Magic of the Telephone Came to Area through Hard Work of Rural Farmers

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Twenty-four dollars. That’s how much it cost you, in 1904, to join the Macksburg Mutual Telephone Company, which was formed on Jan. 14 of that year.

And if you could furnish your own telephone — well, all the better. In that case, you could access the magic of telephony for just nine bucks.

Macksburg Mutual brought the first telephone service to the area in the form of an independent cooperative — one that still exists today as DirectLink. Like other telephone co-ops across the United States, its history is an example of democracy in action.

The independent telephone industry was developed throughout the country by farmers. Unable to receive telephone service in the small rural communities where they lived and worked, these hard-working, self-reliant, industrious folks did, well, they did what they always do: they worked together, pooled their resources and they built their own.

Macksburg Mutual did not go by that name for long, nor did it stay in Macksburg (wherever that is). Members voted to relocate the service to Canby in 1905 — one year after it was founded.

The next year, service demand had outpaced the co-op’s original, four-line switchboard, and a new one was installed that could accommodate up to 50 lines. At first, they equipped it for just 15.

The new switchboard cost the hefty sum — $150 — but I’m sure the growing number of Canby residents who could now phone such exotic places as Molalla, Oregon City, Marquam and New Era, felt it was worth every penny.

Switch tenders, or operators as they were more commonly known, were paid, not by the hour, but by the call: 3 cents for personal calls and 5 cents for business. History does not preserve how much the parents of teenagers had to pay per text message in those days, but we assume the costs were substantial.

In 1907, an effort began to relocate the co-op to Canby. The momentum grew slowly, but steadily, for several years, until a meeting of the Macksburg board in 1911 recognized the formation of a new entity, which was given the mouthful of a name: “Canby Exchange of Mutual Companies.”

The moniker was soon shortened to simply, Canby Cooperative Telephone Association. By then, the co-op included farmer lines, or companies, in Macksburg, New Era, Central Point, Mundorf, East Canby, Barlow, Union Hall, Riverside, Mill Creek and Oak Grove.

In 1920, Canby Cooperative Telephone moved into its sparkling new offices on Second Street, opposite Canby State Bank. It was also outfitted with a new, 100-line switchboard. The move, from its original location on A Street across the railroad tracks, was completed the week before by the company’s longtime lineman and general repairman, Russell Scramlin.

The purchase of the property had been masterminded a year earlier by Franz Kraxberger, an early Canby mover and shaker who was also the president of Canby Cooperative Cheese and Produce Co., but the move had been delayed because of needed supplies, equipment and material.

For its first 16 and a half years, the local exchange was the domain of chief operator Mrs. R. Soper, a Canby native and the daughter of early Oregon pioneers, along with her own daughter and assistant, Miss Rena Hutchinson.

But Mrs. Soper, whom newspapers described as “most capable and obliging,” resigned in August of 1922, to be nearer to her two sons, Earl and Alan Hutchinson, who were businessmen in Newberg.

She was replaced by the wife of Canby farmer John E. Wells, with assistance from their daughters, Mabel and Sylvia. The women’s labor earned $1,800 a year, all of which went to Mr. Wells, according to The Oregonian.

“Have you got your ears to the air?” the Canby Herald asked in 1922. “Thousands have. Enthusiasm over the wireless telephone is spreading tremendously.”

If you thought 1922 was a little early for wireless telephone technology, you’re not alone. Of course, what the newspaper was talking about was not really a telephone at all, but rather, the radio.

“From a fad and a toy, the radio receiving set has become a household convenience,” the paper continued. “Out of the air come daily news bulletins, lectures, sermons, vocal and instrumental concerts, operas, market reports, church services and children’s bedtime stories.”

Local news, streaming through the air, straight to your personal devices? Imagine that.

The growth the co-op enjoyed during its first three and a half decades were overseen by one steady hand — that of J.W. Smith, who served as its president from 1904 to his retirement in 1938, with one or two breaks in there that were richly deserved.

Although not the cause of his retirement, a contributing factor may have been the growing complaints throughout the 1930s from people talking too long on the party lines. For those unfamiliar with the concept, party lines were essentially the “reply all” of the pre-email days — and every bit as annoying.

The co-op also received 240 complaints in that decade for bad operator services.

On March 11, 1939, the skills of Canby Cooperative Telephone lineman James Mooney would be needed for a job he never anticipated. That morning, Captain H.A. Reynolds of the Army Air Corps Reserve, was flying his single-engine military training plane in the vicinity of Canby air space, when icing on the motor forced him to bail out.

Fortunately, the Pearson Field, Vancouver-based pilot had a parachute. What he didn’t have was a clear, open field to land in. He wound up stuck in a tall fir tree on Oscar Olsen’s farm, about a mile outside the city, where he stayed almost an hour before rescuers brought him down.

Or should I say, “rescuer.” Singular. The hero was Mooney, who donned high climbers gear and installed block and tackle to reach the stranded aviator, whose chute had caught on a limb 100 feet above the ground.

Captain Reynolds proceeded to shout for help, drawing a startled Oscar Olsen from out of his barn.

The Herald recounted: “Olsen went to the farmhouse of A. B. Cole and called for the telephone lineman to aid Reynolds down from his perch, where he sat nonchalantly smoking.”

The captain was unhurt — except, perhaps, his pride — and none the worse for his experience, the newspaper recorded. Mooney rigged up a harness and pulley system, and the aviator was safely lowered to the ground by several men in the gathered crowd below.

In 1940, the company’s name was shorted to the Canby Telephone Association, or CTA. The little independent co-op had grown to four employees and 515 telephone lines.

All four employees — along with most of the rest of the city — were active participants throughout the early 1940s in “blackout drills,” used to practice the town’s preparedness for an air raid by Imperial Japanese warplanes.

On Oct. 28, 1941, decoy bombers flew over the observation station located on the farm of one Clem Dietz; the smooth operator at the Canby Telephone office reportedly received and relayed the message to the Portland headquarters in less than 30 seconds.

Telephones were never more needed in Canby than the time a small boy, riding alone on a Greyhound bus, wound up in the right city — but the wrong state — in 1947. That story and more, next time on Canby Then.

Photo courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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