the customers, so young women were hired instead. It was considered that young women would be more courteous in their dealings.
In 1882, the residents and local business folks were delighted when long distance service was implemented in 1882. Customers were then able to call Dayton, Springfield and Lebanon. At that time, there were several different long distance companies in operation.
Telephone service must have been well received in the city because in 1883, cable replaced the wires which had been attached to trees and house tops. More and more folks were interesting in being able to utilize the new device.
For many years, there was no dial on the telephone as there was no deed. One only had to pick up the receiver and wait until you heard the familiar “number please” from the operator. The call was connected from the main switchboard at the telephone office. Some folks may remember the tall black phone with the receiver hooked on the side.
The personal service ceased in 1952 when residents were able to make their own local calls without operator assistance. Then in 1964, most long distance calls were also made without assistance from an operator.
In the earlier days, phones were attached to the wall in a wooden box. In order to get the attention of the operator, the phone had to be cranked. Party lines were the norm as well. In order to use the phone, one had to pick up the receiver and be sure no one was talking on the line before ringing the operator. One could not very well plan a surprise party, since many of the other party-line folks listened in to all calls. There was no privacy on the party line.
Securing phone service was not always easy. One rural prospective customer was told he could have telephone service if he would set the poles himself, which he did.
By 1905, telephone companies began placing cable underground.
In 1981, telephone service had been in Xenia for 100 years. Ohio Bell was promising such new features as Call Forwarding, Call Waiting, Speed Calling and Three-Way Calling all of which would be in place by 1983. The local office employed fifty-eight people at that time. Ohio Bell officials stated that more than six million dollars had been invested in switching equipment and company buildings.
There were 23,000 Ohio Bell customers in the area and more than 7,100 telephone poles and 1,500 miles of cable.
Many things have changed for telephone users since 1881. The phone is no longer attached to the wall and most homes will have more than one telephone. The advent of cellular service has made it possible to be anywhere in the world to answer and receive a call.
No longer is there a friendly voice asking for your phone number, or in some cases, simply asking to be connected to the other person by name.
Carl Smith told that his father, being a doctor, had to have three phones in his home, since patients subscribed to three different companies. Often he would get a call from a patient, asking that he deliver a message to another patient who had a different provider.
The folks who put in the first phones in 1881 would be amazed at today’s service,
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.