This tale began when Michelle Morgan found a 1905 Masonic Lodge telephone bill issued from the Mountain Telephone Exchange. Seven individual long distance phone calls are listed in handwriting on the back of the statement. Shortly after seeing Michelle’s 1905 bill, Clint Day found a 1928 bill from the Santa Anna Telephone Company to Mrs. J. R. Gipson in some old papers he was going through. Since I had never heard the local exchange called the Mountain Telephone Exchange, the two incidences together seemed to be calling for a tale.
According to A History of Coleman County and Its People, the first telephone line in Santa Anna was built in 1892 from Brownwood to Santa Anna’s Melton Hotel, which stood across the street west from Santa Anna National Bank. It was a private line owned by Henry Collingsworth, who constructed the first local exchange. Collingsworth sold it a few years later to A. U. Weaver, who modernized the system and extended it on to Coleman.
Early-day operators of these systems were important members of the community. Without these ladies, no calls could be made. The picture shows operators as they went about their jobs, at the time of the picture in an area on the second floor of the Bank. There were times when patrons couldn’t place calls after the operators went off duty, sometimes at 6:00 p.m.
To reach the operator, a person making a call turned the crank on the side of the phone. The operator answered by plugging in a wire to the caller’s socket and asking to whom the caller wished to speak. She then connected another plug into the called person’s socket and signaled the called party by turning a crank on her switchboard. When the called person answered, a connection was made to the caller by the two plugs. These wires can be seen on the boards in front of the operators. The operator on the right is Bobbie Wilson, my great aunt. Her switchboard is still at the Coop office.
Lines were practically all “party”, or shared, lines, so people had specific rings designating to whom the call was made. A party’s ring might be one long–one short, or maybe two shorts—one long, or so on. This made for somewhat open communication, for everyone on the “party” line heard the ring. It was an honor system that no one would pick up the receiver unless it was the correct ring. However, honor sometimes took a back seat to grist for the gossip mill. The last party line in Coleman County was eliminated in 1977.
A. U. Weaver sold the Santa Anna Telephone Company in 1924 to D. J. Johnson and his son, George, who continued providing telephone service in the area in and around Santa Anna. Other small communities, such as Rockwood and Burkett, had their own private exchanges, usually run out of the owner’s home.
The elder Johnson began his career in telephony with Bell Telephone in 1891. He moved to Brownwood in 1907 to become General Superintendent of West Texas Telephone Company, remaining with West Texas Telephone until he bought the Santa Anna exchange and moved here with his family in 1924.
Once in Santa Anna, D. J. Johnson quickly became a major asset to the community. While he maintained many of his ties in Brownwood, he was a tireless booster of Santa Anna. He was a charter member of the Santa Anna Lions’ Club and worked diligently in every activity with the business and industry element for the betterment of the town. Johnson died in 1930 and his son George stepped into the role of communications provider for Santa Anna.
Like his father, George Johnson was a true Santa Anna booster. He became a member of Santa Anna First Methodist Church and a devoted member of the local volunteer fire department. Also like his father, he was a charter member of the Lions’ Club and worked for the benefit of the community at every turn. In addition to providing the area with telephone service, both Johnsons were well known for their generosity and benevolence to the less fortunate in the city.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was given the job of bringing electrical service to the rural areas of the nation. In 1949, REA extended its operations to include telephone service, so local citizens looked for a way to benefit Santa Anna through the new arrangement. Coleman County Telephone Coop was born in January 1955, when George Johnson, Douglas Johnson, Gene Hensley, and V. J. Maloy sold Santa Anna Telephone Company to the newly formed cooperative. The Coop wisely employed George Johnson to manage the enterprise and brought on all the former employees, insuring a smooth transition.
When my family moved to the country sometime in 1951 or 52, we had one of the big, wooden, crank telephones. I remember that our party-line ring was one short ring. Within a couple of years, the old crank phone was gone and we had a desktop rotary dial phone. When the Coop began operation our number was changed to Rural 5241. My parents’ Insurance office number was 310 and my grandparents’ number was 330. The 310 and 330 had a prefix, Red or Black, but I can’t recall how they were designated. Rotary dial phones were soon obsolete as touch-tone, or push button, set took over in the late 1970s.
It has only been 125 years since the first telephone in Santa Anna. Now we all carry our own phones with us in a pocket—and that phone can access the Internet. I wonder what A. U. Weaver or D. J. or George Johnson would think about telephony today. I bet they would be proud to have been part of that connectivity. I know I am thankful to those brave entrepreneurs of yesterday. We need more like them.