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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"



by C. F. Eckhardt
Alexander 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 charges--was born.

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 year.”

“Yep,” the judge agreed. “Sure did. I was here the night it fell.”

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 town.

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 direct.”

“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.

hat 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 Sherman.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
May 8, 2008 column

Related Article:

Barbed Wire Telephones by Delbert Trew

In this day of seemingly unlimited telephone services, it's hard to believe we once used barbed wire to carry our message... more

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