Courting History: Early telephones

By Sam Shumate - Special to the Post

ASHE COUNTY — A solitary pole with wires hanging down stood across from our Warrensville home in the 1940s. My grandmother said it was a remnant from our old telephone system.

She explained that individuals paid for their telephone lines and switchboards were located in people’s houses. She said there was a “three-drop” switchboard in their home in Warrensville and a larger one in Wiley Turner’s home in Bina that also housed the post office. A switchboard in the home of Dr. Tom Jones provided a long-distance outlet through Marion, Virginia. These came into being around 1910-11. Sutherland had telephones with connections to Tennessee as early as 1898. The first sentence spoken over a telephone line, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you,” was in 1876. Twenty-two years later service was already in Ashe County.

There were no telephones in Warrensville in the 1940s. If a message needed to be transmitted quickly, one went to the Norfolk and Western depot and sent a telegram.

So, what happened to our telephone system? Grandmother explained that North Carolina began improving their road system in the 1930’s. Ashe County folks were so pleased that new and better roads would be constructed they let them build them pretty much where they pleased. In many cases, roads followed the telephone poles, pushing them out of the way. The pole that stood in front of our house was one of the few remaining. The excuse was the county needed roads more than telephones. After all, every railroad depot was also a telegraph station.

Central Telephone Company extended a line from Alleghany County into Jefferson and West Jefferson. Rural areas saw no telephone service until Skyline Telephone Membership Corporation came into existence. Skyline was chartered January 4, 1951. The board of directors was G.W. Edwards, Frank James, H.M. Colvard, W.A. Francis, Max Barlow and J.O. Blevins. Its first government loan of one million dollars built the Creston and Lansing exchanges and purchased Watauga Telephone Company for five thousand dollars. Skyline bought the Worth Miller line in Nathan’s Creek in 1955. The Baldwin Exchange was built in 1956. Central Telephone was purchased in 1956 for ninety five thousand dollars. This

sale brought Alleghany County into the Skyline Corporation. Much of Avery County and part of Johnson County, Tennessee were added when Skyline purchased Cherokee Telephone Membership Corporation of Banner Elk, NC.

The first rural telephones to return to the area were called “party” lines. Each home was given a “ring” that would let them know the call was for them. Ours was three short rings but anyone could eavesdrop since the phone rang in each house on the “party” line. Five “party” lines were eventually reduced to three “party” lines and finally to all private lines. Today’s arrays of land-lines, wireless handsets and cell phones have placed the technology into the hands of all ages.

Today, Skyline Membership Corporation is one of the largest independent telephone co-ops in the United States and is the largest in North Carolina.

By Sam Shumate

Special to the Post

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