Phone company held a special place

Published 7:19 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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The loss of the phone book, which I wrote about last week, is simply collateral damage to the loss of landline telephone service, which is occurring rapidly as the world becomes irrevocably digital.

If cell phones have seemed to be revolutionary, however, they haven’t caused any more excitement than did the emergence of the telephone in the early 20th century.

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And Smithfield was a leader in introducing the telephone to America.

Longtime telephone company employee Lawrence Pitt wrote a history of phone service here that The Smithfield Times published in December 1986. That year marked the 100th anniversary of phone service in Smithfield.

Alexander Graham Bell introduced his revolutionary invention in 1876. It was an immediate sensation as business owners, in particular, realized the potential that the telephone had for improving their profits.

Only 10 years after Graham’s unveiling, a group of Smithfield business owners formed the Smithfield Telephone Company to provide service between the town, Chuckatuck, Norfolk and Portsmouth.

A decade after that, another phone company known as the Isle of Wight Telephone and Telegraph Company was formed, and three years later, the two merged to form the Home Telephone company.

Extant copies of the newspaper, dating back to 1928, provide some historic perspective for the phone company because every time the phone company coughed, the newspaper reported it.

In 1929, the phone company was busy trying to round up new customers. An ad in the paper in March of that year announced that eight applications had been received by prospective phone customers. Home Telephone wanted more and encouraged local residents to sign up for phone installation.

Telephone use wasn’t the only modern convenience being introduced during that period. A December 1928 copy of the paper ran a large ad purchased by Virginia Electric and Power Company, which by then had brought electric lines to Smithfield. The ad invited local residents to buy a toaster, percolator or waffle iron as a Christmas present, and thus give “an investment in comfort and convenience.”

For the first half century of its existence, the local phone company relied on operators to place calls for customers. You would pick up the phone and, if it was an old wall phone, crank it a couple of times to get an operator’s attention, then have her place a call. With a more modern desktop phone, you could get the same service by clicking the on-off button a couple of times.

In January 1956, that changed forever when Home Telephone introduced an automatic switching system that allowed phone customers to dial direct. At first, only local calls could be dialed, that was later expanded to long distance calls.

But local calls wouldn’t take you far. Calls to Surry, Chuckatuck and Crittenden were still long distance.

In 196 8, the tradition of local ownership ended when the stockholders of Home Telephone Company agreed to merge with the Continental Telephone Company of Virginia. It was the first merger since the two small, fledgling company had merged in 1901, but it moved telephone service to a much larger company, which would

Throughout much of the Home Telephone and Continental Telephone history, the local phone office was managed by J. A Everett Jr. Whether it was an expansion of service or an explanation of damage from a storm, Mr. Everett was there to represent the phone company and explain its workings to the public.

It was a very personal relationship that ended with the purchase of Contel by Verizon. As we know all too well, there’s not much that’s personal about today’s phone company and the service it offers. And there certainly is no Mr. Everett to call when you need answers.