Independent phone companies proliferated 100 years ago

As many readers know, the Wightman Telephone Com­pany of Clifford – now known as Wightman Telecom – re­cent­ly marked its centennial.

The company has entered its second century under the man­agement of the Wightman family, now the fourth genera­tion. If that is not a record for a Wellington County business, it certainly places the Wightman firm near the top of the list.

The company is also re­mark­able for another reason. It is one of the few independent telephone companies remain­ing in business in Ontario. Independent, local telephone companies were once a major factor in communications in this province. At the peak of the independents, about 1920, there were 690 companies in Ontario, serving roughly 25% of telephone subscribers in the province. Through mergers and takeovers by Bell Telephone, the number is now fewer than a dozen.

The emergence and growth of the independent telephone movement was a result of the policies of the Bell company. Formed in 1880, only six years after the development of the first successful telephone, and four years after Alexander Gra­ham Bell received his patent, Bell Telephone of Canada quickly secured an effective monopoly over the industry in this country, both in supplying service and manufacturing equip­ment.

A roar of complaints soon rose from people who wanted  telephone service. Bell couldn’t expand quickly enough to serve the demand.

Governments in the 1880s relaxed the regulatory climate to encourage competition. That opened the door to the forma­tion of local companies. The boom came between 1905 and the start of World War 1, when hundreds of new companies strung wires, most in rural areas that did not interest the Bell Company.

In Wellington County, the Wightman Company was one of about a dozen formed during that brief period. The indepen­dents were not as important here as they were in the coun­ties to the north and west, such as Grey, Bruce, and Huron, where Bell believed that lines serving farm communities would not pay. Most of the com­panies in Wellington were in the north of the county.

A few private systems ex­isted very early in the history of the telephone. In the 1880s, there were such systems in Fergus and Elora, and probably elsewhere, but they were not meant to serve the public. In Elora, for example, postmaster W.H.L. LaPenotiere connected his house and the post office by phone. Doctors often had private phones to connect to the local druggist, and grain dealers to the bank office and railway station, but those sys­tems were not intended to serve the general public.

Though Bell Telephone had little interest in rural customers, the company was quick to install long distance lines. Most important of those locally was a line from Guelph to Walk­erton, following the old Elora and Saugeen Road. That line was in service by 1884. There were taps into that line along the route.

In Clifford there was a tele­phone in the post office and stationary store operated by K.M. Walton. That was the only telephone in Clifford, and it was used only for long distance calls. Walton, who was the local Bell manager, em­ployed a messenger to retrieve residents when there was an incoming call for them.

Bell eventually installed a small local exchange in the office. Twenty years after the line came to Clifford, there were only 11 subscribers in the village, and all but one were in businesses. Rural residents want­ed service, but Bell con­sistently refused to string rural lines.

The later independent com­panies, formed in the late 1890s and after, operated under pro­vincial legislation. Some of the them were insignificant sys­tems, a few with only 10 or 12 subscribers. Most, though, were much larger than that, with between 100 and 1,000 subscribers.

In Wellington, the East Lu­th­er Telephone System, formed in 1902, seems to be the oldest. Others followed quickly: the Conn Telephone Company in 1903; North Wellington Tele­phone in 1905; the West Garafraxa Telephone Co-op and the Robert Henry Edgar Telephone Company in 1906; the MacDonald Telephone Com­pany in 1907; Wightman, the Nichol Telephone System, Minto Rural Telephone, Haw­thorne Hill Telephone, and Con­solidated Telephone in 1908. A few came much later, such as the Green Telephone System in 1928, and the Laurel Telephone System in 1939.

Medical doctors were among the first to see the ad­vantages of telephone service. A phone permitted them to speak instantly to the local druggist, and to speak to rural patients. Doctors commonly organized independent sys­tems. In Grand Valley, Dr. Colbeck strung a line into the northern part of East Luther, and another into East Garafraxa in 1905. The exchange was in his house, and he charged by the call, rather than by a monthly subscription. 

One of the frustrated farm­ers in Wellington County want­ing phone service was Robert Wightman, who farmed west of Clifford. He watched the grow­ing independent telephone in­dustry with interest. In 1908, he started to string wires, and purchased second-hand ex­change equipment that he set up in his kitchen.

After its initial hostility, Bell Telephone soon realized that the locals could be useful to their own business by gen­erating additional long distance traffic. In 1911, the Bell company appointed Robert Wightman its local manager at Clifford. He abandoned the old exchange in his house, and op­erated from a new one in Clifford, connected to the Bell system.

By 1920, Wightman was operating a typical mid-sized independent system, with 270 subscribers. All were rural tele­phones. Bell continued to serve the subscribers in Clifford.

A major development came in 1928. Clarence Green pur­chased Bell’s Clifford ex­change, and those in Ayton and Neustadt as well. He added a few rural lines to the Green Telephone System, but after a year he sold out to the Wight­man family. Benjamin Wight­man, Robert’s son, merged the Wightman and Green systems. He managed the system until his death in 1948.

By 1950, many of the inde­pendent systems were in diffi­culty. Most had a policy of keep­ing rates as low as possi­ble. That meant that equipment was seldom modernized, and the lines fell into disrepair. During the 1950s many com­panies merged, and others sold out to Bell. The Laurel Tele­phone System, for example, sold to Bell in 1953.

In Clifford, Benjamin’s wid­ow, Leila Wightman and her son, Ray, pursued a diff­erent course, modernizing their system to keep pace with new technology. A new exchange served Clifford in 1952. Two years later, Wightman installed one of the first dial systems in the area, at Neustadt. It used only three numbers to make connections.

There were several severe blizzards and ice storms in the area in 1960 and 1961. They took a frightful toll on the lines of many of the independent phone systems. Few had the re­sources to rebuild and modern­ize. In a three year period, Bell took over six of the indepen­dents operating in Wellington.

Wightman continued to buck the trend during the 1960s, expanding and modern­iz­ing rather than selling out. In 1964, new seven-digit dial ex­changes went into service at Ayton and Neustadt, following the takeover of the Normanby Municipal Telephone System and the Ayton Telephone Com­pany.

Further expansion of the Wightman system extended the company’s service to the north and west of Clifford. In Gorrie a difficult situation had persist­ed for decades, with two sys­tems serving different portions of the village.

Ray Wightman solved the problem by taking over both Howick Municipal Telephone and Wroxeter Telephone. That added about 850 subscribers to the Wightman system. In 1968, a new dial exchange at Gorrie began to serve the subscribers that came with the acquisitions.

Due to the capital costs involved in the modernization, the Wightman system became an incorporated company to aid in the raising of new capital.

Two years later, in 1970, a dial exchange went into service in Clifford, housed in a new build­ing that became the cor­porate headquarters. By then the Wightman system was one of the major independents in Ontario, with more than 3,000 subscribers and four dial ex­changes.

There have been further extensions of the Wightman system since then, and the company has embraced new technologies, often in advance of similar innovations on the Bell system.

The family has proved that it is still possible for a family-run business to grow and prosper in an industry domi­nated by giants.


Stephen Thorning