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Can you help me and your new Alliance develop the history of Iowa’s telephone progress in the earliest days? Please call, write or email me if you know of stories about the people who experimented with, built, maintained and used telephones in Iowa before the big companies got involved –before “The Fight With an Octopus.” Robert M. Parker (Bob) 1107 Grand Ave., Story City, Iowa 50248 515-733-4013


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Top tags: history  ca. 1948  ITA history  ITA library  magazine  memoir  telephony 

#31 - Growth of Telephone Business in Iowa 1905

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Sunday, October 9, 2016

#31 – Growth of Telephone Business in Iowa

This is part of an article in the Iowa Telephone Journal, which was published in Vinton, Iowa from 1903 to 1905 by Stephen S. Lichty and J. W. Traer.  I believe this article was published in 1905.

“The growth of the telephone business in Iowa during the past few years has been enormous.  Only a short time ago the Bell Telephone Co. had the exclusive field.  The management was conservative and was content to operate in the larger towns taking in the smaller places only along its route.  Many towns in the state were absolutely without telephone connect and had to rely solely on the telegraph and the mails.  The telegraph has always been unsatisfactory on account of the unavoidable delay in the transmission of messages. B Business men desire to talk to their customers.  Things always come up in a conversation that would not be thought of otherwise, and the advantages of the telephone are very great on this account.

“The greatest work of the independent telephone lines has been to furnish telephone service to the farmers.  The Bell Telephone Co. covered the state fairly well as far as the cities and towns are concerned.  It never seemed to occur to the managers that the farmers would appreciate a telephone service and by the proper management it could be made profitable.  The rural telephone service was inaugurated by the independent lines shortly after they commenced to operate and it has been almost exclusively carried on by them ever since.  A perfect network of farm lines extends all over the state and they are proving to be paying properties in most instances.  The number of independent companies as very large and is increasing every day.  Almost every county has a telephone company with a central station at the county seat and a network of lines to the smaller towns and covering the rural districts.

“Some of the rural lines are very cheaply constructed. The wires are strung on poles of all shapes and sizes.  Some are crooked and some are straight.  As a rule, however, the companies insist that the farmers who desire telephone service shall furnish good poles.  Generally they are required to pay the cost of constructing the line, or part of it, in addition to their telephone rental.  All of the lines are party lines and someone is talking on them all the time.  This causes some slight inconvenience, but the patrons soon get used to it.  Recent inventions have made it possible to greatly decrease the annoyance of a party line and at the same time put more telephones on the line than has heretofore been practicable.

“It is possible that some of the telephone companies that are being organized will in time come to grief.  The telephone business is a business within itself and cannot be run by men without experience any more than any other business can.  A great many mistakes have been made by the managers of independent lines and probably they will make mistakes in the future.”

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#30 – Early Telephone Etiquette

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Tuesday, October 4, 2016



The first Casey Telephone Book was published in 1903.  A list of rules appeared on the first page of the directory. 

1)    “Take care of this book.  A new one will cost you twenty-five cents.

2)    Call by number only.

3)    Tolls, assessments and rentals must be paid promptly.

4)    Hang this directory on your phone.

5)    You can tell all you know in five minutes; give the other fellow a chance.

6)    Operators are human; if you expect courteous treatment, be courteous.

7)    Rural service fee to subscriber only; others five cents.

8)    This telephone is not public property, but for the use of subscribers only.

9)    All toll talks from this office shall be cash.  Toll talks (from) private phones must be paid by the 1st of the following month.  The Manager shall promptly notify by mail all patrons. Failing to obey this rule and add a penalty of 5 cents to pay for notice.  If not paid in twenty days from notice, a second notice will be sent and unless paid within ten days, further service will be refused.

10)   “That line is busy.”  Why?  Someone is hogging the line.  Don’t be a line hog.”

[1] from “History of Casey Mutual Telephone Company, as published in the ITA book “Lines Between Two Rivers,” 1991, The Iowa Telephone Association

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Preparation for Annual Meeting, 108 Years Ago.

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Tuesday, February 24, 2015

# 29 - Preparation for Annual Meeting, 108 Years Ago


As you prepare for ICA’s Annual Meeting and Expo, I thought you might be interested in these words from Perry C. Holdoegel, one of Iowa’s real Telephone Pioneers.  He wrote from Rockwell City to the members of the Iowa Telephone Association on February 14, 1907.

“I feel positively assured that the approaching convention of the Iowa Independent Telephone Association, at Sioux City on March 19 – 21, 1907 will be the greatest telephone meeting ever held in Iowa.  There will be more exhibits than at any previous meeting.  We believe there will be a larger attendance than ever before.”

“A stereopticon lecture will be given in the opera house by Paul Latzke, the author of “A Fight With an Octopus.”  Photographs of buildings or other objects of interest, submitted by our members, will be worked up into lantern slides and used to illustrate this lecture.”

“I desire to call your attention especially to another feature of the program, which is the assigning of an entire half day to the consideration of the inter-dependence of the mutual and commercial Independent companies.”

“Will you take it upon yourself to talk to as many people as you can reach by telephone or otherwise in an attempt to arouse their interest in and secure their attendance at this convention?”

On the reverse of Mr. Holdoegel’s letter is a listing of “Reasons Why Your Company will lose money this year Unless it Should Send a Representative to the Sioux City Meeting.”  Among them:

You will save more than the expense of the trip by the economies you will be able to effect in the purchase and use of telephones and other apparatus” because of the information received at this convention.”

The Manufacturer’s Exhibit is as important for every telephone company as the county fair, the state fair, or the fat livestock show is for the fancy stock raiser.”

“Addresses by Able Speakers will bring out the latest ideas of construction and operation, improvements of service and advancement of methods generally.”

“The Most Important Feature, however, is the necessity of appreciating and bearing the responsibility of directing the general course of the Iowa Independent Telephone Association.  Iowa has one fourth of all the farmer lines in the United States, with no great cities like Chicago, Milwaukee or Omaha.  No one company can afford to remain unrepresented.”

“One Thing to be Feared, (and there is only one) for the future of independent telephony is this: Three-fourths of the 1500 companies in Iowa are rural companies and if they refuse to interest themselves in the management of the State Association it will lack the one important tie needed to bind together the companies of the state together as a unit.”

“You are appealed to as one of the companies that can be relied upon to do its part in the work of Keeping in the Lead.”

Tags:  ITA history 

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#28 - The Dog Howled!

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Telephony’s Story of the Week for May 27, 1939:

Lee Sprague, then wire Chief of a common battery exchange at Mangum, Oklahoma, had an unusual experience.  He was called to help out the elderly owner of a grounded line exchange at nearby Jester, OK.  A subscriber at Jester lodged a complaint that “every time the telephone rang, his dog howled.”  Sprague heard the dog erupt when he visited this subscriber. Here’s what he found:

“The ground wire, of #9 fence wire, ran down the side of the house and was twisted rather loosely around a rusty old harrow tooth that was stuck in the rather sandy soil (not much of a ground.)  A light chain from the dog’s collar was snapped on the ground wire, attached to the collar by a metal ring and a brass plate secured by four brass rivets.

The weather that day was hot.  The pup had crawled under the porch where it was cool and damp.  When some of the country cousins swung onto those six-bar Swedish American generators, they put out plenty of juice on the grounded telephone line – through the telephone bells and down the ground wire to the dog’s collar and into the damp ground.  Sprague said “Personally, I don’t blame the dog for howling.  I howled myself when I found the trouble.”

This is a true story of the kind of problems confronting our forefathers in the telephone business.  Thanks for metallic circuits!

Do you know of other good telephone stories?

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#27 - Telephone Growth - Extraordinary!

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Thursday, November 6, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Iowa’s Growth in Telephone Usage – Extraordinary!

Why did the use of the telephone grow so much faster in the United States than in any other country?  And why did Iowa’s telephone use grow so much faster than in any other state?  And, of course, what lessons might we learn?

In August of 1883, before the two critical Bell patents expired, an article from the Chicago Journal, quoted in the Burlington Weekly Hawkeye, stated: “Hello!  Iowa has the telephone fever.  Telephone lines are being constructed all over the state, and it has got so that no town or family in the state can get along without the means of instantaneous communication with ever other town and family in the state.  “Iowa is a great and progressive state anyhow, and it is not at all a matter of wonder that her people are adopting all the latest improvements that are going.”

From the Estherville Daily News, November 2, 1899: “The growth of the telephone, more especially in this country, has been phenomenal.  Since 1879, when its practical qualities were demonstrated, 772,989 miles of telephone wire have been strung on poles, buried in the ground, stretched on buildings and laid under water within the boundaries of the United States.  All this wire connects 465,180 telephones, 11, 336 more than the total of continental Europe.” 

On August 16, 1906, the Fredericksburg, Iowa News carried a story that said: “The attention of the telephone world is being called to the wonderful progress which Iowa has made in developing independent telephone lines and the extraordinary number of rural telephones in operation all over the state.  The development has all taken place practically in the last ten years.  The state of Iowa has 22 percent of all the rural telephone lines of the United States and more farmers are using telephones than in any one state in the union.”

      Please let me know if you have any Iowa telephone news that I might consider for my history notes.  Just place a Comment below.                                          Bob

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#26 - Iowa News of the Telephone

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Tuesday, October 14, 2014

#26 – Iowa News of the Telephone

The Cedar Falls Gazette, on March 16, 1877, displayed an article titled “Terrible Telephonic Experience,” a story of a San Francisco stock broker who bought two Bell phones and ran a wire to his home.  One day he called his wife to talk, asking how many times his youngest son had fallen down the cellar stairs that morning.  With the telephones still listening, a man came into his office to inquire about some stocks.  Hearing the words “I’ll take Julia (Lady Byron) at $6.00” from her husband, the wife became very angry, exclaiming “I’ll Julia him – wretch – villain – married fifteen years – where’s my rubbers? – Just wait till I get hold of him!”  Both men heard her loud voice.  Needless to say, those two phones were soon removed.

On September 14, 1877, the Gazette published a story first printed some days before in the New York World, titled “The Telephone in a Nutshell.”  It describes a very fundamental telephone then in use in the office of the New York Telephone Company, which “from its simplicity of construction and the perfection with which it works, bids fair to become an article of every-day use.”  The World reporter used the phone, speaking clearly to men some blocks away.  This simple telephone used no battery, but consisted of a “pear-shaped piece of mahogany,” with a large magnet inside, a thin iron disk at one end and a thin wire emerging from the other.  That’s it.  The Gazette made no comment on this article.

The Burlington Hawkeye, on Feb. 12, 1880, in its local Briefs column, said that “At a banquet, while the band was playing, Duncan had the telephone wire connected with his house nearly two miles away.  His family enjoyed the music as well as though they had been at the Gorham House.  This is one of the many advantages of the wonderful telephone.”

These stories are taken from nearly two hundred old Iowa newspapers that have been digitized and offered through 

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#25 - Iowa Telephone Records

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, October 14, 2014

#25 - Iowa Telephone Records

The United States Federal Census of 1880, taken two years after Bell’s patents were issued, listed 148 telephone companies in the entire country, of which only six were in Iowa.  That Census recorded only balance sheet financial information, and made no compilation of number of customers or telephone sets.  The companies did report miles of wire in service:

Ames/Nevada                             0 miles,

Clinton/Lyons County               207 miles,

Council Bluffs                            18 miles,

Glenwood                                    10 miles,

Marshalltown                              42 miles,

Sioux City                                    75 miles.

However, we know from other records that phones were in use in other parts of Iowa before 1880.  Early records of both the Federal and Iowa governments were made to assist in tax assessments.  Telephones were not counted specifically, but lines and companies were counted for tax purposes

In 1984, Roy Alden Atwood published his University of Iowa doctoral dissertation, “Telephony and its Cultural Meanings in Southeastern Iowa, 1900 - 1917.”  It has not been published commercially, but is available through academic collections.  I find it a very valuable resource, for Dr. Atwood did extensive research in both Iowa and Southeast Iowa records and newspapers of the time.

The other major work on Iowa telephone history is called “Lines Between Two Rivers, a History of the Telephone in Iowa,” published in 1991 by the Independent Telephone Pioneers, Tom Griffith Chapter, and copyrighted by the Iowa Telephone Association.  It is a wonderful compilation of histories from the 160 companies which were members of ITA at that time.  The Iowa Communications Alliance, successor to ITA, has recently republished this 637 page work in a Digital Edition which is available from ICA and is fully searchable.

I plan to include an extensive bibliography of Iowa and United States telephone history later in this blog.

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#24 - Rural Line Building, from Montgomery Ward

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, September 30, 2014



In 1900, Montgomery Ward & Co. published a 30-page booklet called "Rural Telephone Lines, How to Build Them."  The Introduction said:

“By most people, the construction and installation of a telephone system has been looked upon as a complicated process, requiring the services and skill of experts.  In this belief, they are entirely mistaken; because the operation of a telephone system depends on a very few general principles, which can be easily understood.  To show how very easy and simple it is to construct a rural telephone system, we have published this booklet in which we have aimed to give clear instructions covering each step to be performed.  The skill and technical education required is in building the instrument.  When a reliable telephone has been produced, the rest is simple.”

The explosive growth of telephony in rural Iowa between 1895 and 1908 proved this to be a true statement.  The 9th Annual Assessment of Telegraph and Telephone Property reported the presence of 132, 624 telephones on farms in 1908! 

This Wards booklet has instructions for constructing both grounded and metallic lines.  #12 B&B double galvanized iron wire is recommended, and diagrams show how to tie wire to insulators on poles and houses.  A chapter is devoted to the installation of the telephone set inside the house and the construction of drops from lines.

One of the big questions that is raised by the explosive growth of telephone service in Iowa is “How did Iowa farmers learn how to build telephone lines?”  Wards sold, and advertised in this booklet, practically everything farmers needed to build a line or connect to one, including all materials, tools and apparatus.

From 1900 on, this booklet from the largest catalog sales company in the world was one answer to that question.

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# 23 - Iowa phone switching, 1903

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Friday, September 26, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, September 30, 2014


While I was in Des Moines on Tuesday, searching old Iowa telephone records, I was surprised to find my grandfather Parker’s name.  It was on the first page, in the second paragraph, of an “Iowa Telephone News” section in a magazine called “The Iowa Telephone Journal,” published on Jan. 1, 1903.  Here’s what it says:

“The rural telephone companies with headquarters at Gilman, five of them controlling twelve lines, had a joint meeting and settled the matter of common interest.  The contract for the switching of all the lines for the ensuing year was given to R. L. Parker.”

This is an example of how telephone service in Iowa grew faster than leaps and higher than bounds in the early twentieth century.  Thousands of farmers joined with neighbors, usually on the same roadway, to string #10 or #12 iron wire down the road and up to the houses.  Then, with big box telephones that generated their own current to ring a code for their neighbors, they could talk (in good weather) to each other.  A farmer might spend between $30 and $50 to equip his farm and join the local network.  Also, each family had to contribute labor to install poles, string the wires, and make their own connections.

The twelve lines carried phone calls from about 100 telephones, about 40 of them in the town and the rest out in the country.  After the meeting mentioned above, the four country companies of farm neighbors each connected with the town company.  Before the agreement in December of 1902, members of one of the farm companies could not talk to friends on another company, and none of them could talk with someone in Gilman town.  This allowed them to talk with each other and with the merchants and doctors and friends in Gilman town.

The switch was a very important advance in telephone growth.  Rob and Bess Parker answered each “Central” code ring and then directed each call to the proper party on another line.  This was the beginning of nearly 50 years of switchboard operating in the Gilman area.  Some of the independent farmer lines operated into the 1960’s.  The Partner Communications Cooperative now provides telephone service to the area.

Grandfather was 26 years old at that time.  He and Grandmother Bess had been married for two years.  She helped him operate the little switchboard in Gilman, as she and their daughters did in other Iowa towns for several years later.

This is what Rob Parker looked like in those days, and their switchboard may have looked like this:


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#22 - Cost of a Farm Line

Posted By Robert M. Parker, Saturday, September 20, 2014
Updated: Sunday, September 21, 2014

How much did it cost to build a farm line? 

How much did it cost to build a farm line in 1903?  For a mile of earth-grounded line, many farm lines put up 25 poles (one pole each 200 feet,) twenty-five feet tall, 165 pounds of #12 galvanized iron wire, 25 oak brackets, 25 pony glass insulators, and 25 each of 60-penny and 40-penny nails for fastening the brackets to the poles. Total cost about $7.72. Plus, of course, the labor of the line members to set the poles and string the wire.  Poles which carry lines that cross a road or turn a corner should be guyed – another cost.

Before 1894, Iowa farmers and town people leased phones from American Bell, often paying $25 per year.  By 1900, 6 years after Bell’s manufacturing patents expired, Iowa farmers could buy magneto phones, with two dry cell batteries, from several independent manufacturers such as Kellogg Switchboard, Stromberg Carlson, Leich and North Electric, or by catalog from Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck for about $12 each.  There were even a few Iowa companies making phones, like the Monarch Telephone Company of Fort Dodge.

Poles were another problem and expense.  In the earliest days, many towns and farm line extensions used roof-tops, fence lines and fence posts, and existing trees to string lines.  In Waterville, Allamakee County, the Paint Creek Telephone Company paid for “10 trees used as telephone poles” in 1903.  In Danville, Des Moines County, the Mutual Telephone Company used native white oak poles, which cost 25 cents each.  In 1903, the company in Burt, Iowa bought a carload of poles for $1.50 each, rail freight to Burt included.

Many farm houses were connected to road ways by lanes which might be long enough to require another pole or two before the line reached the house.  Also, the number of poles per mile depended on how many turns the line made; there was a pole at every corner.  There was a bracket on every pole, each with an insulator.

A few years later, when the lines became “metallic,’ then copper, lines required more poles because of the added weight.  Finally, in the 1930’s, the average number of poles per mile was around 40.

We should remember that the average farm income in the early 1900’s was between $600 and $800 per year. Bringing a telephone to a farm was not a trivial cost.  Today, having a single pole set on your property would cost around $1,500, pole included.

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