Progressive Era to New Era Telephone


Stafford County’s earliest telephone service was provided by the Toluca and Fredericksburg Telephone Company. While this was the first such venture in Stafford, residents and businesses in other regions had had telephones for years. With the formation of the Northern Neck Telegraph and Telephone Company in 1887, Lancaster County and part of King George were able to communicate with each other. It took nearly two years to plant the posts and run the lines for this earlier company, but by early 1889 telephones in those jurisdictions were in operation. Telephone service was available in Alexandria by 1895 when Robert Minor Moncure advertised, “I will deliver chestnut telephone poles at Wide Water on Telegraph road at the rate of 4 cents per foot, six inches at the small end” (Alexandria Gazette, May 9, 1895). By early 1908, the Potomac and Rappahannock Telephone Company, which provided service to parts of the Northern Neck, had received permission to run its lines through Stafford to connect with Fredericksburg (Fredericksburg Star, Apr. 28, 1908).

The Stafford Telephone Company was founded in mid-July 1904, though the name soon changed to the Toluca and Fredericksburg Telephone Company. On Aug. 2, the board met at the courthouse to receive bids for the construction of the line commencing in Fredericksburg, going by way of Boscobel and Brooke, through Stafford Courthouse and Garrisonville, and terminating at Toluca. It was believed that “a telephone is a long felt necessity in Stafford, and it’s with sincere feelings of pride and gratification…that this much is about to be accomplished” (Free Lance, July 28, 1904).

By late October, the poles had been set and workmen were stringing the wire, having been granted permission to use the old poles of the Postal Telegraph-Cable Company when convenient, “beginning at Stafford Court House and continuing North to a point at or near Chopawamsic Swamp, with the exception of certain poles we have disposed of to farmers between the above mentioned points.” A newspaper notice stated, “The instruments have been ordered, and if they arrive in time, we will be in telephone connection with the outside world by November 8” (Free Lance, Oct. 25, 1904). It was mid-November before the new telephone line was completed and the company “hoped to have it in partial operation by next Tuesday” (Free Lance, Nov. 15, 1904).

On Dec. 9, the newspaper reported, “The Toluca and Fredericksburg telephone line was extended to Brooke on Thursday and a phone put in at that place. One each was also placed in the residence of Hon. M[arion] K. Lowry, the stores of C[harles] D[uff] Green and E. J. Graves, and the residence of C[harles] T. Stone. On Friday phones were put in at T. J. Moore’s and E. S. Moore’s at Stafford C. H.” Eventually, the system ran between Wide Water and Toluca, through Stafford Courthouse, Brooke, and all the way down to Fredericksburg via Route 608 (Fredericksburg Star, Dec. 9, 1904).

Learning to use the new-fangled phones was a challenge for some and an adventure for others. By mid-December, some users had not yet learned to differentiate between the long and short rings that were used to summons particular individuals with phones. The newspaper noted, “Four phones were put in at Brooke last Thursday. The subscribers had not received their chart of calls, consequently they answered every call, which kept them busy as bees, and the soprano tones of ladies could be heard. Messrs. Lowry, Watson and Green seemed to be in a general mix-up, and above all would come an answer in thunder tones, ‘This is Groves.’” (Free Lance, Dec. 13, 1904).

People quickly discovered the convenience and pleasure derived from the telephone and business grew. By October 1904, the company had 13 customers. By early February the company had 24 subscribers on 22 miles of lines. “Propositions have been made to extend the line to Stafford Store and Widewater, which will be done in the early spring.” This expansion would necessitate the installation of a switchboard “either at Garrisonville or Stafford C. H.” (Free Lance, Feb. 2, 1905).

Human nature being what it is, from the very dawn of telephone service there was someone taking advantage of the opportunity to make rude and anonymous comments over the lines. “Complaint has been made by patrons on the line of impertinent remarks made from some of the phones. If the perpetrator can be discovered, the phone from which these remarks emanated will be promptly removed from the premises by the business manager of the company” (Free Lance, Feb. 2, 1905). It’s unknown if this published threat accomplished its goal of discouraging the rude individual.

Toluca and Fredericksburg purchased supplies such as telephones, wire, insulators, brackets, and batteries from Western Electric Company and from Graybar Electric Company of Richmond. These supplies were shipped to Stafford by train and a company ledger contains numerous entries for orders and freight charges. Telephone poles were purchased from local lumbermen and cost from $1.00 to $1.25 each. These were unlike modern phone poles in that they were only four to five inches in diameter and were often crooked. They held the phone line about 12 feet above the ground, high enough to allow a loaded hay wagon to pass beneath without pulling down the wire.

Residents or businesses rented their phones for $1.50 per month and long-distance calls were about three cents each. Phones within a close geographical area were grouped together on party lines. These were crank-style wooden phones that pre-dated rotary dials or push buttons. As most people had no electricity, the phones were powered by batteries. Those who shared a party line called each other using a combination of long and short rings generated by turning the crank. When a call was made, everyone within the group heard the ringing. They listened for their particular sequence of long and short rings and only one person was supposed to answer. In reality, when the phone rang, many people picked up the receiver, listened in on the conversation, and sometimes added their own comments. The more people who listened in, the weaker the signal became, making it difficult to hear.

Calling outside of the party group or making a long-distance call required the services of a switchboard operator called the “central.” The company’s first central was Emma Garrison. “Miss Emma,” as she was listed in the business ledger, kept the switchboard at home and was available 24 hours a day to route calls. A newspaper notice informed the public that Emma planned on resigning from her position. It stated, “Your correspondent regrets to learn of the resignation of Miss Emma Garrison as central for the Toluca and Fredericksburg Telephone Co. at Garrisonville. As one of the originators and builders of this line the writer bears witness to the prompt and conscientious care bestowed by her in the often vexatious duties imposed upon her by her position and is satisfied that he but voices the wish of the many subscribers that in her future walk in life she may have the happiness that she deserves, after having served the company so well for about a decade of years” (Free Lance, Oct. 6, 1917).

In December 1917, Margaret Gallahan assumed the responsibility of the switchboard, being paid $22.14 per month. By 1918, Margaret’s mother-in-law, Martha Gallahan, was central. The switchboard, powered by dry cell batteries, was about two feet square, had eight lines and ten bells, and hung on the wall in the Gallahan’s living room. When someone placed a call, a light shone on the switchboard. Mrs. Gallahan spoke into a microphone-like device and asked the caller to whom he/she wished to speak and then plugged in a wire connecting the caller to the “callee.” In August 1933, the company’s board of directors voted to hire a night central at $15 per month in order to meet State Corporation Commission requirements.

Having a telephone was a luxury that many people couldn’t afford. The monthly rent for the phone varied from $1.50 to $2.00 and the cost of calls was added to that. Local calls cost only a few cents, long-distance a little more. The list of Toluca’s customers gradually increased until by June 1924 thirty accounts were on the books. Up until the 1930s, few phone bills exceeded $4.00. By today’s standards, this seems unbelievably cheap; but given that many people earned less than $10.00 per month, a telephone was far more of a luxury than a necessity. For many years, most phones were in businesses or in the homes of local doctors and ministers.

As the company grew, so did the number of calls and the switchboard required constant manning. The Gallahans also acted as secretaries and emergency dispatchers. If there was interesting news, such as a serviceman calling home, they shared the news with everyone. They were always willing to take messages for people who were away from home and, in the event of an emergency such as a fire, they rang up all the neighbors who rushed in to help. The switchboard was open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. For each call answered after hours, Mrs. Gallahan was paid ten cents. The switchboard shut down on Sundays to give the ladies a day off. Whenever an important call was attempted but couldn’t be put through, one of the Gallahan women would take a message and relay it to the manager, Duff Gill, who would deliver it personally.

In 1927, a new concept was adopted and four “pay stations” were installed—at Constantine’s (Austin Farms Restaurant), Stafford Post Office, the Virginia Hotel, and at Brown’s Tourist Camp near Falmouth. The company also purchased a new ten-position switchboard from Western Electric. In 1933, another pay station was installed at Aquia Tavern.

While other companies were folding, the Toluca and Fredericksburg Telephone Company remained profitable and paid dividends throughout the Depression. By 1933, business was increasing and the company hoped to run a line down Route 1 from the courthouse to Falmouth. Unable to secure the right of way to do so, they opted to run a new copper wire from the Hotel Virginia at the courthouse to Fredericksburg by way of Mountain View Road. The 1935 State Corporation Commission report notes that the company then had a total of 151 miles of wire, one ten-position Western Electric switchboard, fifty regular telephones, and three pay phones. By 1942, the number of pay phones had increased to seven.

In 1942, the U. S. Government condemned 50,000 acres for the expansion of the Quantico Marine Corps base. In November 1943, Toluca’s board of directors approved an agreement with the government to run a trunk line from the company central directly to the Quantico Marine Corps Barracks. Shortly thereafter, they also provided service to the Midway Island installation on Telegraph Road.

By the fall of 1946, the directors were discussing the feasibility of selling the company. Telephone technology was rapidly changing and the State Corporation Commission had informed the directors that they either had to upgrade their services and equipment or sell the company. The required upgrades would have been costly and the stockholders voted unanimously to sell the company rather than expend the money for improvements. Miss Anne E. Moncure was asked to locate a potential purchaser and she reported back that Quantico businessman A. R. Kirby was willing to offer $4,000 for the line, equipment, new materials, and the “good will of the telephone company” provided he could satisfy the requirements of the State Corporation Commission. Perhaps he was unable to do so, as on May 2, 1947 the directors sold out to the Central Mutual Telephone Company. Gustavus B. Wallace, as president, and Anne E. Moncure, as secretary, conveyed to Central “all franchise rights” and the right “to construct, operate, and maintain a telephone system in the State of Virginia.” Toluca’s tangible personal property also conveyed and included all telephone line equipment, supplies, switchboards, and telephones. Central Mutual paid a modest $2,541.03 for this Stafford institution. The company purchased a new table model switchboard with twenty sets of plugs and lines and installed it in the Gallahan home. The Gallahan ladies continued manning the switchboard until July 1953 when the old crank phones were replaced by dial telephones.

A newspaper notice published when the switchboard closed, said of Agnes Gallahan, “She had worked daily, with never a vacation.” When the old exchange finally ceased operation after 35 years, Delegate Frank P. Moncure noted, “We have gained a telephone with a dial, but we have lost a telephone with a heart.” The newspaper reporter noted, “The sudden change left a void” (Free Lance-Star, Aug. 7, 1953). Agnes Gallahan died in 1963. Her home, a basic two-story white farmhouse, stood well back from Garrisonville Road on a broad grassy knoll. The house was destroyed and the knoll flattened for construction of the Wal-Mart.

Thus was born the Stafford telephone system. Numerous similar companies operated for many years before being purchased by the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, which later became Bell Atlantic.