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The Burnt River Telephone Company

April 5, 2024

Sam Suddaby's House, Burnt River - Post Office, Telephone Exchange and Justice of the Peace

Today, just about everybody is connected to their family, friends and colleagues 24/7. It is not uncommon for today’s high students to sit together at lunch and text each other, as smart phones have become a form of companionship. This constant, electric connection with the wider world, is vastly different than localized lives that nineteenth century residents of the Trent Valley lived. But back then, people knew practically all of their neighbours well, and typically their families were their lives.

The telegraph reached the Kawarthas before the telephone. It sent Morse coded messages over cables, typically with one central office for a town or village. Since many messages needed to be sent to operate railways, the village telegrapher often worked out of the train station. Telegraphs were frequently used for business communications, but less frequently for personal messages, because, like today’s text messages, communications needed to be short, but were relatively expensive. Sending a telegraph was costlier than mailing a letter.

Most rural families (and back then most families were rural) would see their neighbours at work bees or when they went to Sunday service. They might visit neighbours in the evening, once their work was done, but otherwise, the post was their means of communication with the wider world. Most hamlets had a post office, and receiving a letter from a distant friend or relative was a special occasion.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, both the telephone and electricity became practical technologies, however, the telephone spread much more quickly. Though many inventors made specific advances that culminated in the ability to transmit voices across electric wires, the invention of the telephone is often credited to Brantford’s Alexander Graham Bell. In 1876 he patented his device and transmitted the sentence “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!” Later that year, he made what was declared to be the world’s first long distance call, from Brantford to Paris, Ontario—thirteen kilometres via a telegraph line.

Like Bell’s first long-distance call, the first telephones typically served to communicate between two points. For instance, a large lumber company might install a telephone so the office could speak with the workers at the mill. However, the invention of the telephone exchange in 1877 made telephone networks practical. In the years that followed, the Bell telephone company began extending service to larger communities around Ontario.

In January 1891, Mr. Scott, an agent for the Bell Telephone Company of Hamilton travelled to Fenelon Falls, met with residents in a parlour at the McArthur House, and asked if local residents might contribute enough telephone poles to carry the lines halfway to Lindsay. Samuel Swanton, a local farmer who also dealt in telegraph poles, was the first to reply, pledging enough for one mile. The hotel’s owner, Joseph McArthur, made a similar offer, and others agreed to give enough for a half or quarter mile. By the next day, the community secured enough to fulfil the request, and contracted with Bell to bring the telephone to the community. McArthur and Martin were hired to install the 750 poles at $1 each. A group of sixteen men installed the line, hauling their gear with horses and camping in tents as they went. The initial installation linked Lindsay, Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon.

At first, telephone was an expensive luxury out of reach of individual families—at $20 per year (in an era when $1 per day was a common wage). Most of the initial subscribers were businesses and wealthy individuals. For many years, Fenelon Falls Central was located in the back of William Ellis’ drug store—later McArthur Drugs.

In the early twentieth century, ever more families aspired to have telephone service. The Bell Telephone Company was Canada’s largest and most famous operator, however, it did not have the capacity build a utility connecting every disparate community. Many hamlets and villages in Victoria County did not have telephone service. Often communities would approach Bell and ask if service would be extended to their community, only to be told that it might be many years before Bell would be able to do so. Not wanting to wait for a technology as exciting as the telephone, local residents banded together. By 1921, there were 689 other phone companies in Ontario.

In 1907, a series of public meetings in Fenelon Falls discussed the possibility of bringing telephone service to rural homes in Somerville Township and vicinity. Many of the attendees were from North Verulam and they decided to form a private telephone company, initially called the Victoria Telephone Company, Ltd. The directors soon agreed to change the name, and it was incorporated as the Burnt River Telephone Company Ltd. on November 27. It raised $5000 by selling 500 shares at $10 each.

The “head office” was established in Burnt River early in 1908, and by the end of the year, communications had been established with Fenelon Falls and Kinmount. The following year, the company installed a switchboard, with Sam Suddaby operating it. The Burnt River Telephone Company operated out private homes—often those of the operator. Suddaby’s house was on the west side of the main street, north of the train station—in what was then the business section of town.

In the years that followed, the company expanded the region that it served. On the third concession of Somerville, William Wilson had constructed a suspension bridge across the Burnt River from page wire fencing (imagine what safety inspectors would say today!). His ingenious swaying bridge also supported the telephone wire. In 1911, the Burnt River Telephone Company served Baddow with ten subscribers (James Fell, Gregory Suggitt, William T. Watson, John Wilson Sr., Benjamin Hopkins, Howard Wilson, Joseph Watson, Walter Butler, George Albert Eades and John Wilson Jr.) and Coboconk. Within a few years, many local farmers were fortunate enough to be able to make a call. In 1912, one Bury’s Green farmer was paying $1.50 per month for telephone services. The Burnt River Telephone Company was not the only system in the township. The Somerville Municipal System, based in Kinmount from 1926 to 1942 (the year of the Great Fire) had 33 phones at its peak. The Rumney Settlement Telephone Company Ltd. (named for a community on the east side of Shadow Lake) operated from 1919 to 1939, with 14 subscribers, before selling out to Bell.

Often, the telephone came long before hydro, which reached many rural neighbourhoods in the 1940s and 1950s. The telephone was marvellous for many of the families who subscribed. Imagine, they could pick up a device in their home, and talk to their neighbours. Homes were organized into party lines, where each neighbourhood shared a telephone line (and in those days, it was literally a wire line). A caller wanting to talk to one of their neighbours, would turn the crank to make a combination of long and short rings, which would be unique for each neighbour. Everyone learned to recognize their own ring. If they wanted to talk to someone on different line, they would make one long ring, to summon Burnt River Central. The caller would say, “my name is ________, I would like to talk to ________.” Then the operator would know to connect them to the other line, and ring the correct house. The company had strict rules not to engage in idle chat with the operator: “When you call Central don’t say “Is that Central?” but give your call. Remember there may be someone else calling, and Central has not time for needless questions.”

In the days before television, many rural residents were very interested in what was happening in their community. Many would talk to their neighbours on the telephone several times a week. Of course, one would never say anything on the telephone that you did not want everyone in the neighbourhood to hear, because there was a good chance that someone else was listening. The company made clear that subscribers were to “learn your own ring and answer it…. Don’t descend to the contemptible habit of listening to other people’s conversations.” But of course, what could be more entertaining that eavesdropping on your neighbours? Some people strongly believed that this was disgraceful behaviour, but others really enjoyed it. At supper time, some families would share the gossip of what they had heard on the phone that day. It would not be long before the whole neighbourhood would be talking about what someone had said.

On a party line, only one call could occur at a time. The company stipulated, “if you find the line in use when you want to use your phone wait a reasonable time; if someone else wants the phone when you are using it don’t take up time with gossip.” Truly, what many families used the phone for, was to keep in touch with their neighbours and friends.  Many families in this service area remained on party lines into the 1990s.

The Great Depression and the Second World War were a difficult time for the Burnt River Telephone Company. During the economic downturn, many families struggled to afford a telephone. Then on April 29, 1942, the Great Fire of Kinmount consumed much of the downtown—it would be four years before telephone service would be restored there. When Maurice Watson became the lineman (looking after the poles, wires and maintenance of the system) that year, the company had just 83 subscribers. Two years later, Burnt River had its own conflagration, destroying much of its downtown, including Sam Suddaby’s former home, once the company headquarters.

After the Second World War, the company substantially expanded, with Verlie Chalmers as its well-known operator. For a few years, Burnt River Central was located in her home, which was across from the Anglican Church. In 1956, it moved to the home of Mrs. Jack Mark, where it would remain. By 1970, it operated 516 telephones in Somerville, Verulam, Galway, Snowdon and Lutterworth Townships.

But as telephones were becoming universal, the technology was improving and Bell Telephone was growing so that it could serve practically every little community in Ontario. At the same time, many of the smaller companies were struggling to convert from manual exchanges to direct dial service. By the 1960s, Bell was buying out local telephone companies, as it consolidated an integrated system. In 1967, the Burnt River Telephone Company directors voted unanimously to sell out to Bell, but would continue to operate the system until the takeover on November 15, 1970.

By the time it passed into history, the Burnt River Telephone Company had become one of the largest in the region. It had been a telephone company that brought together the neighbours who shared party lines. They had lived and worked together, attending neighbourhood bees, sending their children to the school just around the corner, joining together for Sunday service, and sharing stories at the local blacksmith shop. In the region, within a few years, most of the local telephone companies disappeared along with local schools and many neighbourhood churches. The children who grew up in this generation no longer had the same sense of community that their parents had shared. It would not be long before touch tone telephone lines would bring the global village to their fingertips, an unimaginable advance in communications just a few decades before when the Burnt River Telephone Company was founded.

Burnt River Telephone Company Rules

Don’t

Don’t use the telephone when there is thunder

Don’t imagine you have a monopoly of the telephone; other subscribers have the same rights as you. No person has a right to keep the line more than five minutes at one time.

Don’t forget to place the receiver on the switch hook when you are done talking.

Don’t talk too fast or too loud.

Don’t forget to treat your telephone like you would like to be treated if you were a telephone.

Don’t think all the troubles you have are in the telephone.

Don’t forget that if your line and ground connections are all right, your telephone will be all right.

By observing the following rules trouble will be avoided

  1. Learn your own ring and answer it. Let other people’s rings alone.
  2. If you find the line in use when you want to use your phone wait a reasonable time; if someone else wants the phone when you are using it don’t take up time with gossip.
  3. Don’t descend to the contemptible habit of listening to other people’s conversation.
  4. If any person not a subscriber wants to use your phone don’t forget to collect the charges. The telephone lines are not kept in order for nothing, and the operator has instruction to watch parties who are good at giving away what does not belong to them. Stealing telephone calls is stealing just as much as stealing money.
  5. When you want to give a call, tell your name and the name of the person you want. When you get your party, don’t say, “Who’s speaking?” but tell them who is calling. When you call Central don’t say “Is that Central?” but give your call. Remember there may be someone else calling, and Central has not time for needless questions. GIVE YOUR OWN NAME and tell who you want.

The Burnt River Telephone Company Ltd. does not keep messengers, and will not agree to get any parties not subscribers on their lines.

Operators:

Sam Suddaby, Margaret Shuttleworth, Mrs. Fred Johnson and Verlie Chalmers.

Linemen:

Tom Suddaby (1907-1913, 1915-1921), John Wilson (1914), Harold Townsend (1921-1929), Owen Rettie (1930-1941) and Maurice Watson (1942-1970).

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