Let It Ring! Pioneer Telephone in De Kalb
by Bryan Thompson
Back in 1996 some residents of our area, discouraged by the lack of affordable Internet service banded together and initiated their own affordable Internet link, HERD COW.
These forward thinking citizens may not have realized it but they were following an already established local tradition.
Back about 1909, (The company didn’t legally incorporate until 1912 but had functioned for at least three years before that.) the local farmers of the Maple Ridge Road were frustrated because they wanted residential phone service. No company was willing to provide the service so they took matters into their own hands. This was really quite extraordinary for the time because in 1909 the village of Heuvelton had only a half dozen phones in the whole village and these were all in businesses not private residences.
The Maple Ridge farmers were practical people. They knew how to build fences so why not a phone line? They harvested local cedar posts 16 feet tall and set them out along the Maple Ridge Road with the wires 12 feet off the ground. Wires were strung all the way to De Kalb Village (Old De Kalb) where a switchboard was established.
The lines were soon extended along the De Peyster Rd (County Route 17) as far as the first house on Stevenson Rd and part way down Ritchie and Hitchcock Roads. The June 29, 1911 Ogdensburg Advance announced that; “the Maple Ridge Telephone Company would soon be erecting lines on the Old De Kalb De Kalb Junction Road.” Later that year service was extended into the hamlet of De Kalb Junction.
The Maple Ridge Rural Telephone Company was officially incorporate with the State of New York in 1912. President was Ervin Streeter and H. L. Streeter was secretary and treasurer. Service would eventually extend eastward along what is today US 11, Risley Rd, Forest House Rd. and the Canton- Old De Kalb Rd.
The original service network was very fragile. A severe ice storm hit St Lawrence County on February 23, 1913. On April 10, 1913 the Ogdensburg Advance noted, “The Maple Ridge Telephone Company has no lines in working order since the severe ice storm.” Six weeks after the storm there was still no service.
One of the original cedar telephone poles, long abandoned still stands today on Streeter Rd.
Former location of the Central Office and Switchboard for the Maple Ridge Telephone Company.
The phones used at this time were, the old wall crank units. Power was provided for the transmission lines by batteries. When you wanted the extra power necessary to actually ring a bell to get an operator, you turned a crank on the side of the phone generating the power for the bell. The phones required an operator to connect you to the person you were calling. Phone numbers consisted of letters and numbers (i.e. 14-Y-2) indicating the column and row for the operator to connect you to on the switchboard. There was no overnight phone service until 1927.
The Maple Ridge Telephone Company was totally locally owned and operated as a service to its customer owners. They held annual shareholders meetings at Old De Kalb each June on the last Monday. The officers were all local citizens. Ervin Streeter was the longest serving President with over 18 years of service. Others who served as president of the company included; Atherton Farr who served six years, William Brice, Ira Sayer and Frank Stowell. There were several treasurers of the company over its' lifespan. In 1938 N. Burnham was serving as treasurer at the sprightly age of 86, having served since 1912. Other treasurers included; Floyd Denesha, and S. Thornhill. D A Moore and Lou Moore served as secretaries for the company.
The first switchboard was located in a house on Canton St in Old De Kalb. Eventually the offices were moved up the hill on Grove St to the home of Floris Griffith. Floris served as central operator of the company for 16 years. In order to have night service, there had to be substitute operators. Some of these included; Mary Whitton Stowell, Hazel Snyder, and Elva Conklin.
Bill for Town of De Kalb’s Telephone service November and December 1930.
The company tried to keep rates low for their subscribers. In 1931 it cost $1.12 per month to have basic phone service. By 1942 the rate had risen to $3.25 for two months service, an increase of about 50 cents per month in 11 years.
Telephone technology changed rapidly and with low rates the Maple Ridge Rural Telephone Company could not keep up with the changes. In 1938 the Richville telephone company got dial service but in 1947 the Maple Ridge Telephone Company still did not have dial service and had no prospects for installing it.
Donald T. Todd who had owned the Edwards and Hermon Telephone companies for many years approached the Maple Ridge shareholder about a buyout with a promise of dial service within a year. The company’s shareholders voted unanimously to sell the company to him for $3300. The company then had 163 subscribers. He took control on January 1, 1948.
Todd died in less than a year and Alton Cobb became the new owner of the three telephone companies. He changed the name of the Maple Ridge telephone company to the De Kalb telephone company in 1949 and moved the central office and switchboard to the home of Mrs. Rosemary Carroll Peters in De Kalb Junction.
However it was not until 1960 that ground was broken on an automatic switching station on Gibbons Street. Dial service was finally instituted in 1961, thirteen years after the sale of the Maple Ridge Rural Telephone Company. TDS became the owner in 1974.
The Richville Telephone Company
Seeing the success of their neighbors on Maple Ridge the citizen of Richville organized their own telephone company. The New York State Secretary of State officially chartered it, in May 1912. The first trustees were: Adelbert Gates, Fred Spooner, Elmer Seavey, Frank Beaman, Frank Bristol, Manley E. Johnson, William Hale, Fred Smith and Charles E. Small. The company sold 9000 shares at one dollar per share to finance the operation. They purchased a Lot on Main St In Richville in December 1912.
Office of the Richville Telephone Co.
Map showing the service area of the Richville Telephone Company in 1928.
One of the first operators for the company was Alsa Bosworth.
By the spring of 1914 they were extending service to the western end of Maple Ridge Rd, Osbornville and North Gouverneur. Their service region would eventually cover the northwest portion of the town of Hermon as well. In 1920 the company purchased the house next to the Wayside Cemetery and Baptist Church to serve as a switching board headquarters.
The manager of the company for many years was J.F. Etheridge. Mabel Bigelow and Ruth Jones each served as switchboard operators for over 20 years. All night service was instituted in January 1927.
On October 6, 1928 a stockholders meeting was held at the Richville Grange Hall to consider an offer from Northern New York Telephone Company of Plattsburgh, NY to buy out the company. After much discussion it was unanimously agreed to sell the company for not less than one dollar and twenty-five cents per share, a net gain of 25% for each dollar originally invested. The transfer took place on May 20, 1929 just months before the Great Depression.
Dial service came to the Richville telephone company on October 6, 1938 when all local operators were laid off. The service was an improvement but a far cry from what we expect today. All phones were on 10 party lines. Subscribers heard everyone’s phone ring but were to pick up only when they heard their own code (such as a long a short and two longs). All calls were requested to be kept to three minutes in length.
The independent Richville exchange ended in 1964 when the exchange was merged into the Gouverneur exchange.
St. Lawrence County Clerk ND Deeds Liber 181C p. 1333 Liber 198B p. 940 Liber 256 p 224-226. Canton, NY.
Northern New Historical Newspapers Ogdensburg Republican May 20 , 1912, Nov 1911, Oct 1910.