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.
As many readers know, the Wightman Telephone Company of Clifford – now known as Wightman Telecom – recently marked its centennial (2009).
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 the First World War, 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 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 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 which 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 their 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.
(Note: To learn more about the Wightman company and family visit the Wellington County Museum and Archives to see Wightman – The First 110 Years.)
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on May 22, 2009.