Although it was on March 10, 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas A. Watson transmitted the first understandable sentence over their experimental telephone, it was only thirty one years later, in 1907 that in Gosfield North, Mr. Dewhirst addressed Council on a proposed Municipal Telephone System.
In 1907, a by-law was passed to begin. A telephone board was selected, including James Sheppard, R.H. Millen, Isaac Jackson, W.H. Neville, D. Hess, R. Osborne and E. Scratch to look after construction of the telephone lines. The first telephone office was in a building owned by W.H. Neville and Hamilton Orton, situated on the corner of Talbot Road and the McCain Side road (Now Belle River Road South). The Operators were Emma Neville, Alma Jackson and Weltha Neville. At this time there were only five phones and they were of great importance.
In 1909, it was proposed that the Telephone System pay Bell Telephone Company $75.00 a year for night service to Essex. Mr. Millen offered to move the switchboard to his office and do the call switching from 7:00 am to 10:00 PM. Remuneration was $2.00 per subscriber – 20% commission for making our bills and 10% on all calls to Woodslee.
By 1911, the Telephone Company received many requests to extend lines into different parts of the Township. At this time the subscriber paid part of or all of the upkeep of the lines. In this year the first phone was installed in the parsonage. A free exchange was arranged with Essex.
Mr. W.H. Noble took over the switchboard duties at $25.00 per year – $2.00 a year for each subscriber for day services and $3.00 a year for continuous service. In the same year, W.R. Neville was hired as Manager.
In 1914, because some subscribers refused to install new batteries in their phones, service became poor. It was decided that the Telephone Company would install new batteries at the expense of the company.
In 1918, Mr. George Adair of Woodstock was hired as linesman at $85.00 per month, after 9 applications were received for the position. In the same year, a new switchboard was ordered with 15 single supervisions, 2-way cord sets, 35 combined jacks and drops for push button rings.
1919 was a year of many decisions. The Telephone Company purchased the building owned by Mr. Noble for Telephone for $2,200.00. Mr. Adair’s offer of $3.00 per subscriber for 24-hour service was accepted. It was decided that a subscriber meeting be held each January. At this time S.H. Wyatt was hired as Manager of the Telephone System at $25.00 a year. Mr. R.A. Jackson was hired as Secretary at $25.00 a year. All the furniture, maps and nobles were purchased from Mr. Noble for $35.00. By March the Township had to raise more money for the Telephone System and a new by-law was passed charging each subscriber $10.00.
A new Ford Roadster was purchased in 1920 to be used by Mr. Adair on his duties as linesman. Rates were raised to $60.00 to install a new phone – $15.00 for rentals. Mr. Adair’s salary was raised to $100.00 a month. The total number of subscribers had reached 345.
1922 saw the resignation of Mr. Adair and the Telephone Company was under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. Ernest Fysh was hired to replace Mr. Adair. The Council altered the downstairs of the telephone building to make a kitchen and a bedroom for him and his salary was $90.00 per month plus $3.50 a subscriber. Rates per subscriber were increased to $11.00 a year.
The number of subscribers had increased to 359 and in 1923 a return to the old system of rates came about, charging $0.25 for calls after 10:PM. Later, the same year, James McLeod was hired as linesman at $125.00 per month – $3.50 per subscriber as operator and he would furnish his own car. Mr. McLeod resigned in May and Mr. Crawford was hired in June with the system now furnishing a car and paying for gas and oil used.
By 1924, the telephone surplus was $526 and there were now 362 telephones and 8 rentals. The toll charge to Essex was $0.10. Gosfield North was disconnected from Leamington and Council asked Bell to run a line from the North end of Talbot road to connect with Essex.
Over 1925, the Telephone System profit was $1,580.00 and the Township purchased a new car. Subscriber rates increased to $10.50 in 1931.
In 1932, the salary of the linesman was reduced to $80.00 a month. Thirty-lines had been divided. Wally Neal was hired as linesman.
At a meeting in February 1933, it was moved by Norman Bunn and seconded by F. Herniman that Council manage the Telephone System. About this time, operators took turns being on switchboard duty all night, a couch being provided for sleeping. A night bell on the board awakened the operator when needed to place calls.
A large expenditure took place in 1934 due to an ice storm in March. All but a few lines had to be replaced in the last five years.
1935 saw quite a few changes. The front of the telephone office was repaired. Linesman Wally Neal and operators Mae Hill and Arlene Malott received pay increases. Also in that year, the Telephone system was notified by the Wage Board as to hours of work and minimum wages for the operators.
In 1941, there were 4 operators – Mae Hill, Frances McLeod, Orpha Stotts and Erma Haggins. Other operators around this time were Elsie Purbrick, Alta Quick, Julia Mossop and Marie Fox.
Two new lines were constructed in 1943. There were 5 new subscribers and 2 rentals. Wally Neal was linesman and the operators were now Mae Hill (chief operator), Nina Scratch, Orpha Stotts and Thelma Matlack. In 1944, Herman Sweetman replaced Wally Neal as linesman.
Things were looking better in 1945 when it was moved by Mr. Newman at a meeting that operators be granted two weeks vacation pay. Somewhere about this time, a blank alarm system was installed on the switchboard and the operator immediately phoned police. It was recalled that the wires were cut several times by a would-be bank robber.
Up until this time, if there was a fire, people called the operator and she in turn notified the firemen. Then in 1948, a siren was installed on the roof of the telephone office. When a fire alarm was turned in to the operator, she notified the firemen and rang the siren. Then she kept busy answering calls from people asking, “Where’s the fire?”
In June 1954, Roy Sweetman replaced his father Herman Sweetman as linesman. For many years before this, he had worked as a part-time trouble repairman.
Gosfield North was growing rapidly and in 1953-54 a second switchboard was installed to provide better service. This meant also there were 2 operators required during the day.
1955 saw another rate increase of $2.00 a year. In March of that year, Manley Barnett was named Secretary and S.H. Wyatt was Deputy-Treasurer of the Telephone System.
Operators received an increase bringing their wages up to $0.65 an hour in 1957. Mr. Wyatt resigned that year and Manly Barnett took over the Treasurer position. Roy Sweetman was named Manager.
In 1959, Jack Helkie joined the system as linesman. In September 1960, Mae Hill retired after over 25 years with Gosfield North Telephone System. Gladys Dawson took over as chief operator.
In 1961, Council decided that they, being the Telephone Commission, should receive an annual fee. This was also a year of big decisions. At a meeting in March, the Township office was packed to overflowing. People stood outside to hear discussions as to weather or not to convert to dial. The main speaker was Roy Sweetman and he explained in detail the plains for converting and the benefits. The operators were granted three weeks vacation with pay after they have been with the system for 10 consecutive years.
By 1962, operators were making $1.00 per hour. Many ladies of the community had been employed by the Telephone System – Julia Mossop, Mae Hill, Nina Scratch, Arliene Malott, Frances McLeod, Erma Haggins, Orpha Stotts, Marie Fox, Betty Clifford, Beulah O’Neil, Mary Hiel, Nellie Crumb, Norma Joyce, terry Murdoch, Audrey Ferriss, Nessie Stewart, Yvonne Oldfield, June Bowers, Marie Mellanby, Peggy Hill, Grace Moe, Ethel Nicholson, Frances Gammon, Eleanor Wagner, Doris Meston, Gladys Dawson, Annie Gregg, Verna Tilson, Edna Slote and Erie Hawks.
Conversion from Magneto to Dial
Northern Electric was granted the contract for the new dial system in 1963. Over the years, Roy Sweetman and the linesmen kept busy updating the system. It was inspected periodically by Bell making sure everything was in good repair. It was once said that Gosfield North had the best magneto system in southern Ontario.
When plans for conversion to dial began, Council was presented with a petition from subscribers to sell the system to Bell. Bell Canada was not interested and so it was decided to convert to dial on their own. Necessary steps were taken to raise the money. The total cost for the building, equipment and free extended area service was $150,000. Finally, on September 20, 1964 at 2:00 am Gosfield North changed from magneto to dial. Jack Helkie had the honor of pulling the “picks” which switched over sections of the Township to dial. Annie Gregg put the last call through before 2:00 am.
To celebrate the occasion, an open house was held with all the appropriate dignitaries present. Manager Roy Sweetman and his linesman Jack Helkie, Ron Raymont and Wally Stockwell, showed guests through the exchange. There were also many Telegrams received, including one from Gene Whelan, M.P. In the evening a farewell party was held at the Poplar Inn for the operators with dinner, dancing and card playing, and much reminiscing. Alvin Hedge introduced dignitaries. Keys of the new building were presented to Joe Newman as Chairman of the Commission. Spencer Jackson introduced the operators who were wearing corsages – a gift of Scott Flowers. Gladys Dawson, Chief Operator with 15 years with the system and Eleanor Wagner, part time worker were unable to attend. Present were: Annie Gregg (12 years), Frances Gammon (9 years), Verna Tilson (5 1/2 years), Grace Moe (5 years), Ethel Nicholson (4 1/2 years). Mr. Jackson introduced the linesmen and administrative staff – Jack Helkie (5 years), Ron Raymont (1 year), Wally Stockwell (part-time helper) and Roy Sweetman (Manager). At this time Mr. Jackson had been with the commission for 4 1/2 years as Secretary-treasurer and Lydia Dietrich had been stenographer for 5 months.
By this time the improvement included miles of underground cable, a new building and dial equipment. Subscribers of this new township-owned dial system were now able to enjoy toll-free service to Essex, Kingsville, Leamington, Belle River, Pleasant Park and Woodslee.
It was indeed the end of an era! The once close municipal family had broken up. The operator’s job was more than answering subscribers and ringing numbers. People who were lonely would feel less alone after a little chat with the operator. Some would ring in and say “send the Fire Department, the barn is burning” and never say who was calling. The operators recognized peoples’ voices and figure out who had called. They were asked for recipes, train times, how and where certain people were and to redirect their phone calls.
Four ladies were chosen for dial instruction – Gladys Dawson, Phyllis Sweetman, Jean Stockwell and Frances Gammon, who patiently phoned each subscriber and instructed them on how to use their new dial phones. At this time there were 730 customers.
In 1966, the Township purchased a telephone storage depot. Equipment needed to complete the “intrusion” in the central dial office was purchased in 1967. By 1969, consideration was given to changing the telephone system from subscriber-owned to public utility. In 1970, Gordon Dawson joined the system as linesman. Roy Sweetman left in 1971 after 17 years with the telephone system. Under his supervision, the system had been rebuilt from magneto to dial and from open wire to underground cable. Jack Helkie took over the job as manager in 1971 and has been with the system ever since.
By 1976, the new business office was almost complete. A wall had been moved in the dial office giving additional room for equipment – 39 private lines and 2 party lines were installed.
In 1977, Lydia Dietrich was appointed a full time employee in the business office. In the new office all the billing was done, telephone bills were paid and all customer services were handled. Mary Scratch joined the office staff to assist with the billing.
In 1979, cable and phones were installed in the two new subdivisions. A new system was awaited to improve the Fire Department service. It would give 19 firemen access to all fire calls.
Two-way radios were installed in the telephone trucks with a base station in the office.
A new automatic toll identifier was installed to improve the service for long distance calling.
1981 was a busy year for further improvement – 54 extension phones were installed, 25 phones were moved, 106 phones installed, 103 phones taken out along with 92 other services such as plugs, jacks, long cords and number changes. New underground cable was installed on Talbot Road South and new cable on road crossings on Hwy 3 by-pass. 25 phones were changed from multi-party to private. A contract was signed with Northern Telephone Ltd. to do the billing and Kenneth Bissonnette joined the system as linesman. As of December 1981, there were 626 subscribers and 376 renters.
In 1983, more lines were installed in the office for improvement on calls to Windsor and Leamington. Forty-seven more phones were changed from multiparty to private lines. Anyone wishing to buy a telephone set would have to inform the system to make sure it could be modified.
In May 1986, they converted to Digital Switching – another step forward. There were 283 phones on push button tone dialing and 169 customers using custom calling features.
Due to a ruling by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission, as of January 1987 all toll calls were to be 20% less. This savings will be to the subscribers and monthly rates will not be raised for the first year. After this they will know what the impact of this toll deduction will have on the system.
Gosfield North, being the only independent telephone co-operative in Essex County; can be very proud of its past and present employees. They are all to be congratulated on their ability, initiative and determination. It certainly shows in the very modern Gosfield North Municipal Telephone System.
Submitted by Mrs. Frances Gammon, Former Telephone Operator