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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




West Garafraxa Telephone Co-op organized in 1905

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

 

For several years I have been collecting notes on the independent telephone systems of Wellington County.

Over the years some 700 or 800 independent phone systems existed in Ontario, and about 20 of these provided service in Wellington County.

Until recently most people associated the telephone with the Bell Telephone Company, which operated as a regulated monopoly. Public attitudes to such utility companies, and the regulatory environment have constantly evolved over the 112 years that Bell has been a presence in Fergus and Elora.

In its early years Bell Telephone perceived its major markets as long distance and business communications. There were few residential subscribers, except for businessmen who wanted to keep in close touch with their store, office or factory.

Until well into the 20th century Bell Telephone had little interest in providing service to smaller hamlets, and no interest in rural subscribers, believing that the cost of providing such service would far exceed revenues.

After 1900 a new fad began to build: the local independent telephone company. Invariably these systems were based in a hamlet or even in a farmhouse. Some were cooperatives, some were owned by individuals, and some organized as limited companies.

Evolving technology favoured the independents. Telephone equipment was improving in reliability and declining in cost. As well, a steady market had developed in used equipment. The independents usually adopted lower construction standards than Bell, with a consequent lower capital investment.

The Ontario government began to regulate the independents in 1908, with further legislation in 1910, which was tightened in 1912. Among other things, they were required to establish a rate schedule, and had to provide service to anyone residing along their lines who wanted to connect.

Information on systems formed or projected in the unregulated environment before 1908 is very sketchy. It appears that the first serious proposal locally was that of the West Garafraxa Telephone Co-operative Association, which organized on July 29, 1905 at the township hall in Belwood.

Medical men often played leading roles in organizing phone systems, and West Garafraxa was no exception.

Dr. James Dow led the organization, along with James Goodall, Hugh McDonald, J.E. Gowland, and John Henderson. Dr. Dow served as first president. During the fall of 1905 Hugh McDonald surveyed the first lines: one north from Belwood, and others from Belwood to Orton and Belwood to Mimosa. At Orton they planned to connect with another independent line that went north through East Garafraxa.

Dr. Dow expected to have few residential subscribers, at least initially. The system began with public telephones, at the post offices in Hereward and Mimosa, at Clark’s mill in Belwood, at Depew’s blacksmith shop, and at a couple of farms. At Belwood the system connected with Bell, for service to Fergus and other centres.

It appears that the West Garafraxa system was up and running in 1906. Early the following year the directors established an annual rate of $5 per residential connection, with the subscribers responsible for buying and repairing their own phones, and erecting their own poles on their lanes.

William Blyth of Belwood served as operator of the system for $100 per year, providing service between 7am and 9pm. Revenues barely kept pace with expenditures.

The situation was aggravated by farmers using their neighbours’ telephones, rather than installing their own services. The frustrated directors instructed their subscribers to charge any visitors for the use of their phone, and to turn the money over to the company.

Meanwhile, other systems had been germinating in the area. Some Fergus area men organized the Centre Wellington Telephone Company in about 1907, but they did little except hold meetings.

In September 1908 they accepted the offer of A.E. Nichols and turned their plans over to him. Nichols immediately constructed a line between Fergus and Speedside, and actively canvassed for customers along it. Nichols sold the system to Bell Telephone in 1913. I do not know how large it was, or the price obtained by Nichols.

The relationship between Bell and the independents became more complex after 1910. Bell began to see a profit potential in rural service, and began installing rural lines in the Fergus and Elora area. The purchase of the Nichols system was part of this strategy.

At the same time, Bell co-operated with the independents and actively encouraged some of the systems. They turned over some lines and exchanges to independents.

Locally, Bell Telephone sold its two long distance lines between Belwood and Fergus, constructed in 1900, to the West Garafraxa system in 1921. Bell also sold some of its rural services north of Belwood at the same time. Many of the subscribers in the Belwood area frequently called Fergus, and resented the long distance charges. The West Garafraxa system abolished the tolls, and subsequently was able to secure more subscribers with the improved service.

A third system in the area also appeared in 1907: The Rockwood and Oustic Telephone Company. This system operated almost exclusively in Eramosa Township.

There were 82 subscribers when the directors sold out to the Thedford, Arkona, and East Lambton Telephone Company. At the time this system had started to acquire other independents. Later in 1950 it reorganized as the Hurontario Telephone Company.

Other independents appeared in Wellington County before 1920: the Erin Municipal Telephone System, the Edgar system in 1906 (which sold out to the Laurel Telephone Company in 1939 and was taken over by Bell in 1953), and a group of companies in north Wellington, all of which were taken over either by Bell or by the Wightman Telephone Company based in Clifford.

Meanwhile, the West Garafraxa continued as an independent. Inflation after the First World War brought several rate increases, eventually to $15 per year. After 1930 Bell periodically offered to buy out the system.

Hard times in the 1930s brought financial problems when many subscribers disconnected their phones. The company wanted to reduce rates, but the regulators would not allow it. The directors re-established a long distance charge between Fergus and Belwood to raise sufficient revenue to stay in business.

In the 1950s the West Garafraxa system faced a looming crisis. The original lines had been up for a half century, and needed replacement. There were no cash reserves for renewal work, and the firm had little ability to raise money through loans. The directors voted in November 1958 to sell to Bell Telephone. At the time of the sale the system had 132 subscribers.

The transition was to be a slow and gradual one. Bell installed an underground line to Belwood in the fall of 1959. Subscribers received new telephones at the same time. Replacement of overhead rural lines was scheduled to begin in 1960.

Severe ice storms in December 1959 and January 1960 destroyed virtually the entire West Garafraxa system. Bell strung new lines immediately. Two years later there was a further improvement when Bell installed dial telephones.

For a half century the West Garafraxa Telephone Co-operative Association provided basic telephone service to Belwood and portions of East an West Garafraxa Townships. The system began to fill a niche that Bell was unwilling to occupy. Its end came when it was unable to meet the capital requirements needed to upgrade and expand the system.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on June 10, 1998.

 

Vol 50 Issue 37

 
 

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