A Page from North Quabbin History: When Warwick had its own phone company

  • One of the Warwick Phone Company's original phones owned by Eugene Whipple, Rodney Whipple's grandfather. Rodney Whipple is the husband of Helen Whipple and auditor for the Warwick Historical Society. Another original phone is housed at the Warwick Historical Society. Photo/Helen Whipple

Published: 1/9/2022 4:00:48 PM
Modified: 1/9/2022 3:59:57 PM

Today, many of us take being able to communicate with others for granted with multiple ways to connect with one another. However, at the birth of the communication age, things were not so simple.

First, some background: The Mann-Elkins Act was signed into law when William Howard Taft was President in June 1910, placing all telecommunications under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission, according to Helen Whipple, member of the Warwick Historical Society and author of an article about the Warwick Telephone Company in “A History of Warwick in 15 Articles.” Many local phone companies were established, with the Bell companies boasting over 600,000 phones and seeing that number grow to six million by 1910. AT&T formed in 1881 with a mission to connect the local Bell Companies with the motto “one system, one policy and universal service,” Whipple said. “A regulated monopoly emerged with the responsibility to connect all local companies, she continued.

In Warwick, meanwhile, in the 60 years between 1850 and 1910 Warwick’s population had decreased by over 50%. The town was remote and sparsely populated. The 477 inhabitants were living in farms and houses spread out over the area’s hilly terrain, according to Whipple. “People felt cut off and lonely and it didn’t seem like a lucrative market for AT&T,” Whipple said.

“George Shepardson and Nils Ohlson of Warwick were aware of the Mann Elkins Act and the policy of the Bell Telephone Co. They decided to do something about the isolation and through their efforts, a battery-operated “box telephone” and a party line made its grand entrance into Warwick in the 1910 era,” Whipple said. This became the Warwick Telephone Co.

Soon Warwick had a party line that connected six original telephones on the east and west sides of town, Whipple said. “Chestnut poles were strung with copper wires and a wall-mounted battery-operated box with a crank on its side made communication possible.” Whipple said George Shepardson carried out maintenance on the west side and Nils Ohlson was responsible for the east side of town. The six original telephones belonged to George Shepardson, Nils Ohlson, Abbie Stevens, Anne Stevens, Eugene Whipple (my husband’s grandfather) and Mary White,” Whipple said.

As for an operator for the phone company, Whipple said, “Mary Sisson, who was the daughter of the owner of the Warwick Inn, came on the line each morning at 9 a.m. and in cheerful voice told everyone the time and the day’s weather report. Individual lines were accessed by distinctive ring tones, such as one short and two long or three long ring tones. Each telephone had its own distinctive ring. All of the phones rang when a call was made and everyone knew who was being called. All of your neighbors’ juicy gossip could be heard by simply picking up your earpiece.”

The Hurricane of 1938 signaled the end of the Warwick Telephone Co. “On Sept. 21, 1938, a hurricane made landfall on Long Island, New York; as it continued into New England, wind speeds reached 183 mph and 700 people would be killed before the storm passed. When the Hurricane of 1938 bid a glad goodbye, the telephone wires were down and the poles had been destroyed. The destruction signaled the end of the “Warwick Telephone Co.” and New England Telephone and Telegraph (a Bell Company) became the provider,” she said.

“The telephone in our museum is a souvenir of an era, not so long ago, when the ability to communicate could not be taken for granted,” Whipple said.

More information about the Warwick Historical Society including a photo of the Warwick Telephone Company phone housed there can be found at http://history.town.warwick.ma.us/

Carla Charter is a freelance writer from Phillipston. Her writing focuses on history with a particular interest in the history of the North Quabbin area. Contact her at cjfreelancewriter@earthlink.net.

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