Subscribe

Weekly Ponderings: People brought character and culture to Peace River Part 25

We discovered subscribers to the first telephone system in the Peace Country were charged $15/year with the agreement – any neighbour could come in and phone the central telegraph office for 10 cents. The first four on the line were on Shaftesbury Trail: the Anglican (River 11) and Catholic (River Lots 21, 22, 23) missions. Each had one, as did the Jean Collins homestead (River Lot 38) and Allie Brick (River Lot 12). This was possible through the work of G.E. McLeod, superintendent of construction – later reeve of the Village of Peace River, and his boomers who erected the poles on which the lines were strung.

Distroscale

A year later, the Fairview Mutual Telephone Company organized the first independent rural party line in the Peace Country in 1912. Founded by Howard Probst, the company operated for 60 years. Author Tony Cashman writes in Singing Wires, it sounds as though Probst “stumbled” into the telephone business. But, he made the best of it, engaging fellows such as Alex Bennett, Fred Green, Matt Kramer and Jake Kramer to set up poles. Cashman writes: “The next year, they cornered the Honorable Frank Oliver, when he came through electioneering.”

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

They sought Oliver’s help for permission to hang a line on the telegraph poles towards Bluesky, 15 miles east. The audacity paid off. Out of that came a 99-year lease for $1 and linework knowledgeable people such as Bill Cowan and 22 members.

Cashman tells of some interesting occurrences from the presence of telegraph and telephone wire on same poles. “The induction was so strong that farmers around Fairview could hear telephone conversations at Peace River 50 miles away.” Apparently, although there was no way to signal Peace River, people could speak to one another at a prearranged time. A local Fairview-area clerk took advantage of the remarkable situation during his more relaxed evening hours to chat with a colleague at St. Augustine Mission.

“It’s worth pondering that AGT connected with Saskatchewan in 1914 because ‘long distance’ with Alberta’s own Peace River Country wasn’t established for another 32 years,” Cashman writes in Singing Wires. “In Fact, long before a man in Calgary could talk to Grande Prairie, he could talk to New York, or the Empress of Britain on the high seas, or to Aberdeen, Scotland – upon which Alex Mitchell would write an article about the ‘granite city’ for the AGT magazine.”

In its infancy, telephones were few, but as Tony Cashman writes: “They represented much”. Human drive, imagination and ingenuity allowed the adapting of the new invention to the new environment’s needs. Whether appreciated in turn-of-the-century westerners, credit must go to the Bell Telephone Company and its agents.

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

As years progressed, so too telephone technology in the Peace Country, not always without controversy. Nevertheless, the powers-that-were persevered in order that we, in this part of the Peace Country and beyond – a world beyond, for a price, are recipients of a means of communication that allows us to text and talk, even while driving along the highway of life, or cruising grocery store aisles on the way home with supper. It is that, but it is also being able to call 9-1-1 for urgent help; to check in on the health of a child; to communicate with a son or daughter in a war zone; to conduct business across geographical boundaries; to talk to, and even see, people with whom we have been apart since COVID-19; allows students and workers, do their job from home; and to talk to astronauts and others beyond Earth’s boundaries.

How many of us, despite the intrusions telephone/computer technology provides would want to do without? Often, some say, they yearn for the “good old days”. Really? Well, some of those days were illustrated in previous Ponderings.

In the fall of 1920, the Peace River Standard reported the North was soon to be connected with the outside by telephone. Peace River council of the day wired the deputy minister of railways and telephones emphasizing the need for a local system in the town. The report continued, saying Peace River “will soon be able to boast a Telephone Girl to operate, “the exchange of the provincial government line, which will connect the towns of the North with the outside world”. Once the necessary construction was complete, “Telephone Girl would be sitting at the exchange board in a comfortable office at the Hull Drug Company Store [on Main Street]”.

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

The thought of a Telephone Girl prompted a poem, The Telephone Girl, part of which follows:

The Telephone Girl sits in her chair

And listens to voices from everywhere

She knows all the gossip, she hears all the news

She knows who is happy, and who has the blues

She knows all our sorrows, she hears all our joys

She knows all our troubles, she knows all our strife

She knows every man who is mean to his wife.

She knows every time we are out with the boys

She hears the excuses each fellow employs

She knows every girl who is chasing the boys

She knows every woman who has a dark past

She knows every man who is inclined to be fast

In fact, there’s a secret ’neath each saucy curl

Of that quiet demure looking “Telephone Girl”.

The poem ends with:
Now doesn’t it set your head in a whirl

When you think what you owe the “Telephone Girl”.

January 1921, saw the official opening of the long-distance telephone line between Peace River and Grande Prairie. This meant intercommunication among all intervening centres – Waterhole, Dunvegan and Spirit River – was now possible. At that time, installation of the local Peace River system was underway.

The Peace Country by June 30, 1946, was connected to the main Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) network on a long-distance line, bought, some say, as war surplus from the United States Army, stationed in the area – Jack Pines flats – Lions Campground, today, during the Second World War while working on the CANOL Project.

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

AGT by 1946 was determined to extend its line north. Dixonville was the destination for this year and Battle River Country for the next. This was the first major extension in the Peace Country for several years. Completion, as always was dependent on availability of equipment, men and good weather. As plans were made, Battle River Country was served by a part-time telephone system using sometimes unsatisfactory Dominion Government Telegraph lines.

By 1952, underground cable-laying was completed for 1,200 telephones in town. As numbers increased and technology advanced, it was necessary, to switch from crank to automatic dial telephone in the Peace River AGT building. Big switches for the automatic system were being eased into place and wired in preparation for the changeover later in 1954. It was expected to be several weeks before a start could be made to changing more than 600 local phones to the dial system. For a time, subscribers would have two phone boxes. This was in order that a complete changeover to automatic service could be made at the same time.

As one might imagine, demand for telephones – upgraded telephones – in the Peace Country necessitated the construction of a new, larger, multi-million-dollar building to house equipment and employees.

We will learn about the building and more when we call on the next Ponderings.

Sources: Peace River Remembers; Peace River Museum Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929; Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton; Record-Gazette; Edmonton Journal, June 6, 1936; New York Sun; Alberta Dental Association Updater, October 1997; Archives Canada; Answering God’s Call, Rolland C. Smith; Joseph Cardinal, Feb. 26, 2009; Don Weaver; Alliance Review; Métis Archives; Portrayal of Our Métis Heritage by J. Overvold; Land of Hope and Dreams; Bricks Hill, Berwyn and Beyond; Peace River Record, April 25, 194; Delayed Frontier, Lure of the Peace and The Last Great West by David Leonard; I Remember Peace River, Alberta and Adjacent Districts, 1800s-1913; Land of Twelve Foot Davis by McGregor); Turning the Pages of Time, History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts; Colourful Historic Pioneers of Peace River by Muriel Oslie; Western Producer, June 24, 1976; Seventh Day Adventist website; Ribbons of Steel, Ena Schneider; Edmonton Journal, Nov.20, 2011)
Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.

This Week in Flyers