Early History

Number Please: The History of the Telephone in Wabaunsee County

telephone-co-switchboard

Ruth Pennock, left, and Josie and Alice Smith, seated at the switchboard, work inside the McMahan Telephone Exchange, circa 1900.

In the history of Wabaunsee County, June 25, 1898 is a date of historical significance when the McMahan Telephone Exchange opened for business in Alma, Kansas with twelve subscribers. The telephone company opened an office at 224 Missouri Street where an operator managed the switchboard which connected the callers on various lines.

The lines began to extend to the other towns in the county, forming a larger network of subscribers, and by 1900 the network of lines reached Topeka. The 1907 Business Directory of Wabaunsee County, Wabaunsee County Folks notes that in 1902 the McMahan Exchange had 110 phones in Alma, 70 phones in Eskridge, and 41 customers on rural lines.

nola-conarad

Nola Conrad, longtime telephone operator at Eskridge, Kansas is seen here connecting a call at the switchboard. Photo courtesy Kansas State Historical Society.

In 1903 the McMahan Telephone Exchange sold and the Wabaunsee County Telephone Company was formed with the McMahan lines. By 1907 the company had offices in Alma, Alta Vista, Eskridge, McFarland, and Maple Hill, with connecting long-distance lines with Shawnee, Pottawatomie, and Morris counties. Connecting lines also provided toll service to Paxico, Keene, Harveyville and Burlingame.

By 1907 the Wabaunsee County Telephone Company had 84 miles of pole lines, seventy miles of city lines and 255-miles of rural lines with 525 subscribers. The company employed ten operators and four men who maintained the equipment and lines. By 1910, phone service was available county-wide.

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Longtime Maple Hill, Kansas operator, Mable Clark is seated at the switchboard. Photo courtesy Nick Clark.

The telephone operators sat for long hours at the switchboard, connecting the wired plugs which linked the lines in a conversation. Party lines contained more than one subscriber on the line and had to share line time. Different parties were identified by the number of “rings” that the operator gave when the call was connected.

In later years, the Wabaunsee County Telephone Company sold, becoming part of the United Telephone Company, and later Sprint and then Century Link.

Click on an image below to view in a gallery.

 

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