A remote line of communication

Telephone: Armstrong Telephone Co. continues to be the sole local provider to residents in rural Rising Sun.

October 24, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

RISING SUN -- When the country's earliest phone companies wouldn't provide service for Rising Sun, the rural residents in the state's northeastern corner made their own connection.

One hundred years later, that company -- formed by a thrifty group of Cecil County farmers--is still Rising Sun's sole local telephone provider.

"I would challenge any phone company anywhere to beat the service we provide," said Jim Culver, general manager of Armstrong Telephone Co.

Alexander Graham Bell introduced his telephone in 1876. However, news of the device spread quickly -- even to rural Cecil County.

Perhaps tongue in cheek, a 1921 Cecil Whig story reported that the county got its first phone the same year Bell demonstrated his.

Two men rigged a phone from twine and tin cans, and threaded it between a wheelwright shop and a dry goods store. The folly continued, the story said, until one afternoon, when female customers overheard language "that was never seen in a Bible" stream over the lines.

The shopkeeper crushed his receiver.

By 1880, the county got its first real phone. The venture, a private line in Elkton, kicked off a flurry of activity in the county that skirted Rising Sun.

Four years later, the Overland Telephone and Telegraph Co. secured a franchise in Cecil County. Over the years, it was taken over by several companies, until in 1912, the system was sold back to an original owner, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co.

Rising Sun had nothing more than a single non-working telephone line. Nearby communities -- Port Deposit, Perryville, and small towns near the Pennsylvania border -- remained without service.

By 1904, it happened. A farmers cooperative created the Cecil Farmers' Telephone Co. with $5,000 in capital. It built 24 miles of pole and hung wire for their new phones.

Armstrong -- a former construction company that owned telephone poles -- bought the small company in 1962. Today, Armstrong offers cable and Internet service in five states, and operates telephone companies in four rural areas in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It serves 5,600 people in Rising Sun.

There are about 1,000 independent phone companies scattered across the country. Maryland has only one: Armstrong.

In 1893, Bell's patents on telephone equipment expired. Bell's company had largely ignored rural areas because, much like today, spreading service to small towns wasn't lucrative enough for the big company. Independent providers sprang up around the country to fill the gaps.

According to telephonymuseum.com, an independent historian's look at the emergence of the industry, independent companies served more people than Bell did for a short time around 1903.

During that time, there were several ways to get phone service: buy a private line, form a private company, or create a cooperative, like Cecil Farmers' did.

Cecil County had burgeoning businesses -- shipping, manufacturing and agriculture -- that benefited by staying connected.

In Rising Sun, telephones and the operators behind them became the glue for a community unaware of just how fragmented it was.

"We would say `Number, please,' and people expected us to know exactly who they wanted by nicknames and wife's names or husband's names," said Lola Coale, 82, who worked as a Cecil Farmers' operator from 1943 to the early 1960s.

In the days of operators, as many as 10 people could be hooked up to a line. Subscribers had to take turns to make a call -- only emergencies could terminate a conversation, and sometimes even that didn't work.

"People used to get mad at each other and wouldn't get off the phone," Coale said. "Sometimes they would talk on and on for hours."

According to her stepson, Sam Coale, a doctor used to give the operator his route when he made house calls so she could find him in an emergency. Coale, an Armstrong supervisor, has worked at the Rising Sun office for 31 years.

Lola Coale recalled that she used to alert volunteer firefighters when fires erupted.

Operators had to sound an alarm when a fire call came in, she said, and the firehouse would have to call them to get the address.

"We would get up to blow the whistle, and the whole switchboard would be lit up by the time we got back -- everybody was calling, wanting to know where the fire was," she said.

No one could control the nosey people, she said, the ones who would hear their neighbor's phone ring and pick up the line to listen to the conversation.

Despite the annoyances, many people balked when the company switched to dial-up connections in the early 1960s.

Armstrong phased operators out in the 1960s after it introduced dial-up connections. Over the last century, the telephone company transformed county residents' lives, Culver said.

It continues today by offering competitive pricing for local and long distance packages, as well as the latest in technology, from call waiting to caller ID, he said.

Next month, the company will begin offering IP telephony -- a service that lets customers talk over an Internet network.

"Our service is the best out there," he said. "And we're going to keep going."

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