Phoning it in, part 1…

We’ve got a fishing cabin we’ve owned with a high school friend up in Wisconsin for nearly 35 years now. When we started out, and for more than a decade and a half later, we had no phone in the place. And we still have no television.

But some time ago we decided, since we weren’t getting any younger and since the cabin is in a cellular dead spot, we’d get a phone in the place. And then with the advent of the Internet, we decided broadband and WiFi were necessities, too. So nowadays, we can make landline calls or use Skype on our smart phones to communicate with the wider world and jump on the Internet for the latest weather and fishing reports.

The lack of cellular service really doesn’t have much of an impact on us, but it seems to be a definite hardship for youngsters of a certain age whose parents and grandparents rent cottages at the resort just down the road. In order to make a cell phone call, it’s necessary to hike south on Lakeshore Drive, up the hill, and to the corner where the road makes a right-angle turn to the east. At the top of the hill, cell service is suddenly available. And of a summer evening, it’s not uncommon to see a gaggle of a half dozen teens absently strolling in circles, their iPhones and Androids clutched to their ears, engaging in serious conversations with who knows who.

Time was, of course, there wasn’t any landline service anywhere. Then telephone technology started getting off the ground and became something more than a curiosity of hobbyists.

An Oswego native, Charles Wesley Rolfe started out teaching school locally, went on to become superintendent of Kankakee schools, and finally taught biology at the University of Illinois. He was also instrumental in the discovery and naming of Oswego's very own fossil, Tentaculies oswegoensis.

An Oswego native, Charles Wesley Rolfe started out teaching school locally, was a member of the first graduating class at the University of Illinois, went on to become superintendent of Kankakee schools, and finally taught biology, geology, and other subjects at his alma mater, the U of I.

Here in the Oswego area, the earliest mention of a telephone I’ve been able to find was in the “Oswego” column of the Kendall County Record on Aug. 8, 1878. Correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported that:

“Prof. Rolfe, who at present is sojourning at Mr. Farley’s, has established a telephone; those who have seen it say that it works to perfection.”

Charles Wesley Rolfe, an Oswego native then the superintendent of the Kankakee School District, and later a professor of biology at the University of Illinois, had married Farley’s daughter. Rank didn’t say who was connected via Rolfe’s telephone; it was probably an in-house experiment, something Farley, an inventor himself, would have delighted in.

During the next few years, some Yorkville first-adopters were busy with local telephone installations. Then in 1881, Oswego druggist, banker, and entrepreneur Levi Hall had his residence connected to his drug store by telephone. As Rank reported in the Aug. 11, 1881 Kendall County Record:

“L.N. Hall is always foremost of this community keeping up with the times; he has now his store and residence–which are six blocks apart–connected with telephone, not yet however in talking order.”

Installations during the next several years were business-only, like the ones in Yorkville. For instance, the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company ice houses three-quarters of a mile north of the Oswego depot were connected with the depot by telephone in 1882 to coordinate the delivery and pick-up of box cars to the company’s siding.

An effort to establish a phone line with subscribers from Aurora to Oswego in 1885 was unsuccessful, even as short-line phone service continued to expand in area towns. As the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way, is one of my favorite newspaper names, right up there with the Stewart, Iowa, Locomotive): described one such situation in April 1886:

“Yorkville has an undertaker’s establishment connected by telephone with a hardware store and a correspondent remarks that farmers can now order their agricultural implements, hardware, and furniture with one call. If the first named was connected with a doctor’s office, they could call their physician and order their burial outfit with the same call.”

It wasn’t until October 1897 that the Record reported could report serious efforts were underway to add Kendall County residents to the nation’s phone system. Reported Record Editor John R. Marshall:

“We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels [high-wheeled bicycles] and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality. It is hoped they will fix us up with their talking machines.”

Bronze medallions like this denoted Chicago Telephone Company equipment. The CTC was part of the fast-growing Bell Telephone system.

Bronze medallions like this denoted Chicago Telephone Company equipment. The CTC was part of the fast-growing Bell Telephone system.

And, in fact, it wasn’t long before not just one but two telephone companies were vying for Kendall County residents’ business.

By November, Marshall could report:

“The poles for the new telephone line from Yorkville to Aurora connecting with Chicago have been set through these villages and well along the road towards Aurora. The tall white poles may have a business-like look, but they are certainly ornamental to the streets.”

And on Dec. 15, Rank finally reported from Oswego:

“The hello racket on the telephone was ushered in last Saturday. The poles have been set all around town.”

It was remarkable enough that folks in town could ask Central to connect them to their aunts and uncles in the next town. It was downright awe inspiring that a growing number of country folks could do the same.

The Record’s Specie Grove correspondent was looking forward to this new ability to connect his farm with far-flung places, remarking on Dec. 13, 1899:

“With a telephone line through the Grove we will all be putting in city airs, but will probably not have a ‘central’ or a ‘hello’ girl for a while yet.”

In June 1900, the Northern Illinois Telephone Company extended its lines into Kendall County in direct competition with the Chicago Telephone Company, which was part of the growing Bell Telephone system. Rank, reporting from Oswego, noted:

“Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

On Oct. 24, 1900, the Record’s Specie Grove correspondent ruefully noted from his farmhouse:

“Blessings, like misfortunes, never seem to come singly. Two telephone lines are now coming to serve us at the same time. The Chicago line runs along the river road from J.C. Raleigh’s to the corner south of Yorkville where it connects with the line running south from town with a stub to the Shepard farm, while the Northern Illinois line runs from Yorkville on the Plainfield road to the Plattville road, running south past the Kendall schoolhouse. Side lines will be put in to accommodate farmers not on this road. Both companies have had gangs of men at work the past week and there is much to do yet. The latter line intends to continue on to Plattville.”

But by January 1901, he was marveling at what technology had wrought:

“We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

It was a major technological change that, in turn, had a major sociological impact on small town and rural life the likes of which had been seldom seen.

In the next post, I’ll take a look at what some of those sociological effects were.


1 Comment

Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

One response to “Phoning it in, part 1…

  1. Pingback: Phoning it in…part 2 | historyonthefox

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