Oregon Trails: Telephone in Medford

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MEDFORD, Ore. — Telephone rings have changed a lot in the last hundred years, and so has telephone service. The first phones came to southern Oregon in the mid-1890s, about 20 years after Alexander Graham bell was granted a patent for the telephone.

The Jacksonville Times in July of 1894 reported that “arrangements have been perfected for the construction of a telephone line between Jacksonville and Medford and construction is being pushed rapidly at this writing. Mr. Kerr proposes to have it in operation within a few weeks.”

The paper goes on to predict that if it is financially successful, lines could soon extend to Ashland, Eagle Point and other places. It also notes that there will be three phones to start with: One at the court house, which was then in Jacksonville; at Reames, White and Company’s Store in Jacksonville; and Haskin’s Drug Store in Medford.

A month later, the Medford Mail reported the Rogue River valley telephone company had decided to extend lines to Ashland, Phoenix and Talent. The Mail, however, also reported that a judge put the kibosh on a phone in the courthouse, saying he wouldn’t have the new-fangled device there under any consideration. Meanwhile, the Mail noted that “the telephone connections are surely going to prove of great value to the cities and towns of the valley.”

Within a decade, phone lines were being stretched all across the country, including Southern Oregon. Not many people had phones. It was relatively expensive to make a call. Most were in stores or professional offices. Phone books from the first decade of the 20th century show that calls cost about as much for three minutes as many people earned in an hour of work.

They also show toll stations, where you could come to place a call if you did not have a phone in your home or business. In a 1903 Medford Success Newspaper, the names and phone numbers of subscribers are listed. Later, when AT&T and Pacific Bell began taking over small local phone companies, phone books like this were published.

At the turn of the 20th century, one house in Gold Hill was the home of the telephone exchange. It wasn’t until the late 50’s and early 60’s that telephone customer were able to start dialing on their own and didn’t have to go through an operator. By then telephone equipment had moved to a new building.

A display in Jacksonville shows what a small community exchange often looked like. Larger offices would have several operators. An article from an early Medford Mail Tribune notes that demands on the “hello girls” was getting too much, and reduced service would be put in to effect.

“Typically, these were party lines, where you had perhaps ten houses or ten farms on one line, and it was necessary to assign codes to the ringing,” explained Lud Sibley, an antique phone historian. “A particular farm would be a short ring followed by along ring, to distinguish it from its neighbors and that was tradition for up into the 50’s, actually!”

Dial phones started showing up in the late 1920’s. This AT&T training film from that time demonstrates how to use the “new” self-dialing equipment. Dial phones started showing up in the Rogue Valley in the late 30’s but it wasn’t until the mid-50’s that customers could direct-dial between communities in the Rogue Valley.

Lud Sibley says, as of 1903, there were about 1,500 little farmer phone companies, just in Oregon.

“Did their own maintenance, not necessarily very well,” Lud says. “It was sort of apart-time thing for them. That’s how it worked.

When the direct dialing system arrived in the mid-fifties here, phone numbers grew a couple more digits as well. Each city was assigned its own prefix. Gold hill was “ulrich”, with a “u-l”, or “8-5″ in front of the old number. Medford was “spring”, adding “s-p” or “7-7″. Central point was “normandy”, which added a “66” to the former number. Jacksonville added “t-w” for “twinoaks”. Ashland was “murdock”, adding an “m-u”, and phoenix was “keystone”, or “k-e.”

Today, we now dial an area code as well, even for local calls, because so many phones are in service, and a new area code had to be added this year.