Early Telephone Service in Waco

Original Airdate: March 27 (2012)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

In 1881, Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Co. formed with the purpose of operating exchanges in Arkansas and Texas. The company took over exchanges in Galveston and Houston and started several others across the state. Waco's very own telephone exchange opened in the fall of 1881 with 45 subscribers.

Robert Lee Lockwood remembers the calling situation in the early 1900s:

"We had two telephones in Waco. There were two different and separate telephone systems. We called it at that time ‘the old and the new phone.' And they were just as separate and independent as could be. And we had two telephones, and I remember our phone number: 2-2-5. It was a low number. And that's when—when we got our phone, that was how many phones were in the city of Waco on that system, and then the other system came in. And it was really—you almost had to have two phones if you wanted to reach everybody that had a phone because some had what we called ‘the new phone' and some had ‘the old phone.' But on account of the various work my father was always in, why, he felt he needed both phones, and we always had that."

Mary Sendón recalls the first telephone installed in her family's home:

"Was one of these that hangs on the wall; you know, you had to crank it. We hadn't had that telephone a week until it was raining hard one day, and they had lightning and thunder. And lightning struck that telephone, and it started burning. (laughs) I wish we could have had videos in those days. Everybody in the family was running for a pan of water or a glass of water trying to put the fire out."

Sendón explains the ins and outs of using an exchange during that era:

"Telephones were kind of hard to get in the first days. You had to take a party line. The first one we got we had to take a party line. It was very ineffective because I would get on a line with somebody else, and somebody else would start talking to me like he thought that was the person he was talking to. And, boy, you'd just be surprised how much gossip we heard! (interviewer laughs) I solved a scandal there on the telephone one day because I was calling my plumber, and the plumber's daughter was having an affair with some important man downtown. And when I got the line, it was the plumber's wife talking to that man, and so I found out the whole story. (laughs)"

She describes a great-aunt who worked at the telephone building at Fourth & Washington:

"She made a—quite a hit with all the businessmen because she had a beautiful voice and she had such a kind voice that the businessmen said she was the perfect telephone operator. And my mother used to tell me that on Christmas Eve she would take my mother and another one of the cousins with her to work so they could help her carry home all the gifts that the businessmen would send her up there at the office."

In 1949, the Waco exchange, which comprised nearly 26,000 telephones, switched over from a manual switchboard to the dial system. With this new setup, customers could dial a number themselves and no longer had to go through an operator.

Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM Waco, NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.

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